October 1, 2001
Pegi Adam's odyssey began like that of many others who were at home in the suburbs on the day of the World Trade Center attack. Having accounted for her loved ones, she wandered around her house and yard, overwrought, wringing her hands.
In the days that followed, she made a donation to a survivor charity, a pitifully small gesture, she thought. She had to do more. So she went to a meeting of a group called True Justice formed by a local church after the attacks. And that prompted the mother of two grown sons to get in her car in Montclair and, with a friend, drive to Paterson.
She was searching for the heart of Muslim life there, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.
Soon, the two women reached the modern-looking brick mosque, where a blood bank was operating outside and a huge banner condemned terrorism. They drifted inside to see people crouched in prayer. They managed, awkwardly, to offer their sympathy and solidarity to the imam of the mosque, Mohammad Qatanani. As anti-war demonstrations take place elsewhere, Adam and a group of about 150 mostly middle-class people from around Montclair, ages 20 to 100, have begun what they consider to be a truly pacifist act. They are forming a relationship with Muslims in Paterson.
"I said to the imam, We don't read Arabic, we can't read the Koran," says Adam, who was raised a Protestant, is married to a Jew, and is herself unaffiliated. "We don't know what it says. There are all kinds of misconceptions such as that you go out and hurt those people who've wronged you."
The imam set Adam straight on that point, and he graciously handed them each a hard-bound copy of the Koran in English. In turn, the Islamic Center has sent a member of the mosque to speak to the Unitarian Church of Montclair, the locus of True Justice, and it has opened the mosque's doors to the Montclair group. Friday, several dozen people from the church and True Justice which calls itself a peace group attended services at the mosque.
"It was an absolutely powerful, wonderful gathering," said Adam, who attended the Friday service. "They were extremely warm and cordial. One of the women asked me, 'Would you like to see how we pray?' I got down on my knees."
Outreach among different faiths has long been a part of religious practice, as Jewish temples have formed alliances with Baptist churches, and Islamic mosques have reached out to Christians and Jews. Often, though, the small gestures of letter-writing, phone calls, or single visits amount to not much more. Since Sept. 11, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Haworth invited a speaker from the Dar-Ul-Islah Mosque in Teaneck, and the Presbyterian Church in Norwood sent a letter of prayer and best wishes to the mosque. The Islamic Center has also made regular visits to churches in recent weeks, the imam said.
"It's very hard to be prejudiced against someone you know," said Nadia Kahf of Totowa, a Seton Hall University law student, mother of two, and member of the mosque. "It's so much easier to condemn a group you don't know. If one good thing has come out of this tragedy, it is that we're learning more about our neighbors. This is a new assimilation that's going on."
It was Charles Blustein Ortman, minister of the liberal-leaning and activist Unitarian church, who with others began calling the Islamic Center in the days after Sept. 11. He was unable to get through.
He and a handful of his congregants established True Justice in response to the backlash against Arab-Americans as well as the militaristic tone of Washington's response to the attacks. There is a broad spectrum of political beliefs in the group, as well as non-churchgoers, "but nobody wants to go bomb people back to the Stone Age," one member said. They decided to go to the mosque.
Upon his arrival, Ortman, like Adam earlier that day, was greeted warmly. Soon, a group of about 20 people, Christians and Muslims, sat down together. "I think there was an understanding that we were not just saying the words, we had bothered to come," said Ortman. "The emotions were ones of gratitude on their part that we were willing to reach out and on our part that they were willing to receive."
Tears were shed, people embraced, and the minister sermonized a few days later to his congregation that something had been born in that room, something larger than the relationships formed, or the institutions coming together. A one-ness, as he called it. "It was the opposite of what had occurred at the World Trade Center," Ortman said.
For his part, the imam stressed to the visitors to his mosque that "We are one family. Everybody was crying and filled with brotherhood and the friendship of believers," he said.
A few days later, Magdy Mahmoud, a member of the Paterson mosque, visited the Montclair church. He read a few verses in translation from the Koran. "Whoever kills one single innocent person commits a crime equivalent to the killing of all mankind," Mahmoud, 43, a manager of computer systems at a Fortune 50 company, told the group. He is also a Montclair resident, and his five children, who practice Islam, have been busy teaching their high school friends about the tenets of their faith since the attacks. Mahmoud then sat down with the Montclair activists, and they agreed to further meetings and an exchange of worship between members.
The Friday night visit to the mosque, where 1,000 Muslims usually gather for prayer services, the women covered head to toe in one room, men in another, was the first of those meetings.
Jerry Fried, a Montclair resident and film editor who attended the Friday services, where visitors were able to wear headsets for an English translation, said the exchange has allowed him a hopefulness following the monstrous attacks.
"They might ultimately be a catalyst for bringing people together," he said. "I think the shared values we have as a people are really much stronger than any terrorist attacks that would attempt to pull us apart."
The Montclair visitors were given a small American flag by members of the mosque. Don Trawin, an artist and commercial illustrator, stuck his in a hanging plant near the front of his Montclair home. "It's smaller than anyone else's in town," he said, "but it's kind of special because it came from there."