By Charles L. Howard 2-24-2017

They pray toward the east, after so many of their parents and grandparents came west; kneeling on rugs spread out in a space not originally intended for prayer — certainly not jumu’ah prayers. This is not a masjid, mosque, or temple. It is a campus multipurpose room full of Muslim students. And I stand there with them.

There is an unspoken profundity about this moment. These students are defiantly and courageously Muslim, in a country where that has become dangerous. They gather for Friday prayers with a peaceful resolve, on not just any university campus, but at the University of Pennsylvania — the alma mater of the president of the United States.

So many of them are Wharton students, as he was. They sit in the same classrooms, walk upon the same sidewalks, and wear the same red and blue colors that he and three of his children have worn. By way of Penn, these Muslim students are forever bound with a man who issued what history will forever call the “Muslim ban.” Yet during this jumu’ah gathering, his name goes unmentioned. Ill will is not wished on him. In weeks of crying with Muslim students in my office, not one has said a harsh word about the president.

Since last November I have cried with them. Today I join them for jumu’ah.

I am their chaplain. I am not their campus minister, who leads halaqa study sessions, nor the imam who will offer the khutbah this day. But simply their chaplain — called by the university to curate religious life, to be present in the range of crises that arise on our university campus, and to serve in various ceremonial roles.

What does my Lord require of me at such a time as this?

Earlier this semester, author Brad Gooch visited our campus bookstore to speak about his latest book, Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love. Generously, the publisher sent me a copy of the book a few months prior. Rumi has been a timely fellow sojourner during these difficult days.

I stand on the edge of the room bearing witness to the courage amidst pain of my Muslim students and the words of Jalal ad-Did Muhammad Rumi come to mind:

“My religion is love.”

I am undone.

After weeks where I have felt tremendous pain, deep disappointment, and an unhealthy sleep-depriving anger, I can no longer contain my emotions.

My students pray to the east and I turn to the west, to shake my fist at the West for the rise of our fearful nationalism. I turn to the west in this moment to hide my weeping.

As they pray, I am praying too. My prayer is a simple repeated one: “God, please protect my students. Oh, God, please protect my students.”

We do not believe the same thing. We are Abrahamic siblings, yes, and deeply connected in important ways, but our faiths, theology, practice, histories, views on God are different.

But love.

Rumi said “My religion is love.” John said “God is love ... there is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out all fear.”

I am trying to let that be my compass during this great season of fear in our world.

While making my way upstairs to my office, I see Zuhaib, the president of the Muslim Student Association, and the only words I can form are, “Love you, man.”

And I give him a big hug.

My religion is love.

Charles L. Howard is University Chaplain for the University of Pennsylvania. 

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