Love notes from Mennonite children to their Muslim neighbors. Photo by the author.

Love notes and protests

We marched. Two hundred of us. People of all races and ages. Love for our Muslim neighbors coursed through us, our lives streaming into the streets, all of us winding our way to the capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.

There, on the government steps, under the watchful gaze of the state’s monument to the Confederacy—a bronze soldier erected in 1895, resting on a marble pedestal with the inscription, “To Our Confederate Dead”—I saw seventy white supremacists. They were mostly men, a loud and angry assembly of white people wearing military camouflage, bulletproof vests, and helmets, dressed as if preparing for a domestic war to defend their racist and religious ideology. One of them held a megaphone in one hand and a huge, red Bible in the other. He preached lies about Islam and shouted racist slander.

The rest of us, the two hundred, were in the streets. Our banners and signs declared our commitment to an inclusive community for all. “No matter where you’re from,” I read on one sign, “we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

And we had music: drums, whistles, kazoos, and our voices. I stood beside a group of Arab women in their twenties with black and white keffiyehs covering their heads, the scarves flowing down around their shoulders. They were playing blue and pink recorders, plastic flutes with Disney princesses on them. Maybe the women had stopped at Toys“R”Us on the way to the protest, looking for the perfect instrument to oppose the slurs of militarized white supremacists.

Next to us were young girls—three sisters, two of them wearing hijabs. They were dancing to the music so enthusiastically that the women playing recorders noticed and moved toward them in the crowd. Soon the children were playing the plastic flutes themselves, swaying and twisting, jumping and twirling through the crowd.

Their fearless joy announced that they belong here, that these streets are their streets, that our cities are their cities, that this country is their country.

I chanted in outrage, while they danced with delight.

~

Next week at church, during Sunday school, I told my class of 7- and 8-year-olds about the hate, the fear, the raw Islamophobia I had seen and heard. In response, the kids asked for paper and scissors, glitter and stickers, crayons and markers. They crafted notes for our Muslim neighbors. “I’m sorry,” one of the children wrote, “I’m sorry our president says mean things about you.” Another card had a big heart with three words inside: “We love you.”

Our Mennonite kids entrusted me with their love notes, adorned with sticky globs of sparkles, which I took to Friday prayers at our local masjid. After the imam introduced me to his congregation, I handed out the cards to the people in the front rows, explaining our children’s concern for them, and passing along their love.

One after another they embraced me, and set up a chair for me to sit along the wall while they prayed, to stay with them. People streamed into rows, kneeling on the carpet close to one another, side by side, making room for latecomers. A father led his son across the room, near to where I sat. They waited for the prayers to begin, the father resting on his legs, ankles crossed behind him, while the little boy beside him held a toy Tyrannosaurus Rex. He scooted closer to his father to open up a spot for the dinosaur, which the boy placed on the carpet in their row. The child leaned toward the toy and whispered. Maybe he was explaining the prayers: when to kneel, when to stand, when to lift hands to ears, when to say the takbir, “Allahu akbar.”

Soon the muezzin began chanting the adhan, the call to prayer, his song filling our ears as the faithful joined their voices, calling out to Allah: God the most gracious, the most merciful. The congregation stood and bowed and kneeled in a synchronized movement of reverence, humility before God and one another.

There, in the masjid, with the father holding his son’s hand, and the son holding his dinosaur, I remembered the words of the Prophet Mohammad, a hadith: “Verily God is beautiful and loves beauty.”

In their Friday prayers, I glimpsed the truth of Allah’s beauty, God’s ecstatic love likewise manifest in the downtown streets, in the women and girls wearing keffiyehs and hijabs, playing Disney flutes and dancing a prophecy of a new world—a world abounding with Allah’s grace and mercy, profuse with love and beauty.

  • About

    Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.