Muslims find a haven

When a mosque looked for prayer space, a Kingsbridge church opened its arms

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It was just after 1 on a Friday afternoon when worshippers started filing into a nearly empty room inside the Episcopal Church of the Mediator. 

The community space at the West 231st Street church looked like a school auditorium that had been hollowed out of its usual chairs. All that remained in their place was a massive blue tarp that covered the hardwood floors, a temporary wooden partition closing off about an eighth of the room, and two boys in matching T-shirts sitting on the edge of a stage. 

As more and more people began to walk in, Imam Mohammed Haqu set up his microphone and music stand-turned-pulpit. And with that, it became clear this was not the kind of service people might expect to see at a Christian church. 

In fact, the faithful entering Mediator were Muslims, congregants of the Abrar, an Islamic worship group that first started meeting in Kingsbridge in 2011. They originally met in the basement at 3058 Godwin Terrace, but moved out of their original location because of space issues. A few months later, Mediator stepped in, offering a weekly place for these faithful to participate in jumah prayer. 

In Islam, jumah is a congregational prayer service held every Friday afternoon. It is a time for Haqu, the Abrar’s spiritual leader, to deliver sermons to the members of his organization, and lead them in prayer. 

This week’s discussion was about Hajj, the annual event in Islam where Muslims remember the story of Ibrahim — or Abraham, as he is called in Judaism and Christianity — reuniting with his son Ismail and building a temple in Mecca, one the holiest cities in the entire religion. 

By the time Haqu finished reciting azan — the Muslim call to prayer — at the start of the service, more than 80 Muslims had crowded into the once empty room. They all had removed their shoes, leaving them at the door, preparing themselves for prayer. 

Worshippers continue to pour in until there’s virtually no space left on the tarp for people to sit. One of these worshippers is Mohammad Miah, an officer with the New York Police Department, who has been coming to the Abrar’s service at Mediator for just three weeks. 

“I work around here and I usually see people walking around looking like they are going to mosque,” he said. “So, I asked them where they were going. and they told me to come here.”

Miah, a Bangladeshi-born traffic officer whose been with the NYPD for just six months, walked in at the start of Haqu’s sermon. As he prepared for prayer, he removed his belt and peaked hat before kneeling, his head pressed against the tarp that was doubling as a prayer mat. 

In all, more than 150 men — as well as 30 or so women who prayed from behind the partition — repeated that process, partaking in jumah. 

In the middle of the day. On a Friday. 

It’s easy in a world dominated by Judeo-Christianity for some to resign religion to the weekend, as something that can be done at one’s leisure on Sundays. But it’s hard to imagine a world where people of faith have to plan their work and travel schedules around their religion.

Yet, that’s exactly what folks at the Abrar are doing. After prayers were over, Miah clocked back into work on his PDA, returning to his street patrol. 

Many other congregants came to jumah wearing work uniforms or professional clothes, and like Miah, returned to their jobs and everyday life almost immediately after taking time in the middle of their day to pray. 

For some, like Kadian Stephenson, it’s not even a short trip. He travels from the East Bronx every week to worship at Mediator because it is the only service near him that is celebrated in English. 

While Mediator has served as a great home for the Abrar, it’s still just a temporary one. And it seems the four-year search for a permanent place to conduct daily and weekly prayers has finally been found, with the congregation closing on a location at 3016 Bailey Ave.

Near the end of the service, Haqu sent worshippers off with a simple thought: Let go of your egos and go back to work — in a literal and figurative sense — with renewed dedication to helping and serving others.. 

“We are supposed to strive for the path of the law,” he said. “We have to work harder, strive more than we are doing right now, because Allah wants us to attain perfection.”

Chief photographer Julius Constantine Motal contributed to this report.

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