Ligi Varghese and her 3 year-old daughter clutched bunches of roses in front of the Maryam Islamic Center outside Houston, Texas before Friday prayers on December 2. They, along with a dozen or so community members of various faiths and backgrounds passed out more than 400 flowers to worshippers as they arrived at the mosque.
The attendees alternatively smiled or looked surprised as individuals of the grassroots Love Thy Neighbor initiative handed out single stems along with messages of love and support. Several people held up handwritten signs with statements such as “Houston Loves You.”
Varghese, who identifies as an Indian-American Christian, felt spurred to act after she saw a rise in Islamophobia and hate crimes in the media. She reached out to her friend Naheeda Spencer who attends the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land with her family, to see if it would be possible to come out in a show of solidarity with the Fort Bend Muslim community. Imam Taquer Shah welcomed the idea.
Every Friday, hundreds of Muslims in the community – with very diverse backgrounds – come for prayers, and Varghese wanted to give a flower to each person as a symbol of unity. She was supported in this effort by private donors as well as Trader Joe’s, who supplied the long stem roses.
After being invited inside the beautiful mosque for prayers, volunteers and faithful alike listened to Varghese read a statement she had prepared. “We are all so much more similar than we are different,” she said. “We have to start getting to know each other.” This initiative was meant to do that – create awareness in the non-Muslim community, build trust, and forge relationships.
The Maryam Islamic Center, for its part, has been doing community outreach since it was built in 2009, and even before then when it operated out of a trailer further up Sartartia Road. It offers public events such as a carnival annually, coordinates interfaith activities with area churches, and often does fundraising or volunteering for area nonprofits such as the Houston Food Bank.
Deputy John McCoy, one of several Fort Bend County Constables who direct traffic each week as well as during special events has seen this first-hand. “The mosque offers so much and these folks are really part of the community,” he said.
Even so, several attendees shared stories of how their children and teenagers have been targeted in school for being Muslim. This is something that troubles Varghese, a mother of a new baby and a preschooler, in particular. “Children aren’t born with hatred. Someone taught them to hate, and never taught them what it was to love.”
This initiative, along with increased connections between mosques and schools, Boy Scout troops, and other organizations are helping to break down these barriers and foster understanding. Varghese hopes small gestures like a flower will show a commitment from other Americans to stand by Muslims in the face of bigotry.
As volunteers cleaned up rose petals outside and carried the food the Maryam Islamic Center gave them, a man in his thirties stopped to shake hands. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This is what America is all about.”