Making Connections

Show of hands from everyone reading this: How many of you identify as being an introvert? For those of you who half-heartedly raised your hands (but only because you’re alone in the privacy of your own home — there’s no way you’d randomly raise your hand out in public and draw unwanted attention to yourself), I get it. I was the kid who would bring a book to church dances. The best way to strike fear into my otherwise confident adolescent heart was a forced get-to-know-you session at girls’ camp.

Not much has changed with adulthood. The last thing I want to do when I’m out in public is make small talk with a total stranger. I’ve perfected the art of avoiding eye contact by burying my nose in my phone. It’s not that I’m anti-social; that term, which describes the psychological condition of being chronically antipathetic to the well-being and rights of others, often gets incorrectly attributed to us introverts. We are not uncaring. We simply prefer solidarity and the company of small groups of close friends. And we typically take longer to form friendships with new people and prefer to observe social situations from a distance before jumping into the social fray.

Which makes the experience I had a couple of weeks ago all the more extraordinary. I was at the playground with my 3-year-old daughter, who has no problem with inserting herself into new social interactions. I noticed a woman with her two sons. She was obviously Muslim, wearing a colorful floral hijab, long sleeves, and pants. She was sitting alone on the grass, quietly watching her boys play and occasionally reading from a small book. The moment I spotted the woman, the Spirit prompted me to converse with her.

I avoided acting on the prompting for 10 minutes or so, all the while hoping it would go away. It didn’t. Instead, it got stronger. Eventually, the Spirit overcame my introversion, and I decided to act. As my internal battle was raging, the woman moved from the grass to help her son traverse the monkey bars. I slowly left the safe seclusion of the park bench I was sitting on and gradually walked her way until I was within a few feet of her. Except, now I was just standing there, awkwardly silent. It seemed my mission was doomed to fail, until fate intervened in the form of my toddler running beneath the swinging legs of the Muslim boy on the monkey bars. The woman quickly swept her son’s kicking feet out of the way, narrowly avoiding my daughter’s head. “Sofia,” I chided, “watch where you’re going!”

“Sofia,” the woman said chuckling, and in fluent English tinged only by the slightest accent, continued, “That’s a pretty name. What does it mean?” I confessed I didn’t know. I quickly consulted Google and was able to answer that it is Greek in origin and means wisdom. “Hopefully, she’ll grow wiser,” I joked, to which the woman laughed and responded that the meanings of names are very important in Islamic tradition. She explained that her oldest son is named Abdullah, which means “servant of Allah (God).”

At this point, we made formal introductions. I learned that her name was Sarah (with two long As) and that she was born in Egypt, grew up in Saudi Arabia, and has lived in the U.S. for six years since marrying her husband. My introversion vanished, and our conversation continued over the course of an hour, interrupted only by the occasional need to retrieve one of our wandering children.

The conversation flowed smoothly. We discovered we held common interests — we both studied graphic design in college. We commiserated on the difficulties of maintaining our design skills while raising small children. She expressed her gratitude for a husband who would be fully supportive if she decided to return to the workforce. She was very open in discussing her faith, and in the middle of our conversation her iPhone chimed with the Islamic call to prayer. “Would you mind watching my boys while I pray?” she asked as she handed out snacks to all three of the children. “Of course,” I responded and prodded Sofia to say thank you.

As Mormons, part of our dedication to our faith is wearing temple garments and modest clothing that covers them. We also participate in the sacred ordinances of the temple. However, these acts of faith are private in nature. Our temple garments are hidden from the eyes of our fellow man. Our ordinances are received in the safe company of others who share our faith.

As I watched Sarah find a soft, relatively quiet place on the playground and, facing Mecca, proceed to pray, I was reverently stunned by her dedication. Muslim prayer is an involved ritual. Sarah wasn’t just kneeling with her arms folded. Over the course of 10 minutes, she alternated between standing, kneeling, and kneeling face down with her arms outstretched toward Mecca, all the while quietly reciting her prayers. Her faith was outwardly on display to the world, in the form of her hijab and her prayer offered to Allah in the middle of a playground full of active children.

When Sarah completed her prayers, she returned to our group and thanked me. We continued talking until our conversation was interrupted by Abdullah’s plea for a bathroom break. Sarah gathered her two boys, assured me that she would return, and proceeded to find the nearest bathroom. By this point, I had been at the playground for almost three hours, and the sun was starting to set. Having walked to the playground, I was nervous it would get dark before I was able to return home. My introversion started to creep in, and I considered leaving without saying goodbye. I had no pen or paper to leave a note and, even if I did, no guarantee that Sarah would find it. The Spirit prompted me to be patient. After a few more minutes of waiting, Sarah reappeared and we were able to exchange phone numbers and say goodbye.

Since becoming involved with Mormon Women for Ethical Government, my exposure to the plights of refugees and Muslims in this country has been magnified. Reading the personal accounts of fellow MWEG members’ experiences working with and helping Muslim refugees has ignited a spark within me to want to be involved as well. Under the current White House administration, the need for fellowshipping and supporting refugees and Muslim citizens of this country has become paramount. We must all find ways to engage with the Muslim members of our communities. It’s so important that we meet real Muslims and develop real relationships, because it’s the only way to challenge the fear and suspicion of “otherness” that is becoming more pervasive in this nation.