by Karima Alavi
Coming in from the intense New Mexico sunlight to the entrance of the candle-lit Morada was like stepping back centuries in time. The whitewashed walls of the adobe church displayed a few primitive pieces of art that reflected the strong Hispano/Mexican heritage that the male members of the Penitente Morada were proud to continue. The stark, narrow room was flanked on both sides by bancos: small adobe benches built out from the walls. I stood just inside the door, trying to adjust to the lack of light when an old woman – her gentle smile framed by faded pink lipstick – patted the seat next to her.
The short invitation had been photocopied on a piece of wrinkled blue paper: The “Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth” wanted local Muslims to join them in a prayer for world peace and reconciliation after the terrorist bombings of New York and Washington. The prayers would take place at the Morada that sits atop an isolated hill overlooking the Chama River valley. As an Anglo-American Muslim I was intrigued. I appreciated the fact that someone was reaching out to those of us who share the small town of Abiquiu, New Mexico with their Hispanic, Mexican and Native American neighbors. And I’ll admit, I was also anxious to see the inside of the Morada, the simple place of worship that usually shrouds itself in a mystique of secretiveness.
Now I was seated inside, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and quietly using all my senses to understand the place. All eyes were drawn to the altar at the front, placed in a large niche that looked like a stage. White curtains hung down at each side, framing the scene as if a Passion Play was about to begin, and was just waiting for the music to start. A deep purple fabric – the medieval color of royalty – covered the table that held a selection of wooden statues called Santos.
Each hand-carved Santo was unique. A crucified Jesus hung from a cross with a look of tender forgiveness on his face, even as the red blood of martyrdom dripped down his body from a crown of thorns. The angel toward the back had enormous golden wings that served as a backdrop to the Virgin Mary who’s saddened face served as ample reflection of her title “Our Lady of Sorrows.” In the hand of the Angel was a sword, lifted up as if ready to slash at any dangers that approached the Sacred Virgin. Heavy ceiling beams made out of tree trunks gave off a slight shimmer as candle flames leaped up and then rested again. Carved into a wooden candelabrum were the words “Sin Dios nada. Con Dios Todo.” Without God, there’s nothing. With God, there’s everything.
At the back of the crowded room stood my Muslim friends who gazed longingly at my “front row” seat. Suddenly the sound of men’s voices came from behind a closed door. They were deep, old voices that sang with the confidence of people who had prayed for peace before. As the men entered the narrow chapel they marched slowly, three to a row, swaying slightly from side to side. When the front row got to the altar they all stopped and kneeled.
I took a good look at the men who kneeled before me singing praises to Jesus and the Mother Mary. Most of the men were those who would have, in earlier days, been called “village elders.” The kind of men you could take your troubles to, knowing they would chuckle and tell you how they handled the same problem when it hit them decades ago. But there were also men that the American media had taught me to fear since I was a child. Like the man with the classic features of an ethnic Mexican. Enormous cheekbones jutted from his face and deep set, sorrowful eyes stared out from under brows that were so big, they cast a small shadow on his face. Typecast by Hollywood as the Bandito; a man with a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. There he was, on his knees, praying for peace without one look of protest or discomfort. I wondered how long it would be before my bottom would get sore sitting on the adobe banco.
The prayers went on for more than an hour. The Brothers were allowed to stand for a short time; then it was down on their knees again for the final plea for world peace. Two men in front of me with dark, weathered faces had a harder time standing up than getting back on their knees, reminding me of verses in the Qur’an that tell believers to live in humility and submission, rather than tall, proud arrogance. I silently recited a sacred text of my own faith:
Lit is such a light, in houses that Allah hath permitted to be raised
To honor, for the celebration in them, of His name. In them is He glorified.
The prayers continued outside, as we joined a procession amidst the sound of golden cottonwoods rustling in the autumn wind. Walking along a dusty dirt road, we wound our way down a hill, and into a community center where we shared hot apple cider, cookies and a gentle, forgiving love that few people will ever know unless they reach out to those who are the “others” and discover the common desire for peace that we all share in our hearts.
As I silently drove off into the mountains, the smells from wood burning stoves mingled in the air, and I felt at peace for the first time since the events of September 11 tried to shatter our lives.