Being neighborly is an American tradition, and Midwesterners are particularly proud of their hospitality. A Minnesota program promotes this neighborly spirit by arranging for hundreds of non-Muslims to visit mosques during Ramadan.
The Taking Heart program was born of concerns that “many people [in Minnesota] know so little about Islam and Muslims,” says the Reverend Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, an Episcopal priest who coordinates Taking Heart for the Minnesota Council of Churches. The council launched the program in 2005 in partnership with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whose director, Imam Asad Zaman, works with Bronson Sweigert to recruit participants.
Nineteen mosques participate in the program. Guests from churches and synagogues visit them and hear presentations about Islam and Ramadan, observe prayers, and join their Muslim neighbors for an iftar meal.
Taking Heart registers guests, and each mosque provides the food. Non-Muslims are sometimes afraid to enter a mosque, Zaman says, but come to understand “they are, of course, welcome year-round.”
The program is so popular among host mosques that “the number of Muslims who volunteer to be hosts exceeds the [need],” Zaman says. Mosques “try to maintain a ratio of one host volunteer for every three guest visitors” to foster vibrant conversations.
“The dinners are fun and rewarding,” says Bronson Sweigert.
Zaman quotes one visitor: “The presentation … dispelled many common myths about Muslims and Islam. The Muslims in attendance were so willing to answer questions and share their experiences, and I walked away with a grateful heart and a deeper respect for Muslims and their faith beliefs and traditions.”
Nearly 1,000 non-Muslims visited mosques during the 2016 Ramadan period. “Most people are just trying to live and get along,” says Zaman. “I have been surprised at how little it takes, in interaction and compassion, to melt away the many layers of misinformation and fear.”