Khizr Khan’s words at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), with his grief-stricken wife by his side was a rallying cry that evoked emotions and tears. Thank you DNC. By that one move, you have restored the hope of many. I had just returned from ‘a place of hope’ and DNC giving prime-time airtime to Khizr Khan, was the icing on the silver cake of hope.
So where is this ‘place of hope?’ Take a drive up to western New York State to Chautauqua Lake, 90 mile southwest of Buffalo. On the shores of the lake, Chautauqua Institution comes alive each summer. It hosts fascinating interfaith dialogues, cultural events, and educational lectures. We go there every summer.
Last summer, my husband Khalid came up with one of his many bright ideas. Seeing how interested people were in learning about Islam, he proposed to the Religion Department, that we—as in Khalid and I—hold a five-day seminar series in Islam 101: Being Muslim in America. Guess what! They agreed. We submitted the curriculum: Quran, Family Life, Women, Shia-Sunni, and Shari’ah. Approved!
The outcome: historical and groundbreaking. I am serious.
None of us—as in none of us—not the organizers, not I, not Khalid, expected such a massive turnout. When I walked into the classroom on Day 1, expecting to see perhaps 8-10 people, I ran into a crowd outside the door. Craning my neck to look inside, I saw a packed room. Perhaps it’s the previous class just breaking out. Then someone at the door remarked, ‘You have a house-full. We cannot get in.’ I squeezed in. The organizer, was at the door. My jaw must have dropped, because she nodded in confirmation. She had to turn away 30 people that day.
I took around the room at the people who had taken their seats. If you know Chautauqua, you know that people come here from all over the US, are well read, most are age 40+, many are seniors, make friends with ease, and they have this thirst for learning. And unlike NYC, where women easily outnumber men in classrooms I frequent, there are as many men as there are women. I hope we don’t disappoint them.
We had formatted the lecture allowing half the time for Q&A—I like that part the best. And boy, did we have a lively discussion! Such an enlightened audience, so respectful, such inquiring questions. And when the class was over, we were engulfed. “Wait till the word gets out. Tomorrow you will have twice the number”.
She was right.
The next afternoon, as we sat in the grove under the shade of the trees, listening to the interfaith speaker, I noticed people leave the lecture and start to line up outside the classroom. Doors would not open for another 30 minutes, and the sun was strong. The line snaked around the block, some elderly in walkers, some with walking sticks.
That day, the organizer had to turn away over 60 people.
Talk about conflicting emotions: elation at the interest, and feeling really bad seeing so many waiting in line, and then being turned away.
“Get a larger venue,” people started demanding.
The third day, people started lining up one hour ahead. With all the choices Chautauqua has to offer, with so much going on, they choose to come listen to a Muslim couple talk about Islam. That says a lot about Chautauquans. That is what gives me hope.
When our guest mates at our guest house, too frail to wait on line, couldn’t get in, Olivia, our landlady, agreed to host a private session in her living room. That morning, Khalid and I had met a couple while waiting on line to get a book signed by David McCullough. We struck up a conversation, invited them to our ‘private session’, and they showed up, my book in hand.
It didn’t end there. After every lecture, people would wait around for more questions, more discussion . . . . People would stop us in the plaza, or if we were spotted having coffee at the Brickwalk Café, and ask more questions. Over a hundred people signed up to get e-copies of the handout, and we ended up making friends, who are still writing to us.
People left the class saying:
I had no idea Mary is mentioned in the Quran. . . I didn’t know that is what Shari’ah means . . .
Two women offered to provide financial assistance to stop honor killing in Pakistan.
A minister raised his hand and asked ‘how can I help?’
By the time the week was over, the organizers asked if we could do it again next year, this time every week for three weeks.
So many have written to us and said that they will share our handouts with their network, will get the word out, will gift my book to their friends. But mostly, they are saying, ‘how can we help?’ We have friends; we have ambassadors.
This is Chautauqua. A place that has opened its arms and hearts to Muslims.
This is Chautauqua, a place where we can showcase Islam in the twenty-first century.
This is Chautauqua, a place of hope.