Falls Church, Virginia — They come for prayers, meals, social services and fellowship.
Many of the 3,000 men and women who come to Friday prayers at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, also drop a few dollars into a collection box. The donations help pay for lunches and dinners, full-time and weekend schools, a food pantry and services like assistance to the homeless and victims of domestic violence.
During Ramadan, members prepare iftar meals for about 1,000 people each evening, including anyone in the community who is hungry.
The community’s donations also support Dar Al-Hijrah’s interfaith activities, such as co-hosting an interfaith iftar at a Catholic church in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
Founded in 1983, Dar-Al-Hijrah has several agreements with its neighbors who live or do business along their stretch of the Route 7 highway corridor. A nearby supermarket allows the center to set up collection boxes in its store so customers of all faiths can contribute.
Two nearby Christian churches allow worshipers to park in their lots on Fridays, and Falls Church police officers are assigned to direct traffic at busy intersections to ensure pedestrians can safely cross to attend prayer services at their mosque.
About 80 percent of the center’s members are from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and Africa. Some are converts from other faiths.
“We are a diverse community,” explained Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the center’s outreach director. A former Episcopalian, the Brooklyn native who is now 55 converted to Islam as a 26-year-old graduate student. Michigan-born member Iman Potter converted to Islam after being raised as a Christian Scientist.
Abdul-Malik said that in populous Northern Virginia, and in neighboring Maryland and Washington, Muslims attend various mosques for different reasons.
He said people usually go to Friday prayers at a mosque close to where they live or work. Some go to a mosque to take advantage of various activities it offers like karate classes or Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Others go to a mosque that offers comradeship with a certain ethnicity or ideology, he said.
At Dar Al-Hijrah, members in need may apply to receive either short- or long-term assistance to help pay rent, food or medical expenses, said social worker Tahani Jabarin, who came to the United States from Jerusalem at age 14.
Housing assistance is particularly important for the unemployed, Jabarin said. Her center partners with the nearby First Christian Church, which operates a program to provide lunches for the homeless.
After a recent severe storm caused widespread energy outages, Dar Al-Hijrah was one of the few places in the area to retain its electrical power, and it opened its doors to its neighbors so they could cool off and get something to eat.
During the summer, Jabarin said, Dar Al-Hijrah partners with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to obtain affordable food for children’s lunches.
“For some children from low-income families, school lunch might be the only real meal they’ll get in a day,” she said. “In summer when school is out, we try to provide them with a meal.”
Also supporting Dar Al-Hijrah’s services are Islamic Relief USA and the Muslim American Society of Washington, Jabarin said.
After early prayers on one recent Friday, Abdul-Malik went to the U.S. Capitol, the building that houses Congress, where he had been invited to lead a prayer service. The iman has also led Friday prayers at the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. military.
When he speaks with audiences, including those in Afghanistan where he has visited, Abdul-Malik says his main message is about “the power of faith in a land of freedom,” he said. “My tool is the spoken word.”