Saturday, August 27, 2011

Muslim Community Center of the East Bay (Pleasanton)

“I used to live in Santa Clara—San Jose—and I used to go to MCA about 10-15 years ago,” began the fundraiser.

I grimaced, expecting boos and hisses at the mention of MCA. There were none.

“…and I hated it when they used to fundraise on the night of the 27th, [but unfortunately that’s what I’m here to do.]”

I paraphrased that last part, obviously, but that was the gist of it. The mosque has hit only 30% of its Ramadan fundraising goal and so was forced to do it tonight. However, there was an apologetic tone to the man’s voice, something you would never hear at MCA. MCA’s more likely to blame the donor: “Yeah, we’re fundraising on Eid, because YOU didn’t donate enough during Ramadan. Now pay up!” MCA’s like the schoolyard bully who beats up children for lunch money so he can provide them services like educational lectures, free legal aid and family counseling (can I give backhanded compliments, or can I give backhanded compliments?).

A week ago, a member of my editorial board—so named because they’re the select few who have a modicum of control over the blog’s contents (“No, you can’t visit the gay Muslim mosque!”)—told me I’d been doing too many repeats from last year. Visit new mosques for the rest of Ramadan, he ordered me.

I defied him tonight because it’s the night of the 27th, the night the bulk of all Muslims believes to be the night the first verses of the Quran were revealed. There is a difference of opinion, of course; one scholar, who says it could be a night outside Ramadan, says the only way to find it is by staying up late to pray every night. In any case, because it was potentially Laylat-ul-Qadr, I wanted to spend it in a mosque with a large, diverse community. Not too many mosques fit the bill, so per the recommendation of an old college friend, I headed to Pleasanton.

Once my Pleasanton insider found out I was heading towards his neck of the woods, he invited me to have dinner with his family. It was there that I was able to meet his father, one of the architects of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center (SRVIC, pronounced ‘service,’ which is a very cute nickname) and MCC-East Bay. I also discovered (to my relief) that I am still very much anonymous in this community. My friend as an aside mentioned that I was behind this blog and it was only then that his family recognized me as THAT guy. Funny, too, because apparently my CBS interview was splashed over the news feeds of many Facebook accounts in the area. I shouldn’t be surprised at my anonymity; last year I got an email from a friend in which they wrote, “Have you seen this??” and included a link to my blog.

I used my place at the dinner table to ask 3 questions which had been burning in my mind: which came first, SRVIC or MCC? Why don’t they combine into one mosque given their proximity? Is there any beef between those two mosques?

It turns out, SRVIC did come first, but MCC was born out a different vision for what a mosque should be. The board which leads MCC believes that a simple community mosque is not sufficient to fulfill the needs of a growing Muslim population, and they’re right. Lots of community mosques are nothing more than prayer spaces that are rarely used outside of the 5 daily prayers. MCC’s vision is to create a community center which will be large enough to provide essential services, like outreach, and basically be somewhere folks attend for more than just the prayers. However, MCC respects the concept of a community mosque and isn’t interested in becoming a behemoth which swallows up all mosques around it. Each city should have a mosque, a belief which goes back to the time of the Prophet, when even Medina had 40 mosques, despite being smaller than the current size of the Prophet’s masjid. Finally, no, there is no beef.

This mosque’s leadership structure is fascinating. Their constitution mandates that their board be composed of 3 people from Pleasanton, 3 people from San Ramon, 1 person from Livermore, and 1 from the area? My insider was only really sure about the representation from the first two cities. I’ve never heard of a board being controlled by a quota system, and it’s certainly not something that would work in the South Bay. MCA being as large as it is, it would be terribly unfair to say that most of its board members have to be from Santa Clara, since most big donors live in the West Valley anyways. I actually don’t get why hometowns are so important. Are the needs of the San Ramon Muslims so different from the Pleasanton Muslims that they need to have an equal representation from both groups?

I adore khatams. Khatams are the night when the imam wraps up his recitation of the Quran, which he aims to do by reciting an equal section of the book every night during taraweeh. Most masjids in the area have their khatams by the 27th night, and it was a treat for me to be able to witness it at this mosque.

When I was younger (like 22, the last year I prayed taraweeh all month at MCA), I especially liked khatams because they were the nights dear old Sheikh Jibreel used to recite the surahs I knew intimately. See, a Desi’s Quranic education tends to begin with the 30th part of the Quran, it containing the shortest chapters of the Quran. As a wee tot I used to bubble with excitement every time the Sheikh recited a surah I knew by heart. I have since lost much of that lust for life, so I was a lot more reserved tonight, but I still felt a warm rush as I heard my old favorites being recited in the imam’s beautiful voice.

What really moved me tonight was the imam’s final dua. Imams traditionally wrap up their recitation of the entire Quran in the month of Ramadan with a final dua which could range from 1 minute to 40 minutes. Sheikh Jibreel in his prime used to do final duas of over 30 minutes, which is quite an accomplishment for him and the congregation considering we’d all be standing still during the time. Tonight was also a lengthy dua, and it was touching because the imam broke down and cried in the middle.

What do the imams pray for? Really, I couldn’t tell you exactly, because I don’t speak Arabic, but it’s a safe assumption that they pray for themselves, their families, their communities and the Muslim ummah as a whole. Certain imams have the power to bring their congregations to tears with their final duas, and tonight was one of those nights. It always is one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of my life and the fact that it comes by only once a year makes it even more meaningful.

So which did I like better, San Ramon or Pleasanton? Hey, look at these pictures below while I dodge the question!

 If you're so far back you can't see the imam, never fear, they've installed flat-screens hooked up to video cameras.  It's a move right out of MCA's playbook for creating a more equitable space for the women (who were right behind and to the left of me)

Exterior of the building.  Classic business park architecture.

Date Visited: August 26, 2011

5724 West Las Positas Boulevard
Pleasanton, CA 94588

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Phenomenal

Size of congregation: 250 men, 100 women? These are just rough estimates.

Capacity of center: I could tell the center was almost at capacity from the heat and humidity of the room. I want to say they can fit 400 people in there at once in its current configuration

Parking: The lot in the commercial space. Doesn’t seem to be any street parking options, so if you can’t find parking in the designated lots, you’re kind of out of luck.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Racks at the entrance, seemed to be sufficient for tonight.
By the by, I visited SRVIC after taraweeh at MCC and noticed that more than a few congregants had left their shoes outside the front door on the sidewalk instead of carrying them to the shoe shelves in the center of the building. Tsk tsk.

Building: The MCC bought the entire building but kept the tenants while occupying half the building themselves. The fundraising goal for this year is $200,000, $100,000 of which will go to pay for the building. They’re also using the rent from their tenants to help cover the monthly payments they have to make. Because of their focus on getting the building paid off, they haven’t spent too much time making the mosque look pretty; prayer areas are demarcated with tape and the carpet is the standard commercial fare.
However, just looking at the sheer size of this space (including the part they rent out) you can tell this center has a lot of potential. It’s unfortunate that they’ve only reached 30% of their fundraising goal, though they may also have unrealistic expectations from their community. Faithful readers will remember I reported SBIA asks each family to donate $20 per month to cover Ramadan expenses. MCA asks for first-born sons, but they’ll accept $125. This community asks for $300. Steep!

Friendliness towards women: They have a separate entrance, but as I rounded the corner and entered the men’s prayer hall, I discovered there’s no real barrier between the men and women. Sure, there are walls, but there are sizeable gaps in them, thus theoretically allowing for a sightline of the mihrab. Additionally, some women were praying in the same hall as the men. Following the prayer, when the congregation was feasting on desserts (another khatam tradition) men and women were mingling with no problems.
However, I did a little digging, and found that not everything that night had been hunky-dory. During the prayer, the leadership became afraid that the men wouldn’t have enough space to pray. Their solution was to attempt to make the women praying in the same hall as the men to move back into a stuffy, hot, crowded section of the mosque. They failed due to the stance taken by some very strong, determined women, but the story still troubled me. What that tells me is the mosque values the men’s prayer more than the women’s prayer. Frankly, women have a right to an equitable amount of space, especially on such an important night, and it was wrong for the leadership to even attempt to make the women move.
By the way, the men ended up not needing the women’s space, which was good, because they weren’t going anywhere anyways.

Friendliness of congregation: It’s a very large, diverse community. Everyone seemed like they were having a great time tonight, and I’m sure I could have made some new friends if I hadn’t been kicking it with my insider.

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