It’s hard to find the good this holiday season. From domestic political strife to global conflict, it seems violence and division will prove the overarching themes of this dwindling year.
It can be all too easy to focus on the darkness instead of the light, especially in my profession. But a trip to the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond this week reminded me that for every cruel act that makes headlines, there’s a flood of compassion that often doesn’t.
You may have heard of MAPS because its sign has been vandalized twice in the past three weeks. But I didn’t visit the mosque to talk about acts under investigation as possible hate crimes. I was there to talk about Christmas Eve dinner for the needy.
“We will be bringing rice and pita and curry chicken,” says Khizer Sheriff, co-founder of the Muslim Community Resource Center, the service arm of MAPS. “We try to turn the spice level down, but people really enjoy it. It’s something a little different.”
Sheriff is describing the Christmas Eve dinner he and other volunteers will be serving in Seattle to more than 100 people this evening (the space wasn’t available on Saturday).
The multicultural dinner was founded by a Jewish woman, staffed in part by MAPS and its service arm, and hosted at an Ethiopian community center. It’s its fifth year and has become a favorite tradition.
“It really is about putting our faith in action,” says Sheriff. “Christmas Eve is just another occasion when we can share our blessings with others who are less fortunate.”
For his daughter, Nehath Sheriff, who has volunteered at every Christmas Eve dinner since the start, it’s a reminder of what really matters.
“I think that we all take dinner and family for granted,” she said. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
This dinner is only one way the Muslim Community Resource Center puts its faith to action. It also provides meals to tent cities on the Eastside, supports newly arrived refugees and offers a free, monthly health clinic that Nehath Sheriff helped start.
All of the services are provided to the community at large, and much of the work is done in collaboration with other non-Muslim, faith-based communities. They estimate they served roughly 2,000 people last year alone at various events.
Both Nehath and Khizer were more eager to discuss this work than the broken sign in front of their mosque, or the bomb threat they received in June. But there are signs of the impact of these events. There is a new security guard on duty, and the many doors that once remained open to worshippers throughout the day are now locked.
And politics show up in other ways, too.
“Sometimes they (people being served) ask, ‘Where is your mosque?’ or ‘Why are you doing this?’ And we tell them, ‘This is part of our faith and being engaged and helping the poor and the needy,’” says Khizer Sheriff. “Contrary to what you might hear in the media, this is what true Islam is.”
His daughter similarly believes there is often too much emphasis put on what divides us, and was quick to remind me that most of the community rejects bigotry and hate.
After the first vandalism to the sign, which happened in late November, MAPS put up a new sign, the base of it decorated with the handprints of leaders of different faiths.
This month, when security footage revealed a blurry figure wailing on the new sign in the cover of darkness, so many people responded by offering to volunteer with the resource center that it had to turn folks away.
“I think we need to look at the positive of what happened after the vandalism,” Nehath Sheriff said, “not the act of one individual.”
I thought of her words again as I stopped for a moment in front of the defaced sign on my way out. The sign plate had been removed. But past the yellow caution tape lay the sign’s foundation — intact and proudly displaying a collage of community handprints.
And that’s the image I’ll be taking into 2017.