When it comes to their fellow Houstonians, Kyle McConkey and his mother Debbie McConkey recognize and appreciate the diversity the city offers.
As it relates to their own lives, Kyle said the large mix of ethnicities is an opportunity not only to meet people different from himself but to make the most of those relationships, as well.
“We need to figure out better ways to love our neighbors,” he told AboutIslam.net.
At the “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event held Jan. 18, at a Houston-area library, Kyle and Debbie, along with about 50 other attendees did just that.
The event, which has been happening over the last few years, has hosted more than 1,000 people. It was staged by the Muslim-American Women in Action group to educate the public and dispel myths people may have about Muslims and Islam.
“During these events, we try to eliminate misconceptions that people might have about Muslims,” said Rubina Zaman, a Muslims in Action organizer.
“We create the opportunity to meet Muslims and ask questions in a friendly atmosphere.”
The event featured free ethnic food, an opportunity to have your name written in Arabic calligraphy, Islamic art demonstrations, henna applications and a chance for women to learn about and try out wearing a hijab.
Brown said interactions with Muslim colleagues have positively shaped his impression of Muslims and encouraged others to reach out and talk not only with Muslim neighbors but anyone they deem different from themselves.
As an example, he referenced a story about when his young daughter, who has dwarfism, was approached by a little boy on a playground.
“He came up to her and said, ‘What’s wrong with your legs?’” Brown said. Once his daughter explained her condition, the little boy’s curiosity was satisfied and the two youngsters went on to play together.
With that story in mind, Brown urged those in attendance not to be scared of asking questions of those whom they know little about.
“As we get older, we lose the ability to be curious about things and then fear sets in,” he said. “So we shouldn’t stop asking questions.”
Brown said, as part of human nature, people tend to view things they deem different as somewhat negative. “That’s the way our minds work,” he said but explained that talking with people one-on-one is a good remedy to preventing isolation between different groups of people.
“Be at the forefront of helping, see what we have in common and help to diffuse those fears,” Brown said. “We live a small life when we don’t interact with people who are different than ourselves.”
Debbie McConkey said it was her own curiosity that brought her to the event. “I have no expectations, I just want to see what they have to say,” she explained.
Following Brown’s talk, Imam El Mekki addressed the crowd. After giving a brief explanation of the tenants of Islam and the belief of Muslims, he opened the floor to questions.
Attendees queried him about the concepts of repentance and redemption in Islam, the distinction between Sunnis and Shias, the process of converting to Islam and how living in the United States affects Muslims’ faith practice.
To that, he explained that Islam allows for an evolution of practice in some aspects of the faith, but that the belief doesn’t change.
“Islam is strict in belief but not in practice,” El Mekki said.
He also explained that Islam is about the middle ground and finding a balance between two extremes.
“If you follow the Prophet (peace be upon him), you’ll always come back to your path, back to the middle,” he said.
Attendee Jim Karuth said he lived next door to a Muslim family for 16 years, but never had an opportunity to learn much about their beliefs. He said he appreciated learning about the five pillars of Islam.
“That was enlightening, and events like these are helpful for folks who are on the fence about what Islam is,” he said.
However, he lamented that those who might need such information the most, including some he knew who have a very negative view of Islam, aren’t likely to attend.
“The folks who don’t want to listen probably won’t even walk through the door,” Karuth said.