Dozens of men kneel to pray in the church gymnasium off Vivion Road.
To the side, remnants of vacation Bible school are still visible, teaching aids reminding “God creates.” A little boy, not quite 2, with dark hair and a cheeky grin, is playing with a red balloon as the adults take on a reverent posture.
This night is a special occasion — a party to celebrate the end of a monthlong series of gatherings in which the Muslim community comes together for prayer and fellowship. They gym is temporary. A building campaign, which will give them a permanent home, is ongoing.
A few women join in the prayers, but most are tending children in the nearby fellowship hall and putting the food out. Because coming together to eat is the way this group, like many faith families, celebrates common ground.
A week later, across town in Johnson County, a group of longtime friends and colleagues gather on a Sunday morning. They have done this kind of thing for 20 years.
One member of the group walks in late with a huge pack on her back.
She’s getting ready to go with her 16-year-old son on a Boy Scout adventure hike. They talk about an upcoming awards banquet, reminisce about the challenges and successes they’ve seen over two decades of talking about their faith. Then they eat, because coming together to eat is the way people can find common ground.
These are the events that those of the Islamic faith want people to know about. They say people who commit acts of terrorism are not acting as representatives of that faith.
Kanwal Chaudry, a board member of the Crescent Peace Society in Johnson County, says the word “Islamic” should be taken out of the name of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
“If they go into a mosque and kill Muslims, or kill those of other religions, they are not Muslim, because Islam is a religion of peace,” said Chaudry, one of an estimated 30,000 Muslims living in the Kansas City area.
The community has been growing in this area, though many say it’s become more difficult to be Muslim in America over the past 20 years — especially since 9/11 .
While those in the Kansas City area say for the most part, they are made to feel welcome, the importance of educating the population remains strong.
The Crescent Peace Society this month marks 20 years of working to raise awareness and understanding about the Muslim community.
Ahsan Latif, who grew up in Lexington, Mo., is the president of the society. Latif says it becomes challenging every time a major news event happens that involves someone identified as Muslim. The Crescent Peace Society makes it a practice to send out news releases in response to major world events that involved terrorists identified as Muslim.
“When bad stuff happens, like a shooting or an attack, I just want to be able to do something in response,” Latif said. “And I don’t know who people like the Orlando shooter or ISIS members are, I don’t have a way to call them and tell them to stop being so terrible. So the only thing I can do is write a press release and send it to local news organizations and share it with my friends.
“And in the immediate aftermath, it does feel like at least I did something.”
In the Kansas City area, about 18 different mosques and other centers serve a diverse population. Those looking out over congregations would see people of many ethic backgrounds, including Indian, Pakistani, South Asian, Serbian and African-American.
The Islamic Center of the Northland, which meets weekly at the Hillside Christian Church on Vivion Road for prayers, works steadily toward finishing its permanent home, the first building constructed as a mosque in the Northland, near the former Metro North Mall.
Members of the Crescent Peace Society say the Oklahoma bombing was a game-changer for Muslims in the country.
Shaheen and Iftekhar Ahmed were raising their three children in Leawood when the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing occurred. The children were nearly grown — one was a college student, two others were still at home. When the couple, both physicians, decided to immigrate to the country many years earlier from India, their children were natural-born citizens. They say the country had been a good place to raise children.
“All of a sudden, my second child was telling me he was afraid to go to school,” Shaheen Ahmed said. “Then after they caught Timothy McVeigh, he woke me up at 2 in the morning and said, ‘Mom, it is OK because the terrorist wasn’t a Muslim.’ ”
While there had been other incidents in the country before that time, this one was close to home, in a Midwestern city not unlike Kansas City. Friends and family, both Muslim and non-Muslim, recognized at that time many people simply did not know much about Islam. Their neighbors did not understand what it meant to be a Muslim, and what religious practices were important.
Nasreen Talib, Shaheen Ahmed’s sister and one of the co-founders of the Crescent Peace Society, explained that while they knew their faith had nothing to do with violence, they had not done a lot to tell people what the faith was about.
“We realized that we had not done our part,” Talib said. “We came to this country and we started working very hard. We were living our lives, and we were taking care of our kids. We didn’t have time to think about it.
“Then we realized that one element was forgotten, and that was educating others about who we are. That was the birth of the CPS.”
Other founders say the Muslim community in Kansas City was a close community — obeying the universal social rule to not talk about religion or politics in polite conversation.
Javid Talib, another co-founder of the society, said the effort was just as much about educating Muslims to talk about their faith as it was about bringing people who were not Muslim to a better understanding of Islam.
“We needed to push ourselves out of the box and go out and meet people and let people know who we are,” Javid Talib said.
They decided information was the key to helping people understand that Muslim neighbors in Kansas City were just like other people of faith, trying to obey what they believed God wanted them to do, praying and living devout lives.
They started a journey of education by inviting non-Muslims to participate in some religious celebrations. They purposefully did not align themselves with any one mosque and have had non-Muslims, members of a variety of immigrant Muslim communities, as well as African-American Muslims, on their board.
The group’s annual awards banquet, which recognizes people in the community who work toward the cause of peace in outstanding ways, marks 20 years on Aug. 13. It has honored a variety of people and organizations, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This year, among the honorees are Children’s Mercy Hospital and former Kansas City Councilman Alvin Brooks.
Javid Talib says much has changed since they started making a greater effort to explain their faith. Twenty years ago, he would fast during Ramadan at work and most people would be unaware that he was skipping lunch meetings.
“Today, everybody knows what Ramadan is,” Talib said. “They will not schedule a lunch meeting with me because I am fasting. People understand.”
Mahnaz Shabbir’s parents immigrated in the 1950s. She got involved with the Crescent Peace Society because she wanted to show her four sons that education was the way to bring peace.
Shabbir has worked tirelessly to educate others. She speaks. She serves on interfaith councils. She has written and visited and consulted.
She says she does have hope that this moment in history will pass, but that today the climate in this country is often more difficult than ever before.
“It has grown exponentially worse with events happening in the world, but also it grows with each presidential election cycle. This year, I knew the past was going to be repeated, but I had no idea it would be as difficult and challenging as it is right now,” Shabbir said.
Iftekhar Ahmed points out that violent offenders who are Muslim are the only people identified by their faith.
“When other people do bad things, they are not associated with their religion,” Ahmed said. “Violence will happen. But it should not be linked to their religion.”
Members of the Crescent Peace Society point out that while it gets hard to feel like they are perpetually explaining themselves, they also appreciate the religious freedom they have in this country. They are able to practice their faith in the way their conscious dictates, rather than relying on cultural cues.
“There’s a sermon I heard once that said some people believe it’s easier to be Muslim in another country because there is a mosque on every block. Since that is not true in the United States, you also have to become a better Muslim,” Latif said.
What is difficult is dealing with hatred, particularly against their children, who were born in this country but face discrimination because of their faith.
“That’s what really gets to you in your heart,” Shaheen Ahmed said. “We have kids and grandkids. I feel like we could have done really well in India, my husband and I, but we came to this country. Now, my children and grandchildren are here, and people are saying we should not let Muslims come into the country.
“I think, how about my family, and what about these kids who are raised here? Can’t their aunts and uncles come to this country to visit them? That really hits me very hard in my heart.”
Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn has been involved with the Crescent Peace Society for many years. She says she is proud that two Leawood couples helped found the organization and believes their work has made a difference in the area.
“It has been helpful breaking down the barriers that often exist when culture and religion separate people. They have helped explain things about Islam and create a dialogue for understanding and acceptance and the realization that we have so many more similarities than differences,” Dunn said.
She believes their work is particularly important in Johnson County, which has a growing population of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“They (the society) reach out to Christians and Jews and Muslims,” Dunn said. “People from every faith are invited to these dinners. That’s the really important thing, to have those educational opportunities and opportunities to get to know each other as people and come to be able to be friends.”
It has been 14 years since an unusual relationship in the Northland was forged that allowed one Muslim community to grow and flourish. In 2002, a small group of Muslims who lived in the Northland, a good distance from the mosque communities south of the river, formed the Islamic Center of the Northland. It started meeting in someone’s home, but soon the numbers were too big for that space.
The group began looking for other halls to meet.
Several times, they were turned away.
Shahzad Shafique, who has been a part of Islamic Center since 2008, explains when the group came to Hillside Christian Church on Vivion Road, the pastor asked them to come and meet with the church board.
“The church members asked what our opinion was of Jesus,” Shafique said. “We told them as Muslims, we believe in all of the prophets, including Jesus. It is a part of our faith. They said if we had that kind of belief in Jesus we were more than welcome to come and use the facility.”
The community, which pays a monthly fee to use the space, has grown in the past 14 years to about 150 families.
Every Friday, they get together in the church gym for prayers. Friday is a special day for Muslims, similar to Sunday for Christians and Saturday for Jews. That is an important day for the community members to pray together.
Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is a basic tenant of Islam. Laeeq Azmat, who serves as the current secretary of the center, explains the purpose of the fasting is to make you a better human being. Every night throughout the month, the community gets together to celebrate the breaking of the fast at the church.
They have several large meals during the month and at the end they celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of two Muslim holidays.
The church makes space for their congregation to gather for all of those events. All they have to do is put it on the calendar.
“It is very unusual. There are very few churches in this country who have given places for Muslims to pray like that,” Azmat said.
The pastor of the Hillside Christian Church, Andrew Beck, says the arrangement is unusual, but completely within the Disciples of Christ Denomination emphasis on openness and inclusiveness.
“The way we approach it comes from our own faith tradition and understanding that all people are welcome by the love and grace of God. That’s why we try to do that as a congregation. We have shown such grace and hospitality by God, we try to extend that into the community,” Beck said.
Beck says the opportunity to get to know members of the community has helped him as a minister to dispel myths of Islamophobia when he sees them either in or outside the church.
“It helps us recognize that we are not the only religious community out there, and because it’s a different faith, it helps us build a better sense of tolerance within our own religious experience,” Beck said.
Islamic Center vice president Khalid Hussain says the group is very grateful the church is willing to let them meet and share spaces. He is glad they understand the faith communities have more in common than they have different. His experiences with people in Kansas City have been primarily positive.
“I think there is a small segment of the Islamic community who have really hijacked all Muslims’ beliefs,” Hussain said. “We really believe in one God — Allah. The most important thing for us as humans is that we respect each other. Relationships and communication are the most important parts of that.”
Since coming to the United States in 2004, Hussain has heard from an increasing number of people asking about the faith of Muslims.
“No one used to know or care about who you were 10 years ago. But since a lot of wars started and with everything in the news, a lot of people are curious and are asking a lot of questions,” Hussain said.
While the church has been a hospitable place to meet, members at the Islamic Center of the Northland are working toward building a permanent home. Six years ago, they purchased 10 acres of land at 9901 N. Central St., just north of the former Metro North Mall complex.
They are in the construction phase on a mosque that will also include space for get-togethers and children’s education.
Right now, many of their children take religious classes online because it is too far to drive to other educational centers in the area.
The building is starting to take shape, but it is slow going. Members are paying for it as they go along, not taking out loans on the project.
When they finish, it will be the first building in the Northland that has been constructed as a mosque. Long-range plans for the space include a whole community center, and exterior amenities could include a playground, soccer field and picnic area. The idea is to have a focal point for gathering as a community.
“We’ve been praying in a church for the last 14 years, and we want the neighbors (near the new mosque site) to know we’re a peaceful community, the main purpose to pray,” Azmat said. “Every year, we hope that before the next Ramadan, we will be in our mosque.”
20th Annual Crescent Peace Society awards banquet
When: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 13
Where: Overland Park Marriott, 10800 Metcalf Ave.
Keynote speaker: Imam Khalid Latif, executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University
Tickets: $55 and up
2016 Award Winners: Children’s Mercy Hospital: The hospital is recognized for its efforts in designing the Lisa Barth Interfaith Chapel.
Alvin Brooks: The former city councilman and current police commissioner is recognized for his long-time support of the Crescent Peace Society.
Ten Thousand Villages: A partner with the society locally as a part of its mission to sell fair trade arts and crafts that enable people to earn a living wage off of their work.
Saba Hamouda: The principal of the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City and a former math teacher, she has received teaching awards and is a proponent for the education of Muslim children, especially girls.
Salaiman Salaam, Jr.: The Imam for Al-Haqq Islamic Center, with whom the soceity has partnered to distribute turkeys to families in downtown Kansas City for the last several Thanksgivings.
Hallmark: Hallmark sponsors programs internally so staff can meet Muslim employees and ask questions of Muslim leaders in order to promote understanding among its staff.
Pak Halal: Store owner Munir Yameen is a Palestinian American and a U.S. Army Veteran recognized for his support and contributions to the Muslim community and his country.