Andersen: Called to prayer on Spruce Creek
September 15, 2014
Miguel stood on a boulder with a long wooden staff in his hands, looking like a Latino version of Moses. Stocky and broad-shouldered, this Marine combat veteran from the Iraq war faced the east, took a deep breath, closed his eyes and began the Muslim call to prayer.
A group of combat veterans sitting around this wildflower meadow looked on, listening. All of us were transported to another world. There were no sounds other than the rush of Spruce Creek and the lilting, undulating voice of Miguel, his singsong words piercing the clear mountain air.
Hearing the call to prayer in the wilderness just 10 days ago was the culminating experience during our final Huts for Vets program of 2014 in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. This was our last hike together, and Miguel called the prayer as a means of sharing his deep connection to Islam with this new band of brothers.
Miguel is in his early 30s. He's been a practicing Muslim since he was 17. He told us he was raised in a Catholic family but that he found his own religious footing through the teachings and readings of Malcolm X.
"I had to find my own direction," he explained. "Islam resonated with me, so that's what I chose. The year after I became a Muslim, I joined the Marines, and that was a very difficult time for me."
Miguel offered the call at my invitation. Having heard the call in Turkey, Israel and Jordan, I was curious about its meaning as described by a devout Muslim. For the veterans in the meadow, the call had even more significance.
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Ryan, another Marine in our group, described the mystic quality of the call while he was deployed in Iraq: "It was amazing to hear it from minarets all across the city, all calling at the same time but in different voices."
Miguel translated the call for us word by word. He explained its meaning as a prayer that honors God, acknowledges Muhammad as the true representative of God and recognizes one God.
Miguel explained that Islam originates from the same Abrahamic roots as Judaism and Christianity. The irony that there is one source for these often competing religions was not lost on the veterans in that wilderness setting — men who had associated Islam with demonized enemies they had fought in the streets and deserts of the Middle East.
Hearing the call to prayer in the wilderness, where we had spent the past three days, brought an unusual religious context to an experience that is otherwise nonsectarian. There was no affront. Miguel simply offered his inner self for the others to see. If there were objections, they were respectfully hushed. That's the level of trust and honesty we had reached.
Later, walking down the trail, Miguel told me that it was only because of the forbearance of judgment in our program that made him comfortable enough to share the prayer with his brother warriors.
By making himself transparent, Miguel opened a door to something few Americans are willing to open. Anything Muslim has become taboo for many Americans given the propaganda fueling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which Miguel and his military brothers were deployed.
Miguel's prayer offered a unique shift by defusing preconceived and programmed responses to what is considered a threat. The call to prayer was offered with honesty and spiritual depth, the words of one man's belief system cast upon the wind.
We left that meadow as a sacred space — regardless of our own views, beliefs or practices. It was made sacred by a man willing to reveal his truth in a safe and civil environment that is the opposite of the war, violence and hostility that brought these men together.
When I pass that meadow in the future, which I will every summer, I will pause there and listen for the echo of Miguel's prayer. In addition to the words, I will conjure the respect and trust that men can have for one another — men who raised arms against those who heeded that call in urban battlefields.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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