Dafer M. Dakhil had an interesting question for the USC students sitting across from him in the basement of the Omar Mosque directly across the street from USC’s International Residential College at Parkside.
“How much do you know about Islam?”
The students who answered “not much” were about to receive an intimate introduction to one of the most talked-about and misunderstood religions in America from a highly respected leader of the Muslim community.
“It’s not really that different,” said Dakhil, director of community development and external relations for the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, which oversees the mosque. “We don’t believe God needs us, but we do need him.”
The USC students had just finished participating in afternoon prayers in the immense grand room under the green dome, kneeling down shoeless on a royal blue carpet, when Dakhil invited them to chat over coffee and pastries.
“I had never been to a mosque and I wanted to find out what it was about,” said Matthew Behrend, 27, who is getting his doctorate in electrical engineering. “I have some friends who are Muslims, but they don’t actually go to a mosque. They had a peaceful and unitarian message that I didn’t know was there. It was quite wonderful to experience.”
It was all part of Souljourn, a way for USC students to explore Los Angeles, the most religiously diverse city in the world. James Burklo, the associate dean of religious life who organized the outings, said within a mile of USC, there are 67 religious congregations.
The mosque was just one part of a whirlwind tour dozens of students took this semester.
The first stop was at the Senshin Buddhist Temple two blocks west of campus on Feb. 1. Burklo noted that there are more different kinds of Buddhists in Los Angeles than in Bangkok.
“There’s no better way to know your neighborhood than to worship or pray with the people who live in it,” Burklo said. “Being at USC offers you a remarkable opportunity not only to study the religions of the world, but to experience them firsthand.”
Students also visited the Thien Hau Taoist Temple in Chinatown and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church on West Adams. They attended the Ministerios Manantial de Amor, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church in the USC neighborhood, and they also found fellowship and food during a Jewish sabbath service.
They celebrated Holi, the Indian Festival of Colors in Huntington Beach. They worshipped at the Church of the Nazarene on Skid Row in downtown L.A.
Burklo described the scene as a “rocking, rolling service of amens and hallelujahs in a congregation consisting mostly of people who are homeless or very low-income.”
And they prayed at the Sikh Gurdwara in the Los Feliz area.
“We were greeted by a lovely older woman who explained the service to us,” Burklo wrote in a follow up e-mail to other USC students. “She talked about her own spiritual journey into the ‘knowledge of God.’ She led us into the dining area for a free, really delicious Indian vegetarian meal. We sat on the carpet in the sanctuary and listened to “bhajans” – chants in Punjabi accompanied by tablas and harmoniums – and prayed with the people. It was beautiful.”
For more information or to go on the next Souljourn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.