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A world of welcome

My favorite memory from church did not take place in the sanctuary where I grew up. It didn’t happen close to home. It didn’t even happen stateside. I was studying abroad in Tanzania and went to an Ash Wednesday service with co-workers and friends I had met while working in Moshi. We walked through our village, making turns I had yet to take, and like a mirage a cotton candy colored sanctuary appeared in front of the famous mountain, Kilimanjaro. The space wasn’t big enough for everyone to fit, but we were in constant motion making room and greeting one another. There were no windows — just open rectangles where the breeze and birds flew in and out. 

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

It was with those Tanzanians where I realized the power of faith and how much it mattered in my life to be a witness of it. I have traveled to six of the seven continents and make a point to experience religion in all its forms. I have attended Easter service at the Catedral Santa Maria de la Sede in Spain, visited the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, greeted the sunrise with monks in Laos, spent the Advent season at a church in Australia, and only hope to see more.  

“Open hearts, open minds, open doors” — it is a saying within the United Methodist Church, but I have felt it in all my travels and most recently at a place very close to home. Wanting to explore the stories at the intersection of faith and education, I made a visit to the Islamic Center of Raleigh and was greeted enthusiastically by Fiaz Fareed, the outreach director at the Islamic Association of Raleigh.

Fiaz Fareed in front of the Islamic Center of Raleigh. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Originally from India, Fareed moved from New Jersey to Raleigh in 1996. He felt his children could have better educational opportunities in the Triangle. Currently his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are all educators while his niece is the new principal of the Al- Iman School, which is housed in the same building as the Center. Touring the facility, it is as Fareed says, both a “place of play, place to pray.”

As we moved from gymnasium to classroom to worship space to community garden, Fareed enlightened me on the Islamic faith and the services they provide to people regardless of religion. The Center has a food pantry open to the public the first Saturday of every month, and extra produce from their garden is given to those in need. 

One of my favorite moments with Fareed occurred when I insisted he take a call as his phone had been ringing off the hook. It was a teacher from a local high school asking if she could bring her class to the Center. He says educators from all over bring students for field trips when they are studying eastern religion. His hope is to always “further the mutual cause of promoting education and understanding.”

He tells me that in Islam, “Knowledge is considered to be the power of goodness.”

As I leave with my new Quran in hand, I can’t help but feel like I have gone on a long trip and arrived back at my doorstep in the same afternoon. Fiaz Fareed embodies the spirit of welcome, and I can only hope to do the same as I continue visiting places of worship and the people who believe.  

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.