The Muslim Center of Greater Princeton in West Windsor has come a long way as it gets ready to celebrate the first anniversary in its new building.
Imam Adeyinka Muhammad Mendes says that the mosque, located on Old Trenton Road, has doubled the attendance at its Friday service to close to 1,000 people in the past 12 months.
“This has been an amazing growth opportunity because we went from a place that was around 1,000 square feet to a 30,000 square foot facility,” Mendes says.
“Like Bonsai trees, once you put them in a larger bucket, they actually shoot up—they don’t stay miniature trees,” Mendes says.
The congregation has come a long way since it started with about 350 families when it was founded two decades ago.
The new building, which opened last May, was constructed by the Muslim Center (also known as the Institute of Islamic Studies) as the new home for its congregation, which had previously worshipped in a small commercial space in East Windsor.
Before that, the group had leased space up and down U.S. 1 over the years.
In addition to a large increase in the number of worshipers, the Muslim Center has grown more diverse over the past 12 months—in line with the mosque’s vision of itself as a multicultural community.
“Before, the mosque was mostly a Pakistani-Indian Muslim community, with few people from other cultures,” Mendes says. “Now we have lots of African Americans, Egyptians, white Americans, Puerto Ricans, West Africans and Turks.”
Mendes, who rejects a “fire and brimstone message,” focuses on a relationship with God of love, not fear or seeking reward. “I think that is a message that resonates with a lot of people looking for spiritual rejuvenation, even spiritual awakening and enlightenment,” he says.
Mendes also credited his board, which he says is “very focused on strategic planning and bringing in new energy and talent into the community and has made a commitment to transparency.”
“There’s always room for improvement, even with myself, but I think people are encouraged to see lot of the right things going on in one place,” he says.
The new building has enabled the mosque to expand its programming. It houses two academies, one devoted to the Qur’an and the other to teaching subjects ranging from Arabic to theology, jurisprudence and spirituality.
A women’s book club meets twice a week, working through “Joy Jots: Exercises for a Happy Heart” by Tamara Gray. Children have been part of the mosque’s summer camp and a Ramadan program. Athletics also bring people together, including a karate class for children and adults, and via several ping pong tables, where avid players practice regularly and the mosque hosted an interfaith ping pong tournament.
Two large multipurpose rooms have hosted numerous weddings, fundraisers, award ceremonies, play productions and even a huge international bazaar.
* * *
The Muslim Center’s success over the first year has been somewhat dampened by continued violence against Muslims around the globe, including an attack on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 51.
Concerns with safety and security influenced the design of the West Windsor mosque, which has biometric locks, one-way glass and alarm systems.
Mendes says that the Muslim Center has been working with the township police from the beginning. “They have been outstanding consultants and partners. From the first Friday service, with about 1,000 people, they had police cars and law enforcement there to show visibly that the safety of the congregation is really important,” he says.
Even before the New Zealand shootings, the mosque hired a security firm and made critical enhancements in its security protocol and technology.
After New Zealand the mosque “took it up even more notches.” New Jersey’s director of Homeland Security, when visiting the mosque on May 3, “praised our security protocols and processes as being second to none in New Jersey,” Mendes says.
He also invited the mosque’s security team to speak at an upcoming conference on security at houses of worship that will have about 2,000 attendees.
“We are very proud of that, but it’s kind of bittersweet,” he says. “We live in a world where our most vulnerable places have to be so well fortified, not just with technology and training but with prayers,” Mendes says. “We ultimately believe that God protects our institutions, homes and people. The balance for me has been to make sure people feel safe and that it is welcoming and friendly and there is still an atmosphere of sacredness.”
Concerning the most recent killings in houses of worship, which also took place in Sri Lanka and Poway Chabad, Mendes asks, “How do you grieve? Grieving is a process, and you’re constantly going back to the beginning—I can’t imagine how mental health care providers are dealing with it—the 20th anniversary of Columbine, copycats, people who want to celebrate that with more carnage.”
Rather than gatherings in memoriam, Mendes is looking at a different kind of response in the future. “My hope is we tap into that as a community, as artists, and as religious leaders, and use it for something good, to change the culture.”
* * *
Mendes recently fulfilled a Muslim obligation to visit the three sacred cities of Muslim tradition—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. His experiences of interfaith solidarity in the United States following the recent violence at houses of worship opened him up to the potential for bringing together different faiths abroad, particularly in Israel. His pilgrimage as a scholar with 48 pilgrims from Tarek al-Messidi’s Celebrate Mercy, which educates people about the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad, was renewing personally and left him with important messages to bring back to his mosque.
He says that a critical reason he chose to travel with Celebrate Mercy was its “amazing interfaith work” and Al-Messidi’s role in initiating efforts to raise funds to repair desecration at a St. Louis Jewish cemetery in 2017, and to support the victims of the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and their families in 2018. He also hoped to encourage his congregants to add Jerusalem to “their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage,” which is often just to Mecca and Medina.
For Mendes, Jerusalem was a homecoming, because a visit there at age 16, he says, “changed my life.” During the trip, which exposed him to all aspects of Israeli society, they visited the Muslim quarter.
When Mendes, then Christian, and his cousin, wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt, were exiting the Dome of the Rock, they encountered an old man. They greeted him in Arabic, and he returned their greeting, asking about the picture on the t-shirt.
When they told him it was an American Muslim, he asked if they were Muslim. They said no, and he asked whether they believed in one God. When they responded in the affirmative, he said, “In that case, you’re my brother.”
“That was the culmination of what my experience in Israel led up to: I felt called to the oneness of god,” Mendes says. “The fact that he could profess to embrace me as a brother—he was old enough to be my grandfather and from a different culture and religion—for me that just concretized the power of belief in one God.”
In the Al-Aqsa complex, Mendes was constantly aware that “there is no inch of ground where there wasn’t a prophet who had walked or prayed or prostrated upon,” including the biblical kings Solomon and David; Jesus Christ and Mary; and the Prophet Muhammad.
“There’s a message there for all people,” Mendes says. “These are icons, people, and whether or not you believe they existed, they are symbols of incredible sacrifice and transcendence, and this is a place they all shared—yet we are fighting over it.”
Sad for him was that in Jerusalem, for the most part, “you don’t really see people of different religions talk to each other or smile at each other.” Even tourists seem to avoid eye contact.
“All these religions talk about the importance of loving the neighbor and embracing the stranger,” Mendes says. “There’s a lot more we can do, as people of religion and faith, as people who are culturally tied to these places, to honor the guest and honor the other. That was the lesson I took: I would like to see the interfaith community in America be more proactive in breaking walls and barriers in Jerusalem.”
“I don’t think its enough for us to just give lip service to tolerance here in America,” he says. “I know these are contentious political issues, but I think the interfaith community can help bring a more compassionate approach to what the politicians and the legislatures are doing.”
The actual mission started in Jordan with a visit to a local sage who gave them insight into the meaning of pilgrimage. “He gave us lot of insight into what we were doing—we weren’t just there to see places; we were there to transform, to become better human beings.”
During their trip the pilgrims made efforts to establish a sense of relationship with people they met and to “give back” during their journey, Mendes says, and that happened in some unusual ways.
At the border between Jordan and Israel, despite long waits and extensive background checks, people remained upbeat. Not only did those who got through quickly cheer and sing when a fellow pilgrim made it through, but they also cheered Israeli customs officials leaving work for the day.
“It was cool,” Mendes says, “because relations between Muslims and Jews in Israel are very tense. To see people smiling and welcoming you at the end of your day who are not Jewish—that was a great show of human compassion. They appreciated it, and some of them even danced.”
They planned way ahead of time how they would commemorate Muhammad’s miraculous night journey and ascension at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem. Muslims believe that the Angel Gabriel miraculously took Muhammad on on a tour from Mecca to Jerusalem. There Muhammad led the spirits of other prophets in prayer, then ascended up to the heavens and beyond the heavens, “where he communed with God directly, beyond time and space,” Mendes explains.
The day before the celebration, the pilgrims packed 600 bags of candy. The day of, while sitting on the steps of the Dome of the Rock, Mendes says, “We started singing songs praising God and songs celebrating Muhammad’s night journey and his life and passing out candy, and before you know it about 500 people were around us.”
After Jerusalem, in Mecca the group performed the minor pilgrimage, called Umrah, which takes two to three hours (as opposed to the hajj, which lasts four to five days). This involved walking around the Kaaba, as Abraham and the angels circled the throne of God, and trotting between the two mountains where Muslims believe Hajar walked to find water for her son Ismail.
In Medina, their last stop, they prayed in the mosque of Prophet Muhammad and visited his burial site and those of his followers. But to give back, they slipped tips to the custodial staff and bought shawarma to feed to stray cats.
“It was important for us to do things that were not just about our personal worship,” Mendes says.