By Rebecca Steinitz
In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 28, 2017, fire destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center, a gold-domed mosque that was home to a thriving congregation of 150 members in Victoria, Texas. The flames erupted just hours after President Trump issued the executive order commonly known as “the Muslim ban,” which barred citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Although Victoria officials and community members cautioned against drawing conclusions about its cause, news of the fire spread quickly, generating a remarkable local and global response.
By the end of the day, four churches and the local synagogue had offered their sanctuaries to the displaced congregation. The architect who designed the mosque volunteered his services for the rebuilding effort, and individuals offered a handmade prayer rug and a truck to haul dirt. The next morning, an estimated 400 people showed up to an interfaith prayer service held in front of the Center’s blackened remains, where representatives of the mosque, the synagogue and local churches spoke.
At the end of the service, a letter was read from retired pastor Bill Hassel, who can no longer speak due to ALS. It concluded, “We need you, we love you and we respect who you are and what you represent. Please call on us for whatever you need.”
Though Hassel wrote the letter on behalf of the local interfaith group Communities of Faith, he could have been representing the tens of thousands of people worldwide who were already heeding the call to meet the mosque’s needs. On the day of the fire, the Victoria Islamic Center launched a GoFundMe campaign that went viral almost immediately, raising over $300,000 by midafternoon. The campaign was shared 103,000 times on Facebook and stopped accepting donations within a week, after raising 1.2 million dollars from more than 23,000 donors in 90 countries. Stories about its success were reported everywhere from the New York Times and Fox News to England, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Few were surprised when the fire was ruled arson on February 8. And on March 3, a local suspect was identified and arrested on unrelated charges. Although he has not been charged as of this writing, investigators revealed that he was in possession of items stolen from the mosque and has made anti-Muslim comments and social media posts.
Since the 2015 attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, there has been a notable rise in threats and violence aimed at American mosques, with over 60 incidents so far in 2016 and 2017. Yet none of those events received the same degree of attention. Why was the Victoria Islamic Center such a flashpoint? And why was Victoria the epicenter for such support?
For one thing, there was the timing. Victoria Islamic Center member and spokesperson Omar Rachid pegged the passionate response directly to Trump’s executive order. “People were already outraged by the ban,” he said. “Subsequently, a few hours later, when the mosque burned down, people were outraged because it was un-American. Almost every single donation came with a comment of support saying this is not the America we know, we value you, you are welcome to whatever worship you want.”
The religion writer for the Victoria Advocate, Jennifer Preyss, also identified a larger political and social impetus. “It was the polarizing volatility of the election season,” she said. “It’s this movement that’s happening in little pockets of America. People are tired of fighting. They want community. People want to be the person that chooses to go over and smile at their unfamiliar neighbor, rather than pointing at them because they practice a different faith.”
And then there is Victoria itself. Aptly nicknamed the “Crossroads of South Texas,” Victoria is approximately equidistant from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi. It has just over 60,000 residents, nearly 100 churches, four McDonald’s, two hospitals and a farmers market. Victoria’s residents are mostly white and Hispanic, in almost equal numbers, with a small black population and an even smaller representation of other groups; 6.5% were not born in the United States. In the fall of 2016, 68.5% of Victoria voters supported Trump, 28.5% went for Clinton, and the Victoria East High School football team made it to the fourth round of its division playoffs. In short, Victoria is an ordinary American small city, Texas-style.
But a closer look reveals Victoria’s pride in being friendly and neighborly, a “tolerating community,” as Hassel put it. As a small city, “we’re all in this together,” said Robert Loeb, president of Temple B’Nai Israel, the synagogue in Victoria that offered mosque members the use of its sanctuary.
Loeb said he has always felt welcome in Victoria, which has had a small (and now dwindling) Jewish community since the middle of the nineteenth century. He, in turn, has welcomed the Muslim community, which has been growing since the first arrivals about three decades ago. Loeb recalled, “It took me a nanosecond to know that [offering the sanctuary] was the right thing to do. Here’s 150 Muslims in town and only about 25 Jews. We’ve got a beautiful temple that we use four times a year. These people pray five times a day. It just made sense.”
Rachid agrees with his friend Loeb. “The community is very tolerant, people are extremely nice,” he said. “It’s a melting pot on its own; we have never felt a sense of discrimination or concern about us being Muslims.” Rachid himself has chaired the Victoria United Way and Chamber of Commerce and ran for mayor a few years ago, losing by fewer than 200 votes.
One more notable point about Victoria is that its religious leaders were already meeting regularly. After the police shootings in Dallas last summer, Hassel invited local religious leaders to join him in forming Communities of Faith because he wanted to be prepared if a similar event happened in Victoria. Although Hassel noted that some pastors declined to participate because they disagreed with the group’s mission or felt their congregations would not support it, ultimately twenty-eight leaders responded to his call. Communities of Faith now meets monthly.
“Little did we know that this burning of the mosque would happen,” Hassel said, reflecting on the group’s role. “However, when it did, we already had in place a group of religious leaders that stood together against violence, hate and actions of intolerance. When the fire happened we were the first to lend our love, support, prayers and community action to help.”
Today, the Victoria Islamic Center is moving forward. The mosque site is now a smooth patch of dirt ready for construction. The gold dome was removed from the ruins and will be restored to the roof of the new mosque, whose plans have already been drawn up. And since the GoFundMe ended, the Islamic Center has received over $300,000 in individual donations, as well as countless expressions of support in person, through the mail and on social media.
“On the day of the fire, I cried because when someone burns your house of worship, it’s like giving you an eviction notice from the community,” said Rachid. “The tears that day were tears of sadness. But the tears the next day were tears of joy, of the comfort we have experienced. The people wanted to send a message of solidarity, a message of love. They did not want bigotry and discrimination to win.”
Story: Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and literacy consultant in Boston.
Photos: Adriana Monsalve is an in-depth story teller whose documentary work is found at the intersections of identity and race. She is the Master Artist Grant winner of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC). For the time being, she is located on the border of US/Mex in Laredo, TX. She is documenting the many layers and nuances of the immigrant story. She serves as an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Texas A&M International University.
Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.