Juniors Tamzid Rahman and Mohga Behairy carefully scooped up dirt from the mound on the Writing Center parking lot and shoveled the soil into a bucket, filling it up to a smattering of applause.
The bucket of dirt is the symbolic first step in “breaking the ground” for the Muslim Students of the University of Miami’s goal to begin construction of the University of Miami Islamic Center (UMIC) in a year’s time.
Held after the Dalai Lama’s talk on Tuesday, the symbolic groundbreaking event was organized by the Muslim Students of the University of Miami (MSUM) and made part of the three day Hand in Hand Conference.
Although it was just a simple half hour ceremony, it was MSUM’s way of jump-starting the plans for building the UMIC; plans which started 20 years ago, but never got anywhere due to funding and planning problems.
“Over 20 years the process comes to a stop,” said junior Adam Aldahan, president of MSUM. “A lot of people are getting impatient about it and we want to revive that hope.”
Out of the three major monotheistic faiths, two of them have their houses of prayer on campus, but Islamic students have no set location for them to conduct their prayers. As Muslims pray five times a day, seven days a week, this was an issue for the Islamic community.
With no specific place to go to, Muslim students pray in places such as the University Center Ballrooms, and currently occupy one of the apartment building rooms, which they converted into a mosque.
But with 350 to 400 followers of the Muslim faith on campus, the area which barely fits 50 people is highly inadequate for everyone who goes there for Jumu’ah, their Friday afternoon prayers.
Although Micelli Bianchini, project manager of the UMIC, admitted that he was just being optimistic in starting construction in 12 months, MSUM’s main challenge at the moment is to get their building design reapproved and raise enough funds.
According to Aldahan, this year MSUM had a group who decided they weren’t going to sit around and wait for UMIC to be built. Instead they are tackling every single way to raise awareness and raise funds for the mosque, including holding the symbolic groundbreaking event during the Hand in Hand conference addressing interfaith relations.
“The aim of our symbolic groundbreaking is close to the conference theme,” Aldahan said. “It’s the perfect way to publicize and get the school’s support.”
Intent on following the theme of pluralism and gathering support for their goal, MSUM invited Father Frank Corbishley from the Episcopal Church Center and Rabbi Baruch Plotkin from The University of Miami Hillel to attend the symbolic groundbreaking event.
In the midst of respectful silence, Rabbi Plotkin blessed the land and Corbishley said a prayer for the center. Both stated their goodwill towards the new house of prayer and hoped for an enrichment of diversity and mutual respect on the campus.
This gathering of leaders from different faiths was a touching scene for those present.
“It really warmed my heart to see the Rabbi and the Father,” said sophomore Sheikh Ali, vice president of MSUM. “It was beyond my expectations. I expected them to give their support and I knew that they were going to say some good words, but not to the extent of the Father actually praying for us. And I think that brings us together more.”
As a chaplain on the University Chaplain Association and the Episcopal Church Center, Corbishley also attended a similar land dedication ceremony which was held by the previous planners of the UMIC construction project.
He expressed his hopes that this time the plans for the center will truly come to fruition and that it was long overdue for the Muslim students to have their own house of prayer.
“Ten years ago it was done by the administration,” Corbishley said. “But we didn’t have the funding. So this time it’s a student led initiative. The University would be ecstatic that this happened, rather than an administration initiative.”
In his blessing of the land, Rabbi Plotkin emphasized that this is a generation of dialogue. According to him, it’s important that there is a community of worshipers who can support and celebrate with each other.
“In a world of tension with religious diversity we can really serve as a beacon of light towards shared respect,” he said.
Things appear to be working out for MSUM and their pushing for actual groundbreaking in a year’s time. Those who attended the symbolic groundbreaking thought it went well.
“I think it’s admirable of the students to start this,” freshman Ali Fishman said. “It’s great they keep making effort. It’s overdue for the Muslim students to have a place to pray.”
Esther Pang may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.