Taking an opportunity to open doors
Education grad Michael Townes puts his newfound faith into action
Photo by Dan Addison
By Anne Bromley
They took off their shoes as they entered the mosque. For some of the U.Va. students, it was a familiar place; for others, a new destination. Some women showed others how to don head scarves. Some men wore yarmulkes.
The evening of prayer, discussion about religion and breaking bread had begun at a program bringing Jewish and Muslim students together to celebrate their religions.
After talking about Islam and Judaism, the students headed to the Hillel Jewish Center, where the Muslim visitors could attend one of three services — orthodox, conservative or reformed. They gathered for dinner and socialized like any bunch of college students.
Michael Townes, a Charlottesville resident who graduates on May 22 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, participated two years ago in the first annual “Open Doors” event to encourage communication among different groups on Grounds. Townes described the experience as an “amazing opportunity to share these two traditions and faiths that have the same root and yet have somehow become the root of so many conflicts” worldwide.
Rewind almost two years earlier to Sept. 11, 2001. After America experienced its worst terrorist attacks in history, many students realized the need to understand and embrace each other’s differences. But Townes felt an added urgency — he had just converted to Islam a month earlier. Unshaken about his decision, Townes put his faith into action, first by speaking at teach-ins, and later by becoming active in the Muslim community.
Although he wasn’t brought up practicing any strict religion — he remembers visiting his grandmother’s country church only occasionally — Townes said he prayed regularly and felt God answered his prayers.
After graduating from Charlottesville High School, he headed a few blocks down the street to U.Va., like his mother and sister before him. (His mother earned her master’s degree here and his sister got her B.S. in psychology.)
Townes said he was unprepared for what seemed like competitive and superficial attitudes in some students; they seemed intent on getting a degree just to make money. Looking for more meaningful outlets, he became close friends with two fellow first-years in his dormitory, both of whom were Muslim. Their faith stirred his spiritual side; he realized that he missed praying. Right before his second year at U.Va., in 2001, he converted to Islam.
Townes expressed his newfound faith at the rallies and teach-ins that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. An important part for him, he said, was proving his sincerity to the small Muslim community in which he had begun to feel included.
“I read the Qur’an, and I don’t see where [the idea of] suicide bombing comes from,” said Townes.
“After 9/11, no Muslim could afford to remain indifferent to the damage that was done to the reputation of millions of Muslims around the world,” wrote religious studies professor Abdulaziz Satchedina, who recently took time during his sabbatical — in Iran, no less — to send an e-mail message about his former student. “Mike took up the challenge to show what it means to be a Muslim in the most unpleasant circumstances, both as a member of the Muslim community and as an African American,” said Satchedina, whose courses Townes considers among his favorites. (His undergraduate major was religious studies, while his master’s is in social studies education.)
Townes said he has felt acceptance of his religion at U.Va. He helped revive the Muslim Student Association and has been involved with the group’s interfaith activities. The MSA and Hillel Jewish Center won an award in 2003 for “Open Doors” being the best joint event to promote diversity.
Another particularly meaningful exchange for him was a gathering with Catholic students during Ramadan. Since fasting during the Muslim holy month takes place during daylight, breakfast must be eaten before sunrise (and dinner after sunset). Catholic students at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish hosted a pre-dawn breakfast for Muslim students in recognition of their practice.
“They really had to be committed to invite us for breaking fast [iftar in Arabic] before the sun came up,” Townes said.
He explained how Islamic sects are different from sects in Christianity. “We are not really debating the nature of God. We are still connected by practice, but small differences even can cause great conflict among the reactionary and educated Muslims of the modern world. I try to take a holistic perspective.
“One of my goals is to bridge gaps among cultures and sects,” Townes said.
He said he enjoys navigating the challenges of fulfilling his duties as a Muslim while living a Western life. Key to that is having the religious freedom to do so in this democratic country. Muslim extremists do see Western society as clashing with religious practice.
“Islam is not a secular religion — it’s more of a way of life that permeates
both public and private spheres,” Townes said. “I think the problem with extremists (in any religion) is that they see things in black and white … good versus evil.” He pointed out that the Qur’an says God created people “in nations and tribes that ye may know each other (and not despise each other).”
Townes distinguishes between the smaller Nation of Islam sect in the United States, led by Louis Farakkhan, and the more traditional,
orthodox version that Malcolm X turned to after he made the journey to Mecca. (One of Townes’ goals is to make a pilgrammage to Mecca, which is a dictum of Islamic practice.)
“The heritage of Malcolm X is he overcame hate, and when he saw the truth, he attested to it,” he said.
Townes thinks African-American men have been attracted to Islam because Mohammed’s message is that you can lift yourself up closer to God and rise above what you’ve been made.
Townes, who did his student teaching in ninth and 10th grade world history at Albemarle High School, will soon realize another of his goals. With two years of Arabic already under his belt, he will join the Peace Corps this summer and go to the Muslim country of Jordan, where he’ll likely teach children English.