For months, Jasmine Snell watched the walls of an enormous white building rise near her home at Davison and Woodrow Wilson in Detroit. When it opened in January, the buzz around the neighborhood was that the new building contained a gymnasium that sometimes was open to neighborhood kids for basketball.
This was a dream come true for Jasmine, 17, a Central High School junior who's not much taller than 5 feet, but who loves shooting hoops, especially going toe to toe with guys who tower over her on the court. That's why Snell, a Baptist, dared to take her first step inside a mosque.
"I just had to check this out," she told me Tuesday night at the Muslim Center of Detroit after making an impressive basket, shooting right over the heads of guys trying to block her shot. She zipped past bigger ball players, her grin widening with each shot she nailed.
That's when I realized I was glimpsing a major milestone in metro Detroit's religious history. For decades, an almost universal desire among local Muslim families has been that, one day, they would be accepted as part of the mainstream religious landscape.
Muslims and their non-Muslim friends certainly have worked hard on this. I've attended countless interfaith conferences, open houses and field trips to mosques. But, until this recent period of multimillion-dollar expansions at a half-dozen local mosques, the Muslim community remained a fairly exotic corner of our religious world. That was partly due to cramped quarters and a general lack of amenities that might draw non-Muslim neighbors.
When I reported May 11, 2005 about the opening of the $14-million Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, non-Muslim readers peppered me with questions about how they could arrange to visit. The Dearborn mosque is now a major metro Detroit landmark, a stunning slice of Middle Eastern design with a 60-foot-tall dome.
This week, to further explore how far the welcome mats are extending from Muslim centers, I decided to visit a new mosque that's not such a high-profile attraction.
Imam Abdullah El-Amin, the longtime head of the mosque on Davison, told me, "I can't believe the number of people who've been coming here now that we've opened the new building."
Since its founding in 1985, the Muslim Center's main Friday prayer services usually drew fewer than 100 people. The original mosque was a remodeled, 3,000-square-foot bank building.
After $1.7 million in construction, plus donated labor by many members, 22,000 square feet of space have been added to the original building, including the gym, a huge prayer hall, classrooms, conference rooms and offices.
"Now, we're getting 350 to 400 Muslims for our Friday prayers," the imam said. He's just as pleased by the number of non-Muslim neighbors who've dropped by the mosque, simply to shoot hoops, watch the kids play or ask him a few questions.
He pointed a finger at me and stressed, "Be sure to tell your readers that this is not just open basketball. This is a program about responsibility, too."
A mosque employee, Shakir Muhammad, referees on the court and mixes the basketball with impromptu messages about good behavior. Occasionally, he leads the kids out into the streets around the mosque to pick up litter.
Neighbors now stop by to thank the mosque staff for letting their kids play and for cleaning up the streets, El-Amin said. And the non-Muslim visitors are discovering that there's nothing to fear inside this house of God. No one pressures them to convert.
Here's how Jasmine Snell put it: "When I first came over here, I did wonder how different this place would be, because I'm a Christian and all. But I love basketball. This place is right across the street from my house. I had to come over here. And, what I've found out is: This place is just cool."
David Crumm is a columnist for Detroit Free Press