It was a beautiful fall day, out of season by at least a month. I wandered through Georgetown, down residential streets filled with gold and red leaves dripping off onto the ground. Everything looked like pictures carefully composed for the October page of a calendar. I drove up Wisconsin to Massachusetts and parked to see the National Cathedral. I am an Episcopalian so always feel like it is 'mine' and I am not simply some tourist. The last time I saw it was a rainy dreary day and it looked dark and forbidding. Today the sky was cotton puff perfect and the stone of the cathedral positively sparkled. I walked through, as I always do, looking again at the stained glass windows. They were made by a master craftsman, Rowen LeCompte, who worked on them for years. I met him briefly once. He was one of those extraordinary people you meet by chance and then never forget. To our surprise we discovered that he was living in a house built at the beginning of the last century by my grandfather, another master craftsmen in his way.
Around the preacher's perch are the same stone carvings I saw back when I first visited the cathedral years ago. At the time I was fascinated by the skill of the carvers who seemed to be able to handle stone as if it were damp clay and by the historical scenes they had created. One was of the signing of the Magna Carta, another of William Tyndale. When I stand before them it is as if the intervening 40 years disappear.
For reasons explained earlier, the mosque was my next stop. It is officially the "Islamic Center". In the late afternoon light it seemed much smaller, more mundane, than I remember. Women with head scarves and men who looked North African were hurrying towards it. The women were in pairs, talking, looking bright and animated. The men were alone, drab, and serious. I parked behind it, or rather behind the embassy that is behind it, on a secluded street with stupendous homes. Walked into the courtyard. The first time I saw the mosque it was marvelous, something out of the Arabian nights. The last time it was hostile, foreboding. Today it seemed a bit worn, and altogether normal. People were inside praying, and I saw no sign of non Muslims, which was not the case the times before. I simply stood at the door for a few minutes and went on my way.
Perhaps it is simply me, but the place no longer seemed exotic. It seemed like it belonged there, that a community of everyday, normal people who are Muslim use it as their place of worship. It is no longer a showcase, Islam's best face to the Americans.
So from my house of God to theirs in three minutes. A few years ago my lady and I came out of Pleasure Island at Disney World, drove down the highway a few blocks, made a wrong turn, and suddenly found ourselves in the parking lot of a mosque on Friday evening. There were no signs marking it, it was simply there, right outside Disney World. Welcome to America.
[addendum 21 Nov 05: Alas for memory. I distinctly remember a large fountain in front of the Islamic Center at the steps. There is no such fountain.]