Please Take off Your Shoes Before Entering the Masjed Door
A polite request taped to the door of Regent Park’s Umm Al Masjid.
Translated as Mother Masjid, it is a title sometimes given to the first masjid in a city. From that one masjid, all others spring forth.
In Regent Park, this title can only rightfully belong to the Regent Park Khadem Committee Centre in the basement of 260 Sumach Street.
Here we are. Tonight’s masjid…
I’ve been spoiled.
Prior to my first ever visit to any of the basement masjids in Regent Park back on Day 5, I had pre-conceived notions of a glorified laundry room with thin carpeting and perhaps a prayer mat for the Imam.
Tonight, my expectations are of a regular looking masjid and fully functioning community centre.
I will not be disappointed.
The Imam’s Mimbar (pulpit) is a simple construct of wood steps donned with a prayer mat. The peculiar floor plan allows for a de factor prayer niche, the mihrab.
I wonder about the Imam’s head when he stands, there are numerous ventilation ducts hanging everywhere. It is a very low ceiling.
Initially, I assumed the space I was seeing was it. That there was no more. Everything so far would be impressive alone. But there was more.
Because I have been balancing blogging, biking, late night and early morning prayers, sleep has become a premium. Many Muslims feel this way once they get into the groove of Ramadan. I steal naptime wherever I can.
I had fallen asleep in the RPKC prayer hall after Asr Prayers.
Shortly before Maghrib, a brother gently wakes me up and directs me through a door. Another revelation. It’s a complete carpeted office/library room with tables, bookshelves, posters, desk. This is the reception and admistrative area of the Community Centre. The prayer space was just the prayer space.
Passing through a second set of doors, an Iftar plate is created and handed over to me. I find a spot and park my butt. I am still tired, but attentive.
This was actually fun.
Simply was fun anticipating tonight’s break fast: boiled egg and chunks of fried fish and dark chick peas and a cup of Rooh Afza, the popular rose water drink many Sub-Continent Muslims now list among their Iftar must haves.
Kids are kids, sometimes they have too much fun. Even in Ramadan…
While waiting for Adhan Al Maghrib, the Sunset Call to Prayer, signalling eating time, the rambunctiousness of gradeschool aged boys in front of me has my attention.
A few minutes pass and a sleaveless middle-aged woman is standing at the room’s entrance. She’s pointing to the boys and saying something about her parked car.
Apparently one of the boys had done something to it. She saw him run away. But she didn’t have to run after him.
She knew exactly where to find him. And also when to find him.
The woman showed up shortly before sunset in the RPKC basement community centre. The grown-ups at the front door listened to her complaint, acknowledged it, apologized. They did not have to assure her the boy would be disciplined… Because she could see for herself in the next few moments…
An Elder Bengali brother walks to our end of the Iftar area, he asks which of them it was, in a very loud voice so it carries back to the front entrance and the ears of the woman who was wronged.
He begins, You think you are smart? You are NOT smart. She is smart. She knew where to find you.
With his stern gaze at the group, it barely takes a few seconds for all but one of the boys to begin pointing who it was.
The kid laments But I didn’t do anything!!!
The others begin their witness confessions. No Jail House Solidarity here.
Having ID’d the little one in need of a talking to, the Elder walks back to the woman. She seems satisfied. She Leaves.
Tonight, that village is Regent Park.
The boys begin laughing again, behaving as if they got away with something.
That one boy drops an F-bomb then goes Oops! looking around. The grown-up brother beside me takes ownership and admonishes him.
Adhan is called. We break fast.
They allow enough time for everyone to finish their plate before beginning the Sunset Prayer. I have found this moment to be a mixed experience in all the masjid hopping so far.
Some Masjids give you so much food, then immediately begin the prayer like 5 minutes after. We’re expected to scarf down Iftar.
RPKC allowed a reasonable ten plus minutes, it seemed they just waited until almost everyone had finished off their Iftar Plate then headed back to the prayer hall.
I’m enjoying the food and end up eating slow.
I join the Maghrib Prayer after the first rakat, the first prostration.
Afterwards, still having the munchies, I head back into the Iftar room and they are encouraging brothers to take what’s left.
Being the stranger, the guest, three brothers all encourage me to take everything that’s left.
I must eat outside. The masjid closes now and will re-open shortly before Isha prayers.
Sitting outside 260 Sumach on an easy summer’s evening with a huge plate of food. I am grateful.
As I eat, others are smoking. This would be their first cigarettes of the day.
Smoking, like eating and drinking, will break one’s fast.
Being around smokers has become an extremely rare event in my life. My sensitivity to smoke has only increased with the passage of time.
But we’re outside, the food is great! The smoking is taking place away from me.
Before the Iftar Smoke wraps up, I walk over, still with my iftar dinner plate in progress, and join the conversation.
This was the first Basement prayer space in any of the Regent Park apartment buildings. The process to secure this spot began in 2001. There is a bit of a debate as the brothers in front of me jostle trying to remember the exact dates and timeline of events.
Everyone agrees that by 2004, the Khadem was established pretty much as we see it now. Cleaned, walls painted, carpeted, and a functioning community centre.
Khadem means to To Help in Bengali.
I never am able to nail down the exact name of this prayer space.
RPKCC or RPKC. Regent Park Khadem Committee Centre or Regent Park Khadem Community Centre.
RPKCC/RPKC is run by a committee of nine elected members who are elected every three years.
This may be the last ever elected advisory committee who will oversee 260 Sumach.
In two years time, the Regent Park revitalization like The Borg in Star Trek is slated to arrive at this apartment block . It will be demolished to make way for Condos or Townhomes or something else.
But that something else will not include a prayer space or a new spot for Khadem to continue without rental funds being paid to the private developer.
Breadwinners of the 300 plus families who belong to this Masjid, barely make $15,000 a year driving cabs, being restaurant cooks, or driving a school bus.
Contributing to a monthly rent would be a burden for most.
But what the existence of Khadem has contributed to Regent Park for the past decade has been safety. As Muslims are frequenting 260 Sumach to pray in the early morning and late evening, they provide what Late Urbanist Jane Jacobs dubbed Eyes on the Street.
There is crime in Regent Park, no doubt. However, around these Muslim Basement Masjids? Crime dropped, too many Muslims with too many eyes looking out for the wider Regent Park Community.
Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) provides this basement at no cost. Yet they get a return on that investment in a lower crime rate, and self-organized community centre. Pretty good bargain.
I mention the brief episode with the Lady earlier who knew where to find the little boy who had wronged her car somehow.
The brothers slightly smile as I commend them on how they handled it.
The cigarettes are smoked. I am almost done my plate. The brothers head home to the apartments for family time until Isha Prayers back at 260 Sumach.
I’m wander back to the Tim Horton’s on Parliament for double cream double sweetener. I hope I can stay up during Taraweeh. Fighting sleep already.
During Taraweeh, I fall asleep. Not once, but numerous times. I sit out maybe 10 rakats drifting in and out of nap level sleep while waiting until Witr to join in the night’s final three rakats.
Even Witr was hard for me tonight.
But what’s truly hard is the uncertainty this social and religious community has experienced for the past four years and into the next 24 months, not knowing if or where or when the Regent Park Khadem Committee Centre will continue to exist post-revitalization.
Time is running out.
بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ وَٱلْعَصْرِ
إِنَّ ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ لَفِى خُسْرٍ
إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَعَمِلُوا۟ ٱلصَّٰلِحَٰتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا۟ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا۟ بِٱلصَّبْرِ
With the passage of Time
Indeed, Man is in loss,
Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.
— Qur’an, Surah 103, Al-`Aşr (The Declining Day)