Winona Islamic Center founder Ahmed El-Afandi sat at a table Friday at Central Lutheran Church in Winona, exhausted but not without his voice, which he used to pass praise as far and wide as he could.
“(It’s) beyond description,” he said, of the church’s decision to offer the center worship space after it was destroyed by fire early Friday. “It’s very big of them.”
The open arms and doors of the Winona community has revealed the true colors of the city, he said.
“Winona is unique,” El-Afandi said. “We’re blessed here.”
Friday’s fire left little more of the Islamic Center than a vacant lot littered with debris, a sudden broken tooth in the line of buildings along East Third Street. Firefighters needed to move the wreckage quickly to avoid any concerns that it might reignite, leaving center members little opportunity to salvage any items. All that was left by Friday afternoon was blackened walls, heaps of burned debris and a large frame on the wall that formerly held written inscriptions from the Quran.
On Friday, the day Muslims gather for congregational prayer, about 15 members of the Islamic Center walked not through familiar doors but through the doors of Central Lutheran Church.
The doors had been propped open, a small sign of welcome.
“Know that we’re here for you,” one of the pastors said to El-Afandi.
The weary-looking group, nearly in unison, responded with a heartfelt thank-you.
As El-Afandi spoke of acceptance, hope, and faith, individuals kneeled on the floor, some pressing their foreheads against the ground while others sat cross-legged as they listened to the speech and prayer.
“The one thing Allah doesn’t want us to do is lose faith,” he said, his words quiet but powerful in the silent room. “Your car, your videos, your furniture. Everything comes to an end. You leave them behind. The only thing you bring with you is your faith.”
This is a test, he told those who had gathered. A challenge. A chance to make a new beginning. A chance to strengthen relationships with a community that has come to their aid in a time of distress.
Instead of concentrating on negativity, let’s concentrate on the positive, he said.
“Let’s look at what the church here did,” he said.
Staying positive is the only way to survive, he said.
The group wasn’t sure of what would come next, where they would gather. The Islamic Center was more than a place of worship. It was the center of their small community, bringing in people from La Crosse and other neighboring areas.
But they took heart in the fact that not one but two churches — First Congregational the other—reached out to them to offer space even before the flames above their center had died down.
“We have Jews, Christians, Muslims calling us today,” El-Afandi said. “Let’s make (this) an opening-up for better relationships with our neighbors.”