Adeel Ahmad arrived at Nusrat Mosque in Coon Rapids just before 1 p.m. last Friday.
Ahmad, a youth director at the mosque, was there to open the building for the Friday prayer. But there was something in the way. Someone had tied something to the plants outside the door.
There was a big heart, the kind you'd give to a loved one on Valentine's Day, that just said "Love." And next to it, a pink envelope: "To Our Friends and Neighbors" read the neatly printed script, words underlined for emphasis.
Ahmad describes feeling "pure happiness and joy" as he opened the envelope to find a short note written.
"Dear Friends," it began. "Thank you for being here. You make all of us stronger, better and kinder. May peace be with us all."
The note was signed by the names of a couple, who also signed on behalf of "Coon Rapids family."
The mosque received a nearly identical note about a week ago from someone whose daily walk took them by the building, and said the presence and its congregants made them feel at peace.
In both cases, Ahmad has no idea who the 'lovely neighbors" are. But he knows what their words mean.
"Just scrolling through, and looking at news articles, people are extremely polarized," he says. "They're so ingrained with their values, and hardcore beliefs, don’t want to engage in dialogue or be proven wrong, and that leads to isolation. A note like this is really insuring that you know you might not be a part of our mosque, but that we are still valued as neighbors. It’s really a big prayer that’s answered."
Opened in 2015, Nusrat is the state's only mosque representing the Ahmadiiya chapter of Islam. Because it's the only one in the area, many members travel to reach it: Ahmad drives in from neighboring Brooklyn Park, but says some come from as far as Minneapolis, Rochester, Duluth -- even North Dakota.
Aside from the commuters, Ahmad says there's "quite a big Afghani and Iraqi population in Coon Rapids."
Those citizens might have had cause to feel unwelcome, or at least uncertain, after a horrifying 2015 incident at an Applebee's in Coon Rapids, when a local smashed a beer glass into the face of Asma Jama, who was wearing a hijab and speaking in Swahili. (In court, Jama dramatically forgave her attacker, Jodie Burchard-Risch, who received a 180-day jail sentence for the assault.)
Ahmad says he's been "very fortunate" to always feel welcome in and around town.
"It doesn't matter where you go -- the police station, or city hall, or the Cub Foods down the street," he says. "It's very diverse, and people are comfortable around each other."
But there is still work to be done. Citing recent polling that indicates about half of Americans claim to have never even spoken with a Muslim, Ahmad and the mosque's youth group are taking it upon themselves to solve that problem.
When it warms up in the spring, they plan to hold "Meet a Muslim" events in public spaces, where non-Muslims are invited to come say hello, put faces and names to the religion, and ask any questions about Islam or its followers. Before the thaw, they might do the same at an area coffee shop -- first, buying a round of coffee and cake for everyone there.
"Not having that experience of knowing somebody who is Muslim, if you are exposed to a lot of negative perceptions, it's reasonable one would have doubts and prejudices about what to expect."
Ahmad's heartened at least a couple local households don't need any more evidence, though he wishes he knew who these people were so he could thank them, and invite them inside.
"These," he says, "are the people who really rejuvenate our community."
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