A Welcome Letter from John, a member of the Park51 Team

My name is John Lichten and I have been working at Park51 since September 2010.  I was raised Episcopalian and have been attending church (on and off) for most of my life.  Maybe this surprises you, as you might imagine Park51 as a purely Muslim organization – or maybe, you imagine it to be the so-called “Ground Zero Mega Mosque!”  To the contrary, the presence of non-Muslims like myself in the Park51 community hasn’t been a disruption; we view our presence here as something to be expected.

Park51 is a Muslim organization and so our work and goals remain closely tied to Islam. At the same time, our projects are not exclusionary; Park51’s events and projects are open to the community, Muslim and non-Muslim. Perhaps, my involvement in Park51 supports the way in which we can serve a diverse community and not only the Muslims in that community.

When I started at Park51, I didn’t know much about Islam or Muslim life in America.  I didn’t know many American Muslims, and while I’ve grown up seeing mosques or women in hijab (headscarf) in the city, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the faith.  And I know I wasn’t alone, as studies show that more than half of all Americans don’t know a Muslim, and many don’t even have basic knowledge of the faith. Since joining Park51, however, I’ve been able to observe Muslim services and rituals and have found it edifying.

Even with Park51‘s Muslim foundation, I don’t find myself out of place in the organization.  I’ve played an important role in finalizing our vision and mission and organizing and filming many of our interim services to begin this year.  My voice can be found on this website, in our press releases, and in many other places within Park51 communications.  Of course, it’s not just me that you read; these texts are collaborations amongst all of us at Park51. But if you ever thought, “who is this John Lichten on Facebook wishing Allah would reward all my efforts,” you were reading the work of me and my co-workers (FYI, Allah is not a “Muslim god,” it’s simply the name for God in Arabic).

While several of my co-workers are Muslim, including my boss, Sharif El-Gamal, my Christian background has never affected our interactions at work. Sharif is interested in my faith on a personal level, but what is most important to him is that I produce high-quality work.  Additionally, aside from the occasional breaks some co-workers take to pray, and a bit less ham in my sandwiches at lunch, the office is like any other in America.

When I reflect upon my conversations with my co-workers, and I think about the progress we have made, I realize the importance of our diversity to the success of the project. In our offices are Muslims, Christians, a Jew, and a Hindu. So while Park51 was conceived by Muslims, and it will reflect Muslim tradition, it is truly non-sectarian, like any other community center in this city. I invite you to come and be a part of it, too!

John Alfred Lichten has a BA in East Asian Studies and Film from Connecticut College, in New London CT.  He is an employee of Park51, where he works on programming and website/video development.  You may reach him at john.lichten@park51.org

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