Sit Down in This Circle

By Jeannine Sherman

December 21, 2022

I was feeling fragile in a new town, longing for community. There was an evening program at a masjid nearby, somewhere I’d never been before. I marveled at the designs and the calm warmth of the space.


There were two different speakers. Mostly I was content to just be in the worship space. The second speaker was from the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA). He told his personal story, and he talked about the need to empower the Muslim community through the existing legal system. He said we had to stand up for our rights, that it was possible to do this using the paths already tread by minorities in this country. He said that the rights you have are the rights you’re willing to fight for.


If the U.S. government or hateful people give the impression that you don’t belong or that you won’t be treated as fully American, that’s one thing. But if you yourself hold back and stay outside of the arena, if you exclude yourself, that’s different. How can we get to the place where we’re willing to be vulnerable, to be seen? How can we step into the circle and make a place for ourselves?


“Give us your hands, sit down in this circle
You know you got no need to keep yourself apart” – Kris Delmhorst, inspired by Rumi


After the speech, there was a noisy, shouting fundraiser that I didn’t like at all. My son got into the drama of it and volunteered a large sum of money on my behalf. Instead, I signed up for the mailing list.


I’ve long held a degree of admiration and respect for the law. I remember a remarkable friend from college who was attending law school. She said that we should all have access to law degrees, that it should be available on public television, like Sesame Street. I agree wholeheartedly.


What appeals to me about law and courts and all that American TV drama stuff is that you can take a stand. It’s about power. And of course in real life, it’s much less glamorous. But often, in many situations, if you hold on tight and don’t let go of the one thing you’re determined to change, you do get somewhere, even when it feels like a miracle.


When something is unfair, when you know someone’s being treated unfairly, when you know someone’s trying to get by and instead they’re squashed, you can appeal to the law.


Part of it is illusion, yes. Part of it is TV drama. But the other part is an access to power that was built into the American system to protect minorities, to protect someone who’s isolated or vulnerable. There are still good people who’ll listen to your story. There are people who care.


The connection I feel to the work we do at MLFA is about the forgotten, the ignored, the neglected, the rejected. I remember feeling that in middle school, watching the cruelty that kids can show, the urgent need to belong, and the cost of that belonging. It’s been growing all this time, the feeling that I have to look out for the one who doesn’t feel they belong, the one who’s excluded, pushed out, rejected. It’s not altruistic either – when we retrieve the rejected others, we retrieve the rejected parts of ourselves. There’s gold there, both on a personal and on a community level.


So how can we wrangle all these identities? Muslim, also American, and then maybe some wandering too, other places you’ve lived, other people you’ve related to, other groups you’ve belonged to… But people want a sound bite, not a story. They want you to tell them who you are in a neat capsule, so they can categorize you and move on. I look for ways to resist this process, even when it leaves things awkward.


“You don’t know everything about me, no
You don’t know everything about me, no
You don’t know everything about me, no
There’s some things about me you just don’t know” – Flocabulary


So for me, the MLFA seed was planted there in a masjid far, far away, many years ago.


Years later, my sister was in a tough situation at work. She had started covering her hair and body at work. Her boss started sending her articles about why Muslims didn’t have to wear hijab and lamenting about how pretty she used to look in short skirts.


There is a deeply American part of me that channels rage through the law – the refrain goes something like, “That’s against the law!” It feels like indignation. It feels like a channel to make things right, if you have the energy and determination to follow it to the end. It’s still messy and bureaucratic. It still helps to have lots of money, but it’s possible.


This sense of possibility is at the core of my identity. I am naively hopeful and optimistic to a fault. I’ll listen to all your reasons about how it’s so bleak and impossible – I’ll cry with you and rage with you and hurt with you. But all the while, all along, I’m looking for that glimmer of possibility.


There are in-between places of possibility and magic and wonder, if you’ll let your eyes adjust to the dark and stay open to these places. This is where my faith grows. And I have been in impossible situations, where there was clearly no way out and the odds were against me. I have experienced and witnessed those miracles and have come out whole.


That’s why I’m here, why I’m doing this work.


“How we can use what we have to make what we need” – Adrienne Rich


My sister was hurt that her boss was pretending to be her friend. She felt intimidated, like her job and relationships were at risk. Her boss explained that she was supportive and tolerant of Islam, but that she wasn’t comfortable with her clothing choices “as a friend”. Supporting and standing by my sister as she navigated this stressful situation, I remembered the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA). My sister ended up finding another job and moving on. But I remember that I was glad to know MLFA was there. I was relieved that there was some channel for this hurt, some possible path forward.


A few years after that, I was teaching second grade in the public school in my neighborhood. I saw an ad for a teaching job at a nearby French school. The school had caught my eye when I first moved here and was trying to help my son keep up his French. I applied for the job. The directrice quickly reached out to set up an online interview.


I’m always trying to figure out how to integrate the contradictions in myself and my friendships. For example, I used to throw a party every year or so and just invite everyone in my contact list – just to let them all mix together and see what would happen. Back in the U.S. after living in France, it was a struggle to integrate the different cultures and experiences. How could I integrate, for example, the intensely secularized policies of the French government with the individualism and religious freedom of the United States?


I didn’t think that the small, private school could offer much in the way of a career opportunity, but I wanted to have the conversation. The directrice was a bit aloof. But she was chatty and clearly interested in my teaching experience. The interview went pretty well. I started to let my guard down a little.


One of the last things she said was, “Well, you understand. You lived in France. Since we’re in a French school, I don’t think you’d be able to wear that scarf.” (Here she gestured vaguely.)


I was a bit surprised, but I didn’t respond. I just thought to myself, It’s illegal to say that in an interview in my country.


The directrice then backtracked, blabbering about the diversity of the students at the school.


It hurt. It hurt for that pompous French discrimination to reach me all those years later across the ocean. Religious freedom isn’t given freely. Religious freedom needs our engagement, our voices, our courage. It hurt to think that the people I’d loved and who’d loved me in France might now reject this version of me – all for a scarf wrapped around my head instead of my neck – only six inches between acceptance and rejection.


Some of us play tough, but we need each other.


“So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.” – Robert Frost


I was messed up about it for about a week, furious and sore-hearted. I filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a long bureaucratic process that may get you nowhere. Still, there was something satisfying about knowing it would be on record.

A wise friend gently suggested that I find a better channel for the anger. How could this powerful energy move bigger mountains than one little French school in my town? Would destroying her school or her reputation really help anyone? It wasn’t even really personal against her. It was more that it tapped into the disconnected parts of myself.


Again I remembered MLFA and went to the website. I wrote an email about volunteering. Here I am, a year later, learning about heartbreaking stories, struggling for justice as a community instead of seething with anger in a corner somewhere. I’m grateful to have found this channel for our hurt and separation and disconnection from the whole.


My prayer for you is a prayer of healing, of wholeness. May Allah give us the courage and perseverance to join the circle and show up for those who need someone on their side.