After an arson completely destroyed a mosque on January 28, in Victoria, Texas, the local community responded in myriad ways to display its solidarity with the 150 or so Muslims who regularly worshipped at that mosque.
A nearby Jewish temple, as well as four Christian churches, offered up their prayer spaces to members of the Victoria Islamic Center as a temporary place for worship.
An estimated 400 supporters showed up at the site of the burned mosque for a prayer service Sunday morning.
A crowdfunding campaign raised $1.1 million in less than a week to rebuild the mosque.
Local architect Rawley McCoy offered to design the new space for free.
People offered up their trucks to haul dirt, their time to help clean the temporary mosque.
But it was a local Catholic school that came up with perhaps the most fitting response to the tragedy.
Less than a week after the fire, students and teachers at St. Joseph’s High School organized a “Walk of Love,” and presented the mosque’s imam with an oak seedling to be planted alongside the new mosque.
As the new mosque is built and as the Muslim community in Victoria continues to grow, so too will the oak tree — sending a lasting message to Victoria’s Muslims that they are an integral part of the community.
“One of the things that spurred us to help with the mosque fire is that they are our neighbors,” AP history teacher Drew Westfahl at St. Joseph’s told Global Citizen. “We’re on one side of the neighborhood and the mosque is on the other.”
St. Joseph’s High School is an establishment in Victoria. It was founded in 1868, just 44 years after the city was founded by Mexican rancher Martín De León, and now has about 300 students. The mosque, on the other hand, was newer — built in 1999.
Westfahl, along with English teacher Gretchen Boyle, worked with students to come up with ideas for how they could support their neighbors in a way that went beyond giving financially through the crowdfunding campaign.
In the brainstorming session one student suggested giving the community a plant of some kind, which Westfahl agreed was a good idea.
“Our campus has these beautiful old oak trees and we actually have seedlings from the oak trees,” Westfahl said.
The gift of the oak sapling symbolized unity and togetherness in the face of darkness.
“Life is life no matter where it is — if it’s here on the campus of St. Joseph’s High School or if it’s there on the side of their masjid,” he said. “It’s beautiful and affirming to everyone who’s a part of it, that our community is their community, and their community is our community.”
On Thursday, just six days after the fire, an estimated 200 St. Joseph’s students, teachers, and other community members made the 0.7-mile walk to the mosque. Dozens of them carried signs, which contained statements of solidarity with the Muslim community.
“You cannot love your brother across the world if you do not love your neighbor across the street,” one sign read.
“Love, not hate, makes America great,” another read.
“The storm will pass, because we are united,” said a third sign, in English and in Arabic.
Several students gave speeches, as did the mosque’s imam Osama Hassan and treasurer Abe Ajrami, before students presented the community with the oak tree, which now sits in the grass of the mosque’s property, halfway between the rubble of the destroyed structure and a small children’s play area that survived the fire.
To Westfahl, this sort of response was only natural for a community that has for many years welcomed Muslims into its fabric.
“They’re super integrated into the community, they’re community leaders, we had a Muslim run for mayor a few years ago by the name of Omar Rachid,” he said. “In that sense I think we’re probably a little unique for the South.”
The way the community coalesced around the Muslim community in the aftermath of the fire was a product of a town that emphasizes getting to know your neighbor, even if they may not look or worship the same way you do.
“All it takes at the end of the day is spending time with other people, being willing to have conversations with them, and it’s amazing what you can get out of that simple willingness to spend time with other people,” Westfahl said.