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Imam's Wife a Bridge Between Two Worlds

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Imam's Wife a Bridge Between Two Worlds

Imam's Wife a Bridge Between Two Worlds

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Over the past few months, we've been running an occasional series on the next generation of religious leaders. We've heard several times about a Muslim cleric in Manassas, Virginia, named Sheikh Rashid Lamptey.

Well, today, we meet the imam's wife.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, that Jerusha Lamptey has become a conspicuous symbol of Islam to people both inside and outside the mosque.

Sheikh RASHID LAMPTEY (Imam): (Singing in Arabic)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: For the men kneeling quietly in the prayer room at Dar Al Noor mosque, the imam's voice is a haunting invitation to meditate on the divine.

(Soundbite of infant crying)

HAGERTY: Not so much for the women upstairs. About three dozen sit on the floor, nursing babies and grabbing toddlers as they careen around the room. Somewhat oblivious to the chaos around her, one woman cradles her little daughter.

Ms. JERUSHA LAMPTEY (Wife of Imam Sheikh Rashid Lamptey): Did you see your daddy? I told you we will come and see your daddy.

HAGERTY: She's the imam's wife. Dressed in flowing pink, she blends in nicely with the largely immigrant crowd until she looks up.

Ms. LAMPTEY: I think for a lot of people I become like a walking version of the anti-stereotype.

HAGERTY: Jerusha Lamptey is 32 years old and she grew up in Connecticut.

Ms. LAMPTEY: Just seeing me and seeing that I don't have an accent, that underneath the scarf, yes, I'm a white girl, and that, you know, I know American culture, that's my culture — it breaks down walls that any amount of information can't break down.

HAGERTY: After the sermon, Jerusha weaves her way through the crowd. She waves to congregant Amalia Rehman.

Ms. AMALIA REHMAN (Congregant): I was expecting, when I was going to meet her, to see this woman that had like a burkha on — you know, from Ghana or something, you know what I mean? So when I met her I said what? That's his wife? I can't believe that.

HAGERTY: Sometimes, neither can Jerusha.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LAMPTEY: Jalilah, please use(ph) that, okay.

HAGERTY: Later that afternoon, we sit at the kitchen table in her Cape Cod-style home. Her 14-month-old daughter, Jalilah, plays nearby. She says nothing in her past would have predicted a religious way of life.

Ms. LAMPTEY: We never went to church. I don't remember ever going to church.

HAGERTY: Her father was a nominal Catholic, her mother, technically Protestant; and Jerusha came to believe religion was, well, rubbish.

Ms. LAMPTEY: So by the time I got to college, I was really antagonistic towards people - not towards people on an individual level but towards the idea that, you know, believing in something else.

HAGERTY: Jerusha was drawn, however, to African culture. And she observed in her Muslim friends a certain serenity. Their lives conflicted with her stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman. And so one day in college, Jerusha picked up the Quran.

Ms. LAMPTEY: I went to read it to find those things, you know?

HAGERTY: What things…

Ms. LAMPTEY: To find all the bad things that's said about woman and that women don't have any rights, and they can't do anything, and they have no value, and all of these kind of things. And I read it again.

HAGERTY: And again and again. She discovered discrepancies between the way the Prophet Mohammed viewed women and how some conservative Muslims treat them today. She says the Quran wooed her with its notions of individual responsibility, ultimate justice, a personal relationship with God.

But it would take another five years before Jerusha made the leap of faith. It was March of 2000. She was living in Ghana as a Fulbright scholar, studying Islam, and she began to have dreams.

Ms. LAMPTEY: I had one dream where I was standing outside of a mosque and crying. And then I had another dream where I was inside the mosque, and the feeling — I can't even describe it — everything was white, and bright, and this very kind of peaceful feeling. And I think that solidified it to me.

HAGERTY: Breaking the news to her family was less peaceful. Jerusha shudders at the memory of the conversation with her mother just after she returned from Ghana.

Ms. LAMPTEY: My mom was upset at me about something even coming home from the airport. And she just said, well, the next thing I know, you're going to convert to Islam, and I was like, well, I already have. And she started crying, you know, and it was awful. I hate to rehash it because it was horrible.

HAGGERTY: It was difficult for her family, as well, says her sister, Molly Naughton.

Ms. MOLLY NAUGHTON (Sister of Jerusha Lamptey): I was upset that she was sort of rejecting who we were even though we weren't a very religious family. Like I said, it wasn't about the religion. It was making herself be different than we are.

HAGERTY: Over the next year, Jerusha's family grew accustomed to the rhythms of her faith — rising early, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan. Islam penetrated every part of her life — what food she ate and books she read, how she talked, even how she bathed.

But her sister, Molly, says, it was the way she dressed, covering her hair and all of her body but her face and hands that turned her private faith into a public matter.

Ms. NAUGHTON: We go out places together and I will notice people looking at her. And I want to say to them - what? What? And it just - it riles me up. This is my sister. She's not any different.

HAGERTY: Jerusha says she doesn't really notice the hostile looks anymore — besides, the scarf has its benefits. People generally treat her piety with respect, and men don't hit on her. Still, she says because of that head scarf, she has become a public face of Islam.

Ms. LAMPTEY: Men get off easy in this regard because Muslim men, yes, they can look Muslim. They can fit that stereotype, but most Muslim men in this country they go under the radar every day. Most Muslim women do not.

When I go to the grocery store, I'm a model of what a Muslim is. And so it's a blessing and an obligation.

HAGERTY: And ironically, this thoroughly American woman finds herself a minority in her own, sometimes hostile, culture.

What is it like being an American convert to Islam in a post-9/11 world?

Ms. LAMPTEY: People question your allegiance. I think that happens a lot — especially since, you know, it's like with-us-or-against-us kind of mentality.

HAGERTY: If becoming an outsider in her own culture were not enough, Jerusha soon assumed a new role. She says she didn't see it coming.

Ms. LAMPTEY: Oh God, no, I never thought I would become the wife of an imam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: Just a few weeks before she left Ghana, Jerusha met a charismatic young cleric named Sheik Rashid Lamptey. She was attracted to his preaching. He was attracted to her though she didn't know it then. Just over a year later, Lamptey visited Jerusha in the United States. A few weeks later, he telephoned from Ghana and asked for her hand. They married four years ago after Lamptey was offered a job as deputy imam at another mosque in Virginia.

(Soundbite of conversing people)

HAGERTY: As the imam's wife, Jerusha is at the center of mosque life. Before her daughter was born, she showed up at every meeting and educational program. And she filled the Muslim chair on panels at community events.

As her daughter grows older, Jerusha and her husband are beginning to create a new sort of mosque with a greater role for women. Sheikh Lamptey says his wife is Exhibit A.

Sheikh LAMPTEY: I think she's going to be a revelation and an inspiration.

HAGERTY: Lamptey says he wants women to be an active part of the community.

Sheikh LAMPTEY: Because that is what I stand for. I want a community where the men stand shoulder to shoulder with the women in building a healthy and wholesome community.

HAGERTY: Even before she converted to Islam, Jerusha wanted to teach at a university. Eighteen months ago, she began studies toward a Ph.D. in religious pluralism at Georgetown University. Now, as a Muslim woman, the degree has a symbolic significance, as well.

Ms. LAMPTEY: Especially in the community, people know who you are. And I think, obviously, as an imam's wife, they will say, well, she's an imam's wife with a Ph.D. And that - I don't want to say changes necessarily, but it challenges people's perceptions.

HAGERTY: And Jerusha's been defying perceptions ever since she converted to Islam, says her sister, Molly. She's a traditional Muslim who prays and covers and lives for the glory of God — and an American woman who earns a Ph.D. and keeps up with pop culture.

Ms. NAUGHTON: My sister is a brilliant, amazing person, who - you know, you look at her and you'll think, oh, you know, she's covering her hair, and she's doing all these things. But then, she'll call me up and say, did you see what Justin Timberlake did?

HAGERTY: And in this, Jerusha Lamptey may be a glimpse into the future — for American converts adapting to Islam and Muslim women adapting to America.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can hear the other reports in our series on young religious leaders in America at npr.org.

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