This is Part IV in "Reporting Hate," a four-part Fronteras Desk series that takes a look at the roots of intolerance and prejudice in the Americas today. Each piece is a unique profile on an individual exploring specific kinds of conflicts and tensions in their lives arising from their identity.
If you get Usama Shami and Bob Hake in the same room together, it doesn’t take long for the laughter to start and stories about their kids' recent antics to begin flowing.
As I sat down with them amid a busy day of choir practice at Orangewood Church in West Phoenix, it was easy to see that these guys are best friends. For the last 10 years they’ve been pillars in each other’s lives, going to family dinners, religious ceremonies, and catching up over coffee. And it all started 10 years ago with something quite mundane, a parking problem.
The Islamic Community Center of Phoenix was outgrowing its parking lot aside the mosque near I-17 and Northern. After warnings from the city that the group needed to find a solution that didn’t involve nearby on-street parking, president Usama Shami went looking for solutions.
And he didn’t have to go searching far. Orangewood Church, which is about a quarter mile down the road, had exactly what the ICCP needed, a four acre lot within walking distance to the Mosque that went mostly unused during Friday prayers.
“I had actually gotten a letter in the mail from these guys,” Hake explained. “Asking if they could rent a section of our parking lot on Friday while they’re people participated in prayers.”
Hake said the letter initially caught him by surprise. “I didn’t know they were there,” he added.
He said also just didn’t feel right about charging rent especially if people needed that parking to pray. So he reached out to set up a meeting.
“I can remember Bob sitting. He didn’t know what to expect,” said Shami, adding the tone in the room felt pretty tense at first. “I think it was probably the first time he sat face to face with Muslims.”
But Shami said after a few dad jokes and cheesy icebreakers were exchanged the two got to talking, and in Shami and Hake’s words, they clicked.
“So we decided that we just don’t want to have a relationship stop at that point that we want to do something else and carry it through and since then we became friends,” added Shami.
Shami and Hake decided early on that they weren’t going to focus on the things they don’t see eye to eye on like theology. But they quickly realized there was actually a lot they had in common, especially when it came to serving their local community. Pretty soon, Shami and Hake were organizing community events together that included both congregations like feeding the hungry.
But Hake admits there were some rocky points that emerged at first. He says one example in particular sticks out in his mind when a woman angrily walked up to him.
“And she said, ‘Pastor Bob, did you know there are Muslims downstairs?’ And she was really angry. And I said ‘Well, yes, I know there are Muslims in the basement downstairs, I invited them.’”
Hake added, that woman later stormed out the door and he’s never seen her again.
He said a handful of people in his congregation also reacted this way at first, but the vast majority didn’t respond with hate. In fact, they were open to learning more about their neighbors and even becoming friends.
“I think we look at Orangewood Church as a big brother that can help us figure our way through,” added Shami.
As the years went on, so did the partnership between the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix and Orangewood Church... and so did Hake and Shami’s friendship.
But that friendship would be tested in 2015.
That May, newsreels were dominated by a shooting near Dallas Texas. Two gunmen opened fire on a crowd attending a contest for cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammed.
While the shooting took place two states away, the two shooters could be tied back to Phoenix. They lived and worked in west Phoenix and they were members of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix.
Hake said the news shook him to the core.
“I was like oh my gosh. What in the world what does this mean,” recounted Hake. “What am I going to do. My people are looking to me. They’re asking questions. They’re unnerved.”
He said he prayed a lot that week in his search for answers. And then he picked up the phone and called Shami.
“I sat down with him and I said, ‘please forgive me, i don’t mean to be offensive, but I have to ask you these questions. What did you know? What did you know about these guys?’”
That moment was pivotal for their friendship because, Hake said, Shami was so patient and understanding as he listened to his concerns.
“He respected my questions and some of the fears that I had instead of just brushing them off or blowing them off or getting angry at me or anything. I’ll never forget it.”
For Shami, an even more pivotal moment in their friendship came just weeks later, when in response to the Texas shooting, an anti-Islam demonstration was held in front of the west Phoenix mosque.
The rally drew hundreds of men and women, many armed with semi-automatic rifles.
Shami was outside that day as the protest got underway. But it wasn’t just mosque leaders who were present. Hake and the Orangewood Church congregation were there too to counter-protest the hateful messages that were being flung toward mosque members.
“And for me that was a show of friendship,” said Shami. “That showed me you can rely on your neighbor.”
Shami said standing side by side with his neighbors like that really touched him. It was a sentiment that resonated with Hake as well.
“For me, it was honestly more than just going and supporting the mosque,” said Hake. “I mean when I stood there next to my friend, I stood next to my brother.”
Recounting those days back in 2015 brought up a lot of emotion for Hake and Shami and I finished up our interview soon after. But as I turned off my mic, Shami added one last thing. He said, “I love this man.” Because while it may have been a parking problem that brought them together initially, it was the storms they walked through together that created and strengthened their bond.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that the anti-Islam demonstrators were armed with semi-automatic rifles.