This story is part of a two-part series on faith communities coping with the San Bernardino tragedy. Read part 2 in the series here.
The doors to the mosque are always flung wide open at the Islamic Center of Riverside.
Visitors are welcomed.
And that hasn’t changed since December 2, when Syed Rizwan Farook, who used to pray at the mosque, opened fire on his county coworkers in San Bernardino. His wife Tashfin Malik helped him gun down and kill 14 people. The shooters died later that day in a standoff with police.
“My people were devastated,” said Mustafa Kuko, the former mosque director, who was tasked with breaking the news to the community that night after evening prayers.
“'It’s a Muslim who killed those people. It is one that we know and it is one that we used to have here'” Kuko remembered telling the crowd.
“They were stunned," he said. "I could see it in the faces of three people who the tears came down their cheeks.”
The shock wore off, but a shadow remained over the center — despite the fact that Farook had attended the mosque for a couple of years and hadn't been seen there for a year and a half before the shooting. Kuko probably had more interaction than most with the quiet and reserved Farook —the future shooter had sought the leader's blessing when he decided to marry Malik and the two celebrated their marriage at the mosque after an initial wedding in Saudi Arabia.
But the Islamic Center was flooded with probing investigators and curious journalists. Members worried they were somehow unknowingly implicated in the tragedy for having attended the same mosque as one of the shooters, even if they barely knew him.
“They felt the enormity of the catastrophe,” Kuko said.
The only way to move on, he said, is by teaching people about Islam and what they actually do at the mosque.
“Islam has nothing to do with this,” Kuko preaches. “The Islam that I understand always calls for peace and compassion and kindness and peaceful co-existence.
Which is why Kuko always kept the mosque doors open wide — a practice that's continued now that the leader of 18 years has stepped aside as the mosque's leader, making way for a younger generation of leaders.
Wahab Gondal, who's been a member of the Islamic Center for the majority of his 20 years, said not only leaders, but mosque members as well, need to become community ambassadors.
“We need to be present in our community so people see who we really are,” Gondal said.
The mosque recently hired a new youth coordinator to organize events and recast the mosque as a place for young Muslims to gather with friends.
Although the Islamic Center of Riverside is known for its interfaith outreach efforts, Gondal said they're getting more people involved. That effort proved fruitful when Kuko joined President Barack Obama last month at the national prayer breakfast with other faith leaders — one day after the president visited an American mosque for the first time.
Connections like these make Kuko and the members of the Islamic Center of Riverside hope soon enough, people will see their mosque and its people for who they really are.