If you meet Jameel Syed, be prepared to have your photo taken with him.
It’s a simple action he initiates to build connections. Syed prefers action to talk, although he’s skilled at the latter as he demonstrated with his message Sunday morning at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lawrence.
It was a photograph taken in December that led to Syed's invitation to the church. That selfie shows a stern Syed looking straight ahead with three men in the background. The men, sitting around a table in an Auburn Hills, Mich., coffee shop, had just blurted out hateful comments about Muslims they wanted Syed to overhear.
"I’ve traveled all 50 states, and the first time I heard Islamophobia was in my hometown,” Syed said. “At first, I wanted to go challenge them, but what good would that have done but put me on their level.”
Instead of confrontation, Syed chose an action that demonstrated his values. He told the coffee shop’s manager about the incident, and then had to dissuade his friend from tossing the three men off the premises. Instead, Syed asked the manager to deliver a gift card to the men for three free cups of coffee with the message the gift was from “a proud American Muslim.”
The manager followed through, adding three pastries to the gift. He later told Syed the men were embarrassed and asked about how to contact Syed to apologize.
“I put the photo on Facebook,” he said of the coffee shop selfie. “It went viral. It was an amazing example of how people can use social media to make something positive out of a negative.”
One of those who saw the photo and Syed’s short narrative of the event was Trinity Lutheran Church office secretary Elizabeth Mechem.
“I thought we really needed to have him talk at our church,” she said.
The invitation worked out because Syed already planned a visit to Lawrence to lead a Kansas University Muslim Student Association workshop Saturday at the KU Student Union on building interfaith bridges. At both weekend events, Syed shared his methodology of how those bridges can be built.
The method list the do's and don'ts of reaching out to new acquaintance of a different religion, Syed said. The don'ts are don’t talk religion, don’t engage in debate, don’t hate anybody in your heart and don’t act against your values. The do’s are to be yourself, find a common denominator, open channels of communication, achieve your experience, share your success on social media and show your values.
As a final step, Syed calls on people to act.
“Go out and do something,” he said. “Your response should be 80 percent action and 20 percent talk and writing about it.”
Syed is a lecturer, a columnist on two influential Muslim websites and owner of a marketing firm. The action that gained Syed national attention was a 35-day journey last year to give the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, at a mosque in all 50 states, making him the first person in history to do so. While in Lawrence this weekend, Syed added Allen Fieldhouse and the bell tower of Trinity Lutheran Church to the growing list of iconic or unconventional sites he has given the adhan.
When people ask why he made the trip that earned him the title "the 50 Mosque guy," Syed jokes it was a “weird” response to his mid-life crisis of turning 40. But the serious intent was a demonstration of how much Islam is a part of the American experience, a reality some loud and influential “blowhards” deny.
“You can’t get on your own blow horn and fight fire with fire,” Syed said. “If you let it, it can tear you up and you become just like them. It’s better to accept that your response is what you have control over. You don’t talk a lot about your values, but show them through etiquette, manners and behavior.”
Those values are common to both Christians and Muslims, Syed said.
“Christians and Muslims are called to serve God,” he said. “There are a lot of differences among people. Our job is to find the commonalities."