The student government office on any given Thursday is bustling with conversation. LPCSG members are in there working, socializing and meeting with each other. Mahdi Totah is not in student government, but when walked in, no one batted an eye. They knew what he was there for. He’s there twice a week at the same times of day.
Totah was searching for a place to pray. An orthodox Muslim, he finds alone time with Allah five times a day. He’s only on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays and has three prayers that fall during the time he is on campus. He just needs a quiet space where he has enough room to kneel, facing towards Mecca. On this particular Thursday, he entered the room, laying his jacket down on the ground in lieu of a rug. He made room in a corner, pushing two swivel chairs out of the way as he began to pray.
Prayer, or Salah, is one of the pillars of his faith. Five times a day, he must find a clean place and follow the routines. He’s here for the third prayer of his day, known as salat al-‘asr, which takes place in the late afternoon. He doesn’t rush. He has six hours until his next class, and six hours before his next prayer.
Ultimately, the student government officials have offered him a quiet room with a closed door. There were loose papers and pens scattered on the table. But it would do. This conference room with seating for twelve became Totah’s temporary mosque.
He wasn’t the first to use the room, and he won’t even be the last today. Other students who had come before him had stopped by to use this conference room for prayer. So student government began that push to convert this conference room into an official interfaith space.
This process has revealed a void at Las Positas College, perhaps one that should have long ago been filled.
The school offers plenty of student services. The veterans center. The international students program. Educational communities based on cultural backgrounds, like Puente and Umoja. What it doesn’t seem to offer is any sort of sanctuary room for faith-based students.
Proponents for a spiritual space have been waiting for months. That the lone dedicated area is a crowded conference room in the student government office have some frustrated. There have been repeated requests for a faith center in the new building plans, and yet still, no sign of one. Is the lack of the space a product of religion being too taboo or a lack of demand from a demographic decreasingly interested in God?
For whatever reason, at this picturesque campus that seems to keep adding to itself, the only place Totah and others can go, officially, is a conference room in the student center. Some officials on campus are determined to change that.
One of those officials is Alejandro Buenrostro, Director of Communications. He heads the Safety and Equality Committee, which he formed in January. In their first meeting, he proposed a dedicated interfaith-meditation space.
Buenrostro became aware that it was necessary when more and more people started showing up and asking for the room.
“It was really apparent that these people felt really uncomfortable,” said Buenrostro, “The tone of their voice, their body language, demeanor.” He set to work immediately, knowing he needed to do something.
“I was repulsed that (they felt like) they needed to be shy or timid, even scared for something that’s super normal,” he said. “So I think that’s a big driving factor of how this got brought up.”
Totah first came to pray in the conference room in February, but he had a more roundabout way of ending up there. This is his first semester at Las Positas, but he previously attended Cal State East Bay, where an interfaith center was always open.
“I just started asking around to see if there was one,” he said nonchalantly. When no students had the answers, he went straight to Interim President Roanna Bennie. He sent her an email, asking if there was a space available, and she sent the email to LPCSG President Lylah Schmedel. Schmedel then met with Totah, and it was that day that he used the room for the first time. He had no idea that Buenrostro had already begun the movement to establish that room as even a temporary solution for a much larger predicament.
A Pew Research Center study found that 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 are entirely religiously unaffiliated. It also found, however, that nearly half of this age group say that they pray at least once a day.
Alicia Thach-Kim, president of the Christ In Action club at LPC, acknowledges the statistics, but doesn’t think that should cause any hesitation in administration. “I think it’s important to let students have that opportunity,” she said, “I feel that I have a sense of peace after I pray that may have not been there before.” Thach-Kim says the Christian club prays twice weekly together in a classroom in the 1700 building, and she was unaware that there was a prayer room available on campus.
Totah also says that he disregards the numbers. He thinks young people are drifting away from organized religion because of a lack of clarity.
“It’s going to provide them the privacy and the basic right that they’re asking for under the first amendment. I’m not doing this for me personally, I’ll pray anywhere,” Totah insists, “I’m doing this for the people who come after me.”
In 2016, a bill passed allowing Las Positas to receive 950 million dollars for rebuilding. The initial building plans were revealed to the public in a meeting on Feb. 6, 2019, and to the annoyance of some proponents of the space, there was no evidence in the plans for an interfaith space.
Buenrostro, however, is trying to go one step at a time, trying his best to get the temporary solution up before he thinks about the permanent buildings. There’s one big issue, and it’s right under everyone’s noses.
There’s a table in the middle of the room, and it’s cramping everyone’s style. Buenrostro’s committee has just passed a motion to remove the table, but it’s taking a while because it’s wired with audio and video connections for a television in the room.
“I just need the table out and a divider in,” Totah said multiple times when discussing the room, “It’s not complicated.”
“It’s not a table that you can just like, pick up or fold over,” said Alisha Shaik, Director of Public Relations for LPCSG and also someone who uses the room to pray. “A lot of stuff needs to be figured out.”
Buenrostro has other things on his mind, as well. Now that the motion of the table removal is the issue mainly of Maintenance and Operations (M&O) at the college, he’s mostly concerned about the language of the dedication. He doesn’t think the space necessarily needs to just be for religious students, since he thinks it will be more accessible if it includes meditative practices.
He doesn’t consider himself a religious person. He, in fact, said he thinks his parents might be “the Mexican branch of Catholic.” He does, however, meditate.
“It tailors to or caters to students who don’t have a specific religion,” he says.
Totah doesn’t think that’s how it will realistically play out, however.
“The majority of the people are going to be Muslim,” Totah said with a chuckle. “I know it’s interfaith, but… it’s mostly going to be Muslim students.”
In addition to the language and the table removal, Buenrostro’s other big obstacle is something that he has minimal control over: M&O. The student government office, located in room 1643, closes at 5 p.m. and when no one is in the room to monitor, the prayer room also has to close. Buenrostro said he’s still trying to work this out, but it’s taking a long time because his requests keep falling to the bottom of the pile. The prioritization of what are labeled “academic requests” take priority, which have left the room repurposing on the bottom of the stack. In other words, Buenrostro is emphasizing that the conference room in 1643 is definitely just a temporary solution until a better option can be made available. Ideally, he says, the room should open when the campus opens and close when the campus closes, instead of when the student government officers leave.
He is focused on making this space something much more permanent, much greater than just a meeting room that LPCSG uses sometimes for smaller group meetings. Until then, though, he’s just waiting for the green light for this meeting room to become a small shelter for those looking to congregate. It frustrates him that it’s taking as long as it is, and he’s not alone. Although it was his choice to take the time to rework the language of the dedication, Buenrostro has taken immense steps towards helping a community that he doesn’t even identify with– the faith-based student body. He believes that with more publicity, the room will become an integral part of Las Positas’ identity, much like it has on other campuses in California.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Totah is here all day. He works on the other weekdays, so when he’s here, he has to say his three midday prayers on campus.
His choice location when 1643 is closed? Building 1000. He says he goes there because the bathrooms are clean. He has to wash up before he prays. It was recommended to him, he says.
It bothered him that everyone prayed in a different corner of the campus. Some said the library, some said Building 1000, some said in their cars. Every answer was a blaring reminder that there is a need that is just not being met.
He likes the warmth that the building offers, but sometimes the classes are loud, he says, and it’s difficult to focus. He doesn’t mind that people are watching because he says he likes to talk about his religion and teach others.
However, his mindset isn’t necessarily the same as everybody else’s.
Shaik used to have her friends watch her backpack and keep an eye out while she prayed in the parking lot. She felt unnerved, she says, because of the things shown in the news and the prejudice she fears others carry. The space that’s been made available, as makeshift as it is so far, is something Shaik is grateful for.
Shaik, Totah and Thach-Kim may be statistical minorities, but they’re hardly alone.
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