Based on what those behind the project say, construction of the new and expanded Islamic Center of Indiana in White Township has been a leap of faith.
But with a fast-growing congregation and a desire to connect with the greater community, it’s a leap that had to be made, they say.
Since plans were approved by White Township officials in March, progress has been slow but steady at the construction site along the West Pike section of Route 422 just east of the ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 building.
Fundraising efforts of the congregation have supported the project. Based on what those at the center say, fundraising success has allowed construction to move faster than anticipated.
They are hopeful that the building will be available to its members by the summer, said Muhammad Suliman, a member of the center’s board of directors.
“If many keep caring and God keeps providing, we hope to have the first service by May or June,” he said.
The center has made its home at 132 Philadelphia St. since 1996.
Prior to that, Muslim students gathered to pray with each other in their homes, according to Suliman. Those efforts were the beginning of what would, in 1995, become the Islamic Center of Indiana.
In time, their needs grew to the point where they decided to rent space at the Hadley Union Building on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus. Not long after, they decided to purchase the house along Philadelphia Street to use as a center.
As the center developed, its current location quickly reached — and now exceeds — capacity.
“There is no room,” Suliman said. “People come and go. They have no room to pray.”
A small lot beside the two-story house also leaves members struggling to find parking elsewhere once the lot is filled, he said.
To accommodate the center’s needs, additional prayer services are still held at the HUB on campus.
Since its founding, the center has received nonprofit status. While it counts about 100 as official members, at least twice many also take part in worship at the center at different times. That brings the total served by the center to between 300 and 400, Suliman said.
The majority of the members are IUP students and their families, many from Saudi Arabia. The congregation, Suliman said, includes Arab and non-Arab Muslims.
Like the construction of any place of worship, Suliman said, the religious community has rallied to provide support.
“As with a church, they don’t have money, but God provides — this is a house of God, too,” he said.
Though many are students and, Suliman said, the community “money-wise ... is not very big,” members did fundraising throughout the area and outside of the state, turning to families and contacts within the greater Muslim community.
“When they see progress,” he said, “they donate. They have been impressed because as the project was going when we started, no one thought we could finish a wall.”
By October, the groundwork was done. And by December, the center could afford to pay contractor Randy George of Indiana-based Pennington Specialty Contracting to start building the walls.
“We didn’t expect that we could go through this project in five or six months,” Suliman said.
Once completed, the center will include a 3,444-square-foot prayer room, restrooms, offices, an entryway and a 2,535-square-foot social room. Its parking lot will have 44 spaces. This month, doors and windows are to be installed.
Those at the center could not provide total project costs, but Suliman said, at some point, they’d like to sell the current center in the borough and put the proceeds toward the construction bill.
The center’s members are anticipating more than just the progress of the brick-and-mortar project. They are looking forward to having the new site serve as a cultural space, as well as one for worship.
The center, Suliman said, will reach out to fellow churches and religions. It will also serve as a hub for interfaith meetings and discussions and a place where anyone can learn about Islam.
“We want to be seen and visible in the community,” he said, adding that since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim communities have had to deal with many misconceptions.
“We want to change this stereotype by being part of the community, part of Indiana County,” he said. “Because we get help from the community, so why not give back when we can?”
The congregation started Islamic Awareness Day, held for the first time last year at IUP.
“We try to perform in a proper Islamic way that tells people ‘this is Islam,’” he said.
“But we can’t take all Americans to the Middle East to see, so the ones here, we see ourselves as messengers. Messengers to show who Muslims are.”
Rev. Joan Sabatino, minister at First United Universalist Church of Indiana and president of the IUP Interfaith Council, sees the center’s expansion as positive. It not only reflects the growth of the area’s Muslim community, but also the increasing diversity of the area.
“Community-wise, Indiana’s changing,” she said.
“We have a mosque, we have a Buddhist center — Indiana is moving into the 21st century and I think that is a good thing.”
For Rev. Tedd Cogar, pastor at Luther Chapel Lutheran Church in Coral and the Lutheran Campus Center at IUP, the new development of the Islamic Center of Indiana is a blessing that will allow members of the local Muslim community to gather together.
Cogar, also a member of the IUP Interfaith Council, pointed out that Christians and Muslims, as well as those of the Jewish faith, are “people of the book.”
“We all share a practice of reading scripture to know God and to understand God’s will for creation,” he said. “Each of our faiths come together in prayer and worship in our own ways.”
“It is wonderful that the community of Indiana and this region will have the Islamic center that is being built,” Cogar said. “Our many faiths as a community and nation have much to learn from one another. Having an Islamic Center will contribute to our continued mutual affirmation and celebration together.”
The Islamic Center of Indiana is the only mosque in the region between Johnstown and Monroeville. There are several in Pittsburgh.
For Muslims in the Pittsburgh metro area, the expansion of Indiana’s center is a welcome one, according to Asim Kokan, chairman of the board of the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh in Wexford, Allegheny County.
“Along with the rest of the population (in the area), we kept on growing, so we saw need to have a mosque that is more convenient,” Kokan said. “That’s the reason we started our organization a few years back. It has grown exponentially and we were very relieved and excited that Indiana is also doing the same thing.”
It’s likely that those at the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh can relate to what those at the Indiana center are doing.
The Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh has bought an old church building in Gibsonia, Allegheny County and is in the process of renovating it.
Once renovations are complete, the congregation will move from the location it rents in Wexford.
A number of years ago, those behind the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh saw the need for an Islamic center that was closer for its members, Kokan said. Most at the time traveled 40 minutes from the fast-growing north suburbs of Pittsburgh to attend services in Monroeville.
“It should not come as a surprise,” he said. “The reason for that is ... when one mosque started some years back, there were not that many Muslims in the Pittsburgh area, so one was just enough.”
Those in the greater faith community have responded with goodwill and enthusiasm to the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh’s development, he said. In fact, Kokan said, the new home of their mosque is next door to another church. Its members have welcomed them with “open arms.”
“The amount of happiness that was shown, it was overwhelming for us,” he said.
Still, the reception from other religious organizations makes sense to Kokan.
“America was built and became one of the great nations in the world because of the immigration and because of people from different faiths and different countries,” he said.