As many as 500 St. Louis area Muslims and non-Muslims are expected to share in food and faith traditions Thursday for a "Sharing Ramadan" event, but this time, security measures will be in place.
The gathering invites members of the public to share in the iftar, or the meal which breaks the daily fast Muslims observe from sun-up to sundown throughout the holy month of Ramadan. Now in its third year, the event hosted by the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Missouri will begin at 7:30 p.m. with a guided tour of the Daar-ul-Islam Masjid in Ballwin.
Executive director of CAIR-St. Louis Faizan Syed said this year will see the biggest event yet, and while its growing popularity is positive, "we also have to live in the reality that we have to make sure that it is also a safe space for people."
"In the past, we never worried about security, we never had security at these events," Syed said. "But this year, because of the climate of this country, part of the program organizing is to worry about who is going to do security, how is it going to be managed and how are we going to deal with that as well."
Despite the security concerns, Syed said these types of events are needed now more than ever.
"We really feel, especially in this growing tide of misunderstanding about the American Muslim community, who we are, what we believe and what we stand for, these types of events are so powerful," said Faizan Syed, "because you're inviting people into your center for the most unifying thing, which is breaking bread."
Showing unity is why Kelly Brown of north St. Louis is planning to attend. Brown said she isn't Muslim, but identifies as a member of the city's queer community. She said it is important for her to "stand with and learn more about our Muslim brothers and sisters" after a gunman who was Muslim killed dozens at a gay nightclub in Orlando earlier this month.
"A lot of people online and politicians are trying to use the shooting as an opportunity to say really awful things about the Muslim community an to say that we need to keep Muslims out of our country and just awful things, and I don't feel like that's the right takeaway from that horrible massacre, and I don't like that it's being done int he name of support for my community," she said.
Syed said that's why it's important for attendees to feel free to ask questions about Islam at one of the booths that will be set up in the gymnasium.
"We love when people come in and ask awkward and difficult questions, because the worst is if you have that question and you never ask it," he said.
Syed also noted he and other organizers have made a concerted effort to reach out to people who don't already have an interest in learning about Islam. For instance, he reached out to local supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the United States.
"Unless we invite the people who may not like us, we are just preaching to the choir, and that's not the goal we're trying to achieve," Syed said. "What we’re doing inside the Islamic center isn't anything secret - it's a place of prayer, of reflection, of community gatherings."
After all, he said, the goal of Ramadan is to build relationships - with god, within the community and with humanity.
Getting that personal connection is key to gaining "a perspective you can't get from reading a book or watching television," said Leslie Heberlie, co-executive director of Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis.
"This event, like any event where a faith community is inviting the public in, is a chance to put faces and names next to information that we have about a faith community, to learn that the people there are living in our home community, who have very similar concerns about safety and their children and education and making sure our world is a good place going forward," she said.
"This is an opportunity to finally know one another, not just know about one another."
"I'm looking forward to just meeting people and learning more about a culture I didn't grow up in and eating some really delicious food," she said.
Attendees will be able to get henna art tattoos and to have one's name written in Arabic. A hijab awareness booth will let people try on head scarves. Of course, the highlight will be the iftar meal full of international dishes beginning around 8:30, Syed said, including the "most amazing" moment before sunset.
"It's quite tremendous - without anybody saying anything, you'll see the entire hall go completely silent maybe two minutes before the event, as people anticipate," he said. A call to prayer follows after the sun sets, and then "it just becomes lively."
Syed said next year, he hopes to get more Islamic centers in the area to participate in open houses like this event.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci.