I received a text message from a buddy who invited me to gather with his friends to witness the gates of heaven opening and the gates of hell closing.
“What time?” I asked.
“8:15 p.m.,” he responded. “I’ll save you a spot in the parking lot. Bring your family.”
When I arrived, I parked my truck and greeted the two friendly Bexar County constable deputies who were helping direct traffic for the hundreds of people who were there for the same event. It’s important to note that orderly parking lots and traffic safety is always important – especially when the gates of heaven are opening and the gates of hell are closing.
“Happy Ramadan, councilman,” one deputy said. “Have a nice time.”
Have you ever heard of Ramadan? Did you know that Ramadan is taking place right now? This month, thousands of San Antonians are observing Ramadan by fasting every day and then breaking their fasts every evening at gatherings called iftars. That’s right, I said thousands of San Antonians.
On Tuesday night, I attended an iftar with a group of friends at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center (MCECC) in District 8, and I learned a lot about our Muslim neighbors and what the Ramadan tradition means to them. Our Ramadan iftar was marked by prayer and by sharing a meal consisting of a savory beef stew, dried dates, spicy chicken, watermelon, and sweet desserts. We talked about God, community, old traditions, charity, service, family, and new friends.
So, about the gates of heaven and hell: I learned that Islam teaches us that during the month of Ramadan, the gates of heaven open, the gates of hell close, and the devils of hell are put in chains. Literally? I don’t know. But I do know that the experience of fasting alongside your friends, family, and neighbors is a powerful thing.
Ramadan is often referred to as the “month of the Quran.” Aside from fasting, observant Muslims attempt to recite as much of the Quran as they can during the month. Most mosque communities will recite one-thirtieth of the Quran each night during their Taraweeh prayers. I got to observe their Taraweeh prayers on Tuesday and was surprised at the diversity of people in the room. Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, Africans, Arabs, Palestinians, Indonesians, and people of many other ethnicities and nationalities were praying in unison, kneeling and barefoot before their God asking for peace and clarity of purpose.
I learned that our Muslim brothers and sisters believe that good deeds bring a greater reward during the month of Ramadan than at any other time of year. They also say it is easier to do good in this month because the devils have been chained in hell and are unable to tempt and distract believers. Like during Christian’s Lenten season, Muslims try to give up during Ramadan things such as candy, certain foods, and watching TV to bring them closer to the spiritual by stepping away from the physical.
Speaking of good deeds, our friends at the MCECC use this month to raise money for scholarships and local charities. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars by way of small and large offerings made by their community’s members. No contribution is too small for them, and they are conscientious about reminding guests that they don’t just pray and fast, but that they take their good deeds and charity goals very seriously.
So, did the gates of heaven open Tuesday night? Yes, they did. I saw a community of families and friends come together to celebrate togetherness and kindness. I witnessed young and old gather around the table to break bread and remind each other that God’s plan for them walk this journey together. I saw my friends laughing and hugging each other and making strangers among them feel welcome and accepted. If that’s not heaven, I don’t know what is.
There is still time for you to see the gates of heaven open: Ramadan ends on June 14. I hope you’ll consider taking the time to do as I did and make some new friends. I promise you’ll walk away from the experience with a big smile, a full belly, and new friends. And, if you’re lucky, you might get them to serve you the hottest chicken you’ve ever tasted.