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Mayor Nirenberg, city officials celebrate Ramadan with San Antonio Muslims

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joins the local Muslim community at the recent Fastathon at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center. (SBG San Antonio)
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joins the local Muslim community at the recent Fastathon at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center. (SBG San Antonio)
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The end of Ramadan is always cause for a celebration for millions of Muslim's around the world, and for San Antonio, it was even more special.

The turnout for the fourth annual Fastathon was bigger than expected due to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and District 8 city councilman Manny Pelaez in attendance to break fast with the local Muslim community for the first time at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center (MCECC).

“This is home to me in many ways because I was their councilman, representing this community in particular, so I know a great deal of people here and they always make me feel welcome," Nirenberg said.

Though the mayor is not Muslim, he went on to say how spending time with a community different from his own was in a sense, reflective, nonetheless.

"It's an opportunity for self-reflection and a deeper understanding of your own connections that are innate and human," Nirenberg said. "While maybe not part of the same culture, we share part of the same humanity."

Nirenberg first attended MCECC as a councilman but was making his second appearance as Mayor.

The Fastathon is where non-Muslims are invited to fast for Ramadan and to break their fast. The crowd was more than double than usual.

"On average we might have maybe 2 to 4 people," Shaikh said. "On this day, we had maybe close to 20 people," said Sakib Shaikh, MCECC director of public relations.

For everyone that participates in the fast, the mosque donates $100 to a local non-profit. One of the purposes of a Fastathon was for non-Muslims to understand the struggle Muslims go through every Ramadan.

"For one, it's always good to help a charity, but two it's to invite people to the masjid (mosque) and see what we're all about," said Shaikh.

This year, MCECC worked exclusively with Child Advocates of San Antonio (CASA).

"We are so privileged this year that MCECC chose [to sponsor] CASA." said Marina Gonzales, CEO of CASA.

District 8 city councilman Manny Pelaez has attended the mosque numerous times and always has a pleasurable visit.

“The families who worship, work, live and play in District 8 (who are members of MCECC), they're friends of mine and neighbors, " said Pelaez. "So, I never miss an opportunity to come break fast with my friends here at MCECC.”

Regarding the fast, Shaikh said that Mayor Nirenberg handled the fast surprisingly well and his behavior differed greatly from those who might feel the frustration from not eating anything all day.

"He didn't do as bad as I thought he would. You know, people who fast their first time generally get in a bad mood, not very talkative, "Shaikh said. "He was great. He was meeting with people, taking pictures, answering questions. He was in good spirits."

Moreover, Mayor Nirenberg revealed how he felt a spiritual connection during the fast.

"'It’s a different kind of exhaustion," he said. "Much more inward focused, physical sensation. Simultaneously, the trial of a fast reminds you that you're alive."

Pelaez agreed and went even further by addressing that the communal ties that came about with fasting is something that really stood out to him.

"Today, while I was sitting in my office by myself working on emails, I got hungry," he said. "And what came to mind was I'm doing something with millions of people all over the planet. Right now, I'm part of a community doing something really powerful. That's kind of a miracle."

Much of the community volunteers, like Bilal Zia, were thrilled to see the mayor in attendance, believing it would help alleviate the negative stereotypes associated with Islamophobia.

"We have reported cases in Texas of Islamophobia, so what we feel is that if we can invite more people to experience our culture. It's literally bridging the gap," Zia said. "If you don't know us, you may have preconceived notions and coming here can help eradicate that."

“Rather than having people learn about us or our religion from an outside source, I'd rather them come here and meet us.," Shaikh said. "The more public notables come here, their network of supporters will learn about what they did and be more inclined to come. That's our only intention and when people like the mayor come, it increases our visibility tenfold.

Despite tensions surrounding Muslims, Pelaez noted he was never witness to even a hint of animosity at MCECC.

“I invite anyone to come out and challenge them to find meanness, gossip, hate, divisiveness. There's none of that here,” Pelaez said. "There was delicious food, there was camaraderie, there was children playing, moms running after their children playing, and laughter."

At the same time, Pelaez disavowed any backlash some might have against Muslims, however.

” I reject that wholeheartedly. That’s not the San Antonio we live in," he said.

Mayor Nirenberg mirrored that sentiment and asserted, “The gap in cultural understanding is the root of ignorance and while I would naturally abhor those kinds of sentiments, it's a recognition that we have a lot of work to do in helping people understand that the cure to what ails us globally is understanding where those sentiments would come from and addressing them with love and care and welcoming rather than isolation. ”

Even CASA was proud to be an advocate for MCECC.

"Breaking of the fast with the community such as it is, was something much different than I've experienced before," Moore said. "There were people from about 28 different countries being represented here and everybody was friends, part of the community whether we hadn't met or whether we known each other for a while. It was a really fabulous experience."

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