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Anna G. Larson, Published December 15 2012

Faith in Focus: Being Muslim, Jewish and Mormon in Fargo-Moorhead

Today is the third installment of a four-part series titled “Faith in Focus,” which will be featured in The Forum every Sunday this month.

Today’s package looks at what it’s like to be Muslim, Jewish and Mormon in Fargo-Moorhead.

The final installment of the series next week will look at what churches are doing to reach out to youth.

FARGO - Iddrisu Awudu prays five times a day, usually on a carpet in his office in North Dakota State University’s Barry Hall. On Fridays, he goes to the school’s Equity and Diversity Center or the local masjid to pray with other Muslims.

But the first question people usually have for Awudu isn’t about his religion. People want to know why he came to Fargo from Ghana and what he thinks of North Dakota winters.

“Being Muslim is not something that is especially different in Fargo, and yes, I’m used to the snow,” Awudu said. “I lived in New Jersey a year, and it was the same thing. No one barely asks about me being Muslim.”

The flocks of the faithful are almost entirely Christian in North Dakota and Minnesota. In North Dakota, 98 percent of those who are religious adherents are Catholic or Protestant, according to a 2010 study by the Association of Religion Data Archives. The same study found that 97 percent of religious Minnesotans are Catholic or Protestant.

The Forum talked to area followers of Islam, Mormonism and Judaism about practicing their faiths in a place where relatively few other followers are around.

A global community

According to the ARDA study, there are 636 Muslims in North Dakota and 16,796 in Minnesota. Muslims account for 7 percent of religious followers not Catholic or Protestant in North Dakota, and 17 percent in Minnesota.

Awudu said that Islam isn’t that different from Catholicism, and he had many Catholic friends in Ghana. He came here in July 2008 after receiving full funding to be a graduate student at NDSU.

“There’s Abraham and the old and new testaments, they use a rosary, we use the rosary as well,” he said. “I will say that as an individual, I should not always be focused on someone fulfilling my need to fit in. It’s more like I make friends.”

Since he’s moved here, Awudu said, he’s met Muslims from all over the world, something that would not have happened in Ghana.

“Back home, it would just be me and my Ghana friends,” he said.

His circle of friends in Fargo includes Muslims from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Uzbekistan, China and India.

“The only thing you realize is the cultural differences, people with different perspectives,” he said.

The foundation of Islam remains true no matter where the religion is practiced, Awudu said. Small things might change, such as how a group of people dress for a religious celebration, but the doctrine stays consistent.

Since living in Fargo, Awudu and his wife have celebrated Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving at friends’ houses.

“The celebrations are similar to Muslim celebrations because it’s all about food,” he said. “Fargo is a home away from home. It’s like family.”

‘Nothing but good’

Juvaughn Donahue Mahabeer also found a home away from home in Fargo. The 19-year-old NDSU student and Latter-day Saint moved to Fargo last August from Jamaica and fit in here right away.

“People here are very pleasant and welcoming,” he said.

Mahabeer converted to Mormonism from a non-denominational Christian religion while he lived in Jamaica. Mormon missionaries traveled to the country often, and Mahabeer’s grandmother was Mormon.

The local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made Mahabeer’s transition to Fargo easier, he said. A church member picked him up at the airport and let him stay at his home until he got settled.

Mahabeer said he’s made many friends through the church and school. His religion has never been a hurdle to making friends, he said.

“I tell my friends that I don’t drink or smoke, and they respect me,” Mahabeer said.

Mormons do not consume tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea.

Brad Leeser, a Moorhead resident who’s been a Latter-day Saint for more than 35 years, said he’s never found it difficult to be Mormon in the Fargo-Moorhead area. People in the religion don’t use the term “Mormon” often, but it’s also not considered offensive, Leeser said. They generally refer to themselves as “LDS.”

“I’ve never had any opposition from anyone,” he said. “It’s been nothing but a good experience.”

Mahabeer and Leeser attend the same church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in south Fargo.

According to the ARDA, LDS is the largest religion not Protestant or Catholic in both Minnesota and North Dakota, with 31,569 followers in Minnesota and 7,206 in North Dakota. Mormons account for 83 percent of North Dakotans who practice a religion that isn’t Catholic or Protestant and 31 percent of Minnesotans who do.

Some misconceptions about Mormons can come up in conversations with people outside of the religion once they find out that Leeser is LDS, but his religion generally doesn’t dominate discussions, he said.

Polygamy is usually the first thing people ask about, even though polygamy was rejected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890.

“People involved in plural marriage are not part of us, and we are not part of them,” Leeser said. “It’s a foreign concept to us. We are about as polar opposite as you can get.”

Another common misconception is that LDS are not Christian and use their own bible. Both assumptions are incorrect, Leeser said, though many Christians do not consider Mormons to be Christian.

“We are Christian, but we’re not Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox; we’re a unique branch of Christianity,” he said.

LDS use the King James version of the Bible, in addition to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon doesn’t replace the Bible, Leeser said.

Leeser said he’s always happy to answer questions, and the Fargo-Moorhead community has been accepting.

“This has been a great place to raise a family. This is my home, and I have friends of many faiths.”

Small, close community

Ted Kleiman, a member of the local Jewish community, echoes Leeser’s sentiments. Kleiman calls Fargo “an accepting community.” He is a member at Temple Beth El in Fargo, one of only two synagogues in North Dakota.

“Most people don’t understand Jewish customs and traditions, so we try to reach out and inform people,” he said.

For instance, Hanukkah isn’t the equivalent of Christmas, he said.

“It’s really not much of a holiday, but it’s taken on the commercialization of Christmas,” he said. “It’s for the kids because they might feel overwhelmed seeing their Christian friends with gifts and listening to Christmas music.”

The local Jewish community usually has Saturday morning services and gathers often to have meals together.

“We have a marvelous Jewish community,” he said.

The ARDA study found that Judaism has 176 followers in North Dakota and 23,940 in Minnesota – accounting for 2 percent of religious adherents in North Dakota who are not Protestant or Catholic and 24 percent in Minnesota.

Wendy Troop-Gordon enjoys the community feel she gets from being part of the small local Jewish population. She is also a member at Temple Beth El.

“We all show up to support each other,” she said.

Troop-Gordon is an assistant professor of psychology at NDSU, and her students are often curious about her religion because she’s the first Jewish person they’ve met, she said. They ask questions about God, heaven and the Bible.

While she says the Fargo community is accepting, she worries that her children won’t fit in, might be teased or feel alone. So far though, schools have been great, Troop-Gordon said.

“One of the tough things about raising kids Jewish in the U.S. is that you’re always a minority,” she said. “The local Jewish community is very small, but it’s kept us around.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525