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Sophia Said, Program Director of ITSSM Interfaith Center

Jason Beck, MD

Listen to Learn:

  • The mission of the interfaith center
  • How understanding different religions increases productivity
  • The behind the scenes of an arranged marriage
  • how education is the cure for bigotry
  • how the 9/11 tragedy became a path of self-awareness for Sophia
  • why Muslim women cover their heads and what Islam teaches about it

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Sophia Said was born and educated in Pakistan. At 20, she married Qayyim Said. The marriage was arranged by her parents. The first time she ever saw her groom was the night before their wedding. They moved to Utah in 1996 and she received her second Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Utah in 2007. Said, who had the highest GPA among economics majors, spoke at the University of Utah commencement. Later that year, the couple moved to Little Rock so Qayyim Said could teach health economics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

After coming to Little Rock, Sophia attended and graduated from the Clinton School of Public Service and became an American citizen in 2012.

In 2015, she was named Peacemaker of the Year by the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, and earlier this year, Said was presented with Just Communities of Arkansas’ Humanitarian Award. Currently she is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church.

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[0:00:08.8] G: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners and insider’s view into starting and running a business, the ups and downs of risk-taking and the commonalities of successful people. Connect with Kerry through her candid, often funny and always informative weekly blog. There, you'll read, learn and may comment about her life as a 21st century wife, mother, daughter and entrepreneur.


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[0:01:09.9] KM: My guest today is a worldly woman, like I said a minute ago. Sophia Said was born a liberal Muslim in Pakistan. She met her husband, Qayyim Said, the night before they are arranged marriage. Three months later, she joined her new husband in Utah, where he was studying to receive his doctorate. In Pakistan, Sophia and her father, both Muslims, were excited that Sophia had been accepted to a prestigious Catholic college there.


Now in Utah, she found herself living amongst an attending college with Mormons. The cultural commonalities were striking and her view of the world grew larger. When she first moved to America in 1996, it was an easy transition, a safe place for Muslims. Since 9/11, things have changed and so has she. Having once been taught that women should be quiet and invisible, Sophia has decided to step into the limelight, not for herself, but for her children and for her community.


After moving to Little Rock, so that she could follow her husband who got a job teaching at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Sophia attended and graduated from yet another school, the Clinton School of Public Service. In 2012, she became an American citizen. Today as the Executive Director at the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, this Muslim woman is spreading the word and reminding us to love thy neighbor; a common theme across all religions.


It is a pleasure to welcome to the table the Arkansas humanitarian of the year, Miss Sophia Said.


[0:02:49.4] SS: Thank you so much, Kerry. That is very generous by –


[0:02:55.0] KM: That's not even all of it, but that was convinced. You were the valedictorian of your class, first Muslim woman to ever give the speech.


[0:03:04.3] SS: That’s true.


[0:03:06.4] KM:  Graduated summa cum laude. Today when you say you work at the Interfaith Center as the Executive Director, what does that mean and what do they do?


[0:03:17.6] SS: Interestingly, Interfaith Center is actually a product of several people working together to promote peace in our community. What we do is we try to reduce the fear that exist between different religions, the prejudice that people of different faiths feel towards each other and as you know, I don't need to tell you that it's increasing, because of the current social and political environment.


What we do is we try to bring people of different faiths together under one roof. Normally, they wouldn't find themselves. I help them connect with each other, learn about each other's faiths, learn how to respect each other's differences, as well as the commonalities, and build relationships with each other.


Because after all, we're all living in a nation which is highly diverse, not only racially, but also ethnically, religiously. If we don't know how to live with each other, if we don't know how to have interfaith cooperation, then we cannot work effectively with each other. It increases our own productivity, it increases our impact on the communities to learn how to coexist, and that's what Interfaith Center does. Then I have lots of different kinds of programs, which I would love to share more.


[0:04:35.8] KM: We’re going to talk about them all. Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Pakistan. Did I say it right? Because you know I'm southern. I say Pakistan, and it's not Pakistan y'all. It's Pakistan. You call yourself a liberal Muslim.


[0:04:50.8] SS: I am a Muslim. Yes. Yes, people call me liberal Muslim.


[0:04:55.6] KM: Your father taught you to drive.


[0:04:57.1] SS: Yes. My father taught me to drive. He’s very proud of me.


[0:05:01.1] KM: You were very good in school and thought, because your father was pretty liberal, that you would follow – follow in the footsteps of other family members and go to America to get educated. He planned something different.


[0:05:17.2] SS: Yes. That's where the gender roles differed in our family and in most of the families. I did see all my uncles and many male members of the family coming to US for their higher education. I aspire to do the same. Back then, at least it was only male members of the family, not females, not girls, or women.


[0:05:41.5] KM: You did got to college.


[0:05:43.4] SS: I did go to college in Pakistan.


[0:05:46.4] KM: Only the males got to come to America to get educated.


[0:05:48.7] SS: Yes.


[0:05:49.4] KM: You thought that would happen to you. Instead, your father did what?


[0:05:54.3] SS: Instead, he got me married. He arranged my marriage.


[0:05:58.3] KM: That is fascinating to me. Some Americans cannot understand the idea of an arranged marriage.


[0:06:05.2] SS: Really. That's the foundation of our society back, one of the foundations of – it’s a very common phenomena.


[0:06:13.8] KM: I know. Tell us about how it happened and how it came to be and why you like it, why it's acceptable. I've had other friends who've had arranged marriages and I've heard what they've had to say about it. I think our listeners would love to hear how it happened, and –


[0:06:28.3] SS: You see, marriage is not a union of just two people. It's coming together of two families who are going to be interacting a lot with each other and raising the next generation of kids together. It's important that families get along as well. The way it happened in my case, which is true for many, many, many Pakistanis, if not most, is that my family started looking for a suitable groom for me. They searched, like all the other – many other families are searching too. They were looking for a family, which is similar to their own background and a family which has to offer what I wanted.


They knew what their daughter wanted. They knew my personality. They knew what my goals and aspirations in life. They were looking for a groom who is able to fulfill what I was looking for. I wanted somebody who's highly educated, who would respect a strong and independent woman, who would let me study after my marriage and who is going to the United States, because I wanted to pursue higher education in United States.


Lots of proposals would come and me and my parents would discuss them together, things that would work for them, or things they would reject and things that I would reject. Eventually and very soon, we found this proposal, which we all agreed upon because it has to offer the things that we both were looking for me and my parents. I said yes. My husband was in England at that time. He was doing his master's, so I never got to meet with him, or visit with him. He came to Pakistan a couple of days before we got married. Yeah, but the we're still married, heavily married actually and it works great.


[0:08:17.2] KM: Did they ask him what he wanted and he said, “I want all the all the same things,” I guess you just mentioned?


[0:08:24.5] SS: I am sure his family was looking for what their son likes in a girl and the things that he hopes for in a girl. That's why the whole institution of arranged marriage works, because it's not based on love, because you can fall in and out of love. It's based on personality, is based on a level of commitment and responsibility. When you make that commitment towards each other, the bride and the groom and the families and you do your best to work hard in it and make it a success.


[0:08:59.2] KM: Who wants things better for you to be the best they can be than your parents? Who knows you better than anybody else than your parents?


[0:09:08.7] SS: That's true. Their experience in the institution of marriage as well, I mean, I did not know before getting married that what are the things which should become issues of for four, five, six, 10 years of marriage. Dishwashing, or laundry. We don't even think about those things. When we think about marriage, we think about love. Then parents are thinking they're putting – thinking about all the practical things as well.


Yeah, and plus it's a joint decision. I mean, people have this misconception that arranged marriage means your parents are going to pick somebody for you and get you off to married. It's not like that. I mean, educated families, they talk to each other and they decide together.


[0:09:47.2] KM: How did they correspond with each other? Through e-mails and pictures back and forth? I mean, how did the family – the parents, I assume –


[0:09:55.1] SS: The parents.


[0:09:55.5] KM: Yes. How did the parents arranged it?


[0:09:57.1] SS: They met – so we are distant, distant family relatives. They met with each other several times and they communicated with each other through common relatives.


[0:10:10.1] KM: Then they go visit each other.


[0:10:11.9] SS: Then they visit each other. They visited me.


[0:10:14.5] KM: Did you meet your husband's mother and father before you met him?


[0:10:19.2] SS: Ancestors and aunt.


[0:10:20.5] KM: All of them before you meet?


[0:10:22.4] SS: Yes. Yes.


[0:10:24.3] KM: I’m sorry Americans. I would love to pick all of my children’s life mates.


[0:10:31.8] G: Oh, boy.


[0:10:34.1] KM: When I look back, I think maybe my parents could have picked a good one for me also, because you know who wants better for you than them? That's fascinating. I have to ask. I know your religion is modest and stuff, but you talk about the love. I mean, you've got to be scared. You've never met this guy before. Do you consummate on the first day you met? I mean, that seems – that would be weird.


[0:10:57.8] SS: Well, it depends. The difference between love marriage and arranged marriage is that in arranged marriage, you fall in love after you get married. You start getting to know each other, you start – the whole process of courtship happens after you get married.


[0:11:14.2] KM: That makes me feel a lot better, because I always worry about these young girls. Okay, you don’t just have to go home and the guy goes, “All right, take your clothes off.” You’re married now. That makes me really uncomfortable, but it's not that way. It's the beginning of a courtship.


[0:11:28.5] SS: It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Yes, that's true. In my case, it was different because we were living in two different continents. Nowadays, my daughter is turning 20 and I was with her yesterday and I'm also always asking her, “Should I start looking for proposals for you? Shall I start sending boys your way?” They do have a chance to get to know each other, even before they get married. It's just that the family is helping you find the right boy and the right family.


[0:11:57.1] KM: She was born in America, right?


[0:11:58.7] SS: Yeah.


[0:12:00.3] KM: She okay with that?


[0:12:01.9] SS: As of now, yes. I mean, it's easier to find – meet with people when your family is helping you connect with so many people out there. More resources to find the right guy.


[0:12:13.9] KM: Love it. How old is your daughter?


[0:12:15.6] SS: 20.


[0:12:16.1] KM: How old were you when you got married?


[0:12:17.7] SS: 21.


[0:12:19.2] KM: Time is growing short for her. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Miss Sophia Said, economist, Muslim, community activist, educator and executive director at the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, who is working to reduce fear and hatred among world religions. We'll be back right after the break.




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[0:13:36.4] KM: Before the break, we've been talking with Miss Sophia Said. You're listening right now to Up In your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. This is a worldly woman. She has a BA in economics. She is a graduate of the Clinton Public School of Service, which you get a master's degree in public service, I think.


[0:13:55.7] SS: Yes, ma'am.


[0:13:56.7] KM: She is a Pakistani and an American citizen. She is a practicing Muslim and is the current executive director at the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, who is working like I said before, to reduce fear and hatred among world religions, which we need so much now. In 2015, she was the Arkansas humanitarian of the year, along with other awards she's received.


Before the break, we talked about arranged marriages. If you are just tuning in, you have got to go and listen to her tell the story of why it is a good idea. I love your explanation of it. I think it dispels a lot of wrong ideas people have about it. Now you're married. Your family and you have chosen a man that is going to be educated in America. That was important to you, because you wanted to come to America to get educated. You've moved of all places to Utah and you're going to school getting a degree, I believe in economics at the University of Utah, or University State? What's it called?


[0:15:02.5] SS: University of Utah.


[0:15:03.7] KM: University of Utah. Can you tell us about that? What was it like when you first got there?


[0:15:09.4] SS: When I first got there, actually it was a little bit of culture shock, but not too much, because Salt Lake City is heavily LDS population, Mormon population. Their cultural values and family values are very similar to Muslims, the way they dress. There is not much alcohol consumption. They have a lot of children. For example, we were living in the student housing for University of Utah. Most of the married students were there.


Every family had two, three, four, five kids. Most of the women were staying home taking care of the children, like me, which was pretty unusual. You don't see that in many other states. Utah has a different culture, because people have more children and women do give initial few years to kids more than as compared to other states.


I loved being there. It was an easy transition to America, starting from Utah. Then when my husband graduated from his PhD, then I decided to start school, which I always wanted to do. I did my bachelors from University of Utah. That was a very good experience for me. It was like a dream come true for me.


[0:16:22.4] KM: You moved there in 1996. Your husband, I guess, sounds like from what you just said, you became pregnant, start having your children while he was getting his PhD. When he graduated, you had children?


[0:16:35.2] SS: When he graduated, I had both my children, my son and my daughter and they both were in elementary school. That's when I started my school. I would put them in the school bus in the morning, send them off, then go for my own classes.


[0:16:48.8] KM: You got a degree in economics.


[0:16:51.1] SS: I got a BSC in economics. Yes.


[0:16:54.1] KM: You graduated summa cum laude?


[0:16:56.9] SS: That's true. Yup.


[0:16:58.9] KM: You ended up getting to give the commencement speech.


[0:17:04.6] SS: That was a huge honor incurred of me. Yes. I'm very proud of that.


[0:17:08.9] KM: When your husband decides to take another job in Little Rock, well I guess while you were there, 9/11 happened didn't it?


[0:17:17.2] SS: Yeah.


[0:17:17.9] KM: While you were in Utah, 9/11 happened.


[0:17:20.1] SS: Yes.


[0:17:20.7] KM: How did that change your life?


[0:17:23.4] SS: Well, actually 9/11 changed the lives of most of the Muslims, not me, if not everybody. In many different ways, the way we live, the way we perceive the world and the way world perceives us. Everything changed. One of the big changes, I'll tell you that I never covered myself before 9/11. I started wearing my headscarf and my hijab after 9/11.


Well, that was a time when a lot of Muslim women were taking off their scarfs, because they were being persecuted for wearing the headscarf. For me, it was really important to embrace my religion and my identity at that time. I decided to visibly look like a Muslim.


I also thought, it's our responsibility as Muslims to educate people around us about what our faith is, what are the true teachings of Islam. I started a lot of education, or public speaking in local churches to tell people about Islam. I started teaching children at the local mosque, because I also felt it's really important for our own children, Muslim children to know the true teachings of Islam, so they do not get brainwashed, or influenced by what extremists are doing, which is not Islam.


I think for the first time after 9/11, I started thinking about myself, who am I and what is my religion? Why am I Muslim? What Islam teaches me? It was a journey of self-discovery, self-reflection. As I learned about my own faith in a more intentional way, I started also spreading that awareness to the people around me. Yes, it changed everything, especially when you have children who are going to school and who will look brown, who are immigrants. I mean, you are facing issues day in and day out.


[0:19:14.2] KM: As a rebellious streak in you, you decided to start wearing your hijab.


[0:19:20.3] SS: Yes, that's true.


[0:19:21.4] KM: It's like you said, the opposite of what everybody else did.


[0:19:24.9] SS: I remember, I used to teach in the Sunday school at mosque. When I was going, my husband said, “Please don't cover your head.” I normally never used to. I would only cover it on Sundays before going to mosque. In that Sunday I said, “No, I will cover my head.” I remember when I was driving to the mosque and when we were stopped on the red light, the car next to me, the person rolled his window down and he yelled at me to go home and I don't belong here.


I think the more hatred and fear I saw in people's eyes for Muslims, the more resolved I was, the more determined I become to embrace my identity and tell them that no, that is not right. You have to know the real Muslims. Yes, that was a rebellious streak. Then it stayed with me. I mean, it's been years now that I've been wearing headscarf.


[0:20:19.8] KM: You know that you could say the same about the extreme Christians, that bomb abortion clinics and blow up government buildings in the name of Christianity. It's the extremists, that if you were an outsider looking in, you might – could say that about Christians if you or not – if you didn't know that that's not their religion either.


[0:20:42.4] SS: Tell you, that's true for every religion. I don't think extremists have a religion. Extremists are there in Judaism, in Christianity, in Buddhism, in Islam. These are people who have extremist tendencies. It's not the religion that makes them extremists. I don't divide people as Christian, Jewish and Muslim. I think they are good people and they're bad people. There are good people in every faith and there are bad people in every faith.


[0:21:07.7] KM: When you said you wanted to go and tell what the Muslim faith was and renew your faith in them and then you felt it was your responsibility to go talk to children about what the Muslim faith was, what did you say the teachings were? What were some of the main points you said?


[0:21:26.0] SS: Well, Islam basically in essence, the word Islam means peace and it's a religion of peace and a religion of love. That's how I learned it. That's how I practice it. Anything good that I do, it comes to me from my faith. All my contributions to my society, to humanity are because of my faith, because it inspires me to be a better person every single day. I thought that is what needs to be communicated out.


The positive contribution of Islam and Muslims, the message of hope, growth and opportunity and peace and non-violence that it gives out, which is unfortunately not given a lot of limelight, or voice nowadays.


Islam is not a religion that started on 9/11. It's a 1,439 years old religion and Muslims, Christians, Jews, they used to live in peace and harmony with each other. Muslims have created amazing civilizations and art and science and history. It seems to me nowadays that all that is forgotten just because of the actions of a few, or whatever the geopolitical conditions are. I thought it's really important that people look at Islam in its entirety as a religion, as sister religion of Judaism and Christianity. That's what I taught.


Also, I think it's important that we see each other as humans and connect each other at human level. That is another thing we do through Interfaith Center as well, that let's look at the common human element in each other.


[0:23:06.2] KM: Love thy neighbor. Your husband's taking the job in Little Rock, Arkansas. He's working at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. Qayyim Said. You moved here in 2007. He graduated in 2007, gave the valedictorian speech. Come home, he says, “All right, honey. That's over. We’re moving to Little Rock, Arkansas.” He said, “Let me get the map out. Where is that?”


[0:23:30.6] SS: Exactly. I did know that this is the Clinton state.


[0:23:36.6] KM: Yeah. You move here.


[0:23:38.4] SS: Yeah.


[0:23:40.0] KM: Tell us a little bit about that.


[0:23:42.0] SS: I actually wanted to pursue my PhD after my bachelors. Initially, it was a bummer for me that oh, we're moving to Little Rock and there is not a place where I can do my PhD, but then –


[0:23:53.2] KM: Did you all hear she said bummer? Okay, I just want you to know that. Okay, go ahead. She’s very American. All right, go ahead.


[0:23:58.7] SS: Then when I did my research on Little Rock, I found Clinton School of Public Service, which is essentially going to teach me the same things, but at least the work I'll do after that would be same. I was actually pretty excited that we will see American South. I had traveled a lot in America. I traveled from coast to coast and border to border. I have seen not all, but more than 35 states, but not the south part. I was really excited to be in American South. Then Clinton School of Public Service gave me an opportunity to do something different than PhD, but with similar outcomes.


I was very excited. I came here. I pursued my masters. Both my children were in middle and high school. I worked with some local organizations as an economist, but started more and more focus on interfaith work, because my children were growing and I thought there is a need to teach people interfaith cooperate – the skills of interfaith cooperation.


[0:25:00.4] KM: I'm sure it helped them cope at school.


[0:25:04.4] SS: Well, I hope so. That's why I started my work, but I hope. One day, my son came home and at dinner table, we would share stories of what happened at the school. My daughter was younger than my son and was spunkier than my son. She told me that, “Mom, Askia’s friend called him a terrorist again today.” I asked my son, “What did you do about it, honey?” He was like, “No, nothing. You know people don't know and it happens every other day. No big deal about it.”


We were sitting at our dinner table and it really struck me that I am doing so much interfaith work. Look at my child, he does not know how to respond to somebody who's calling him an extremist. The kid is born and raised in America. He does not even know what an extremist is. I asked him that, “You should have responded. You know that this is not what Muslims are.” My daughter said, “Mom, don't worry. I took care of it.” I said, “Really, how did you take care of it?” She said, “The child who called Askia a terrorist, he was a Hindu.” I said, okay. I said, “If you think our God is mean and tell us to go and kill people, your God is so cheap you can buy it off a retail store’s shelf.”


I cut right back at him. If my God is mean, his God is cheap. I was looking at my two beloved children that one of them does not know how to respond to a bully who is calling him an extremist. The other one is actually turning into a bully. Both of them lack the communication skills that they needed to talk about faith. That's how actually some of my work started. I thought it's really important that we teach our young children and teenagers how to talk about faith and how can we do that if they'd never talk about faith to each other?


I started this program, which is called Multi-Faith Youth Group of Arkansas back in 2011. It's a group of teenagers, high schoolers who are from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist faiths and no faith. They come together twice a month. They have interfaith dialog with each other. They talk about world issues. They talk about extremism and terrorism. They talk about gun violence. They talk about tolerance and love and patience. They do service projects together. They started the group in 9th grade. They graduated in 12th grade. It's been going on for years now.


We have graduated several high schoolers that have gone to different amazing universities. The key thing is we are creating the leaders of the future who know how to communicate the diversity, deal with diversity, how to respect each other's differences and live in a positive, healthy inclusive community.


[0:28:06.6] KM: Thank you. That's wonderful. How do people get involved in that? How do they learn about it?


[0:28:13.6] SS: If we go to theinterfaithcenter.org, that's our website. Theinterfaithcenter.org. All of our programming will be there, multi-faith youth group is one of the programs, actually the first program.


[0:28:26.7] KM: What was the name of the website again? Interfaith?


[0:28:28.9] SS: Theinterfaithcenter.org.


[0:28:34.4] KM: The interfaithcenter.org. We'll have that link at flagandbanner.com’s website too. You're listening to Up In your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Miss Sophia Said, a worldly woman. She has a BA in economics. She's a graduate of the Clinton Public School of Service. She is a Pakistani. She is an American citizen. She is a practicing Muslim and is the current executive director at the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2015, she was the Arkansas humanitarian of the year. After this interview or during this interview I can definitely see why.


Also, you can send me an e-mail if you want to and I can hook you up with her. We did give the name of her website, theinterfaithcenter.org. If you want to get involved, or learn more about her, the good work she's doing.


Let's do talk about what it is the executive director of the Interfaith Center is doing. You've got camps for children, which we've already talked about in the last segment, which almost made me cry, because I just thought that is the nicest thing and I just absolutely love kids and the idea of them getting together just floats my boat. We've talked a little bit about the similarities of religions.


You like to say that you're building bridges of peace. I read this quote, where you said you're building bridges of peace and harmony through promoting a peaceful dialogue. The Interfaith Center has something coming up called love thy neighbor. What is that?


[0:30:06.5] SS: Love thy neighbor is an interfaith prayer service that we started eight years ago on the anniversary of 9/11, because me as a Muslim, I've always felt on 9/11 that there's tension in the air.


[0:30:20.8] KM: For everybody.


[0:30:21.3] SS: The Muslim community is literally, I am not exaggerating, scared to go out, because anybody can say anything to them. People are scared of Muslims that they – and Muslims are scared of the larger community. That needs to change. Eight years ago, we decided that on this day, instead of people being scared of each other and not interacting with each other, let's do something in which we can bring people of different faiths together under one roof and we can pray together and we can sing together and we can eat together and we can get to know each other and build relationships.


[0:30:58.5] KM: I love that, praying, singing, eating. I think we've got a phone call. You're on the air, Madison. This is Up In your Business with Kerry McCoy. Have you got a question for my guest?


[0:31:09.8] Madison: I do. I want to know what the tenet is of Islam that requires the head being covered and why and what age does that start?


[0:31:20.4] SS: It’s not a tenet. It's a dress code that in Islam, we say that girls, or women once post-puberty, they should dress modestly. It's interpreted differently by different women. Some women cover themselves completely. You will see their hands and feet and face covered as well. Only, you can see their eyes. Other women like me, they would only cover the body, except for hands, feet or face. There are women like my daughter who wouldn't even cover their hair. The thing is that God asks us to cover our beauty and dress modestly, so women can be respected for who they are intellectually, emotionally and spiritually and not for their physical, or outwardly beauty.


[0:32:13.3] KM: Nice answer. Thank you for your call.


[0:32:14.3] Madison: I love that.


[0:32:15.6] KM: Thank you for your call. It's not required, because you said you didn't wear yours.


[0:32:22.9] SS: It's something that God asks us to do.


[0:32:25.5] KM: It's a choice.


[0:32:26.9] SS: It's always a choice. In Islam, there is no compulsion. In fact, it says in the holy book, there is no compulsion in religion. God asks you to do certain things and whether you do them or not, you have a choice. You are a free-will human being. I never used to cover myself, like I told you pre-9/11. After that, I became more spiritual and I wanted to submit and experience that what it feels like to be a woman who is respected for what and how she thinks. I wanted to divert this attention that I get from people, because of how I'm dressed up, or how beautiful I look.


[0:33:05.4] KM: I believe that there is a common desire of women in America, or all women is that they want to be respected in the boardroom for their minds. I'm not sure that American women dress that way. I've never thought about the reason Muslim women dress like that, and it makes pretty good sense if you're wanting to be respected for your mind, and you make that the focal point. Your love thy neighbor, celebration of peace, food, singing, prayer. Is there dancing?


[0:33:36.2] SS: As of now, we haven't practiced dancing in the prayer service, but this is our 8th year. It's intergenerational service of music, wisdom and prayers. This year we have two very, very special guests coming. One of our guest is Dr. Barnwell, who used to be the singer and composer in a band called Sweet Honey in the Rock. She did that for years before retiring to lead these vocal community workshops. She lives in Washington DC and she's flying in for this program and she will be doing a sing-along during the interfaith prayer service. That's one special guest.


Then we have another very special guest coming whose name is Mohammed Ninowy, Sheikh. Dr. Mohammed Ninowy, who is my teacher and a world-renowned Islamic scholar from Syria, who is founder of several Islamic centers and mosques around the world. He will be coming and he will be talking about Islam and spirituality. These two are among of the several different attractions that will be there that night. River City men's choir will be singing and we'll have a wonderful tasty meal after the prayer service, in which the dishes will be cooked by different congregations around the town. You will eat from different faiths.


[0:35:05.9] KM: What time does this start? It’s September the 5th.


[0:35:08.9] SS: It's Thursday, September the 5th. The service will start sharp at 6. It will finish by 7. Then we have the meal from 7 to 8.


[0:35:19.7] KM: The performances and the speeches are during the meal, or does it go through the weekend?


[0:35:24.0] SS: No, no. It's a 1 hour-long service.


[0:35:26.6] KM: All those people are going to talk during the service.


[0:35:28.4] SS: Yes. It's very short talks. The service is from 6 to 7, in which we will have River City men's choir, Dr. Mohammed Ninowy, Dr. Esau Barnwell, everything happens in one hour. It's a very short and sweet prayer service, so I encourage you all to attend, because even if you have young children, everybody can sit for 50 to 55 minutes. Then it's food and fellowship.


[0:35:51.6] KM: There’s not any babysitting provided, is there?


[0:35:55.0] SS: There is no babysitting, but it's like I said, very intergenerational service, so children are more than welcome to be there. You will see a lot of children in the audience actually.


[0:36:04.8] KM: It sounds like it's going to be a sellout.


[0:36:06.9] SS: It normally is. It's roomful. We have our own – Interfaith Center there's a lot of programming for children, so they all show up too. Yes.


[0:36:16.8] KM: It’s at St. Margaret's – no, St. Mark’s.


[0:36:19.6] SS: It’s at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church on Mississippi Avenue.


[0:36:22.8] KM: Even though the Interfaith Center is at St. Margaret's in West Little Rock, Arkansas, this will be at St. Mark's.


[0:36:31.2] SS: Interfaith Center is a ministry of St. Margaret's. After hosting the service there for the first three years, the service grew much larger than the size of the sanctuary at St. Margaret's, so we moved to a bigger room at St. Mark's. We are very happy that they give us the space and host us there every year.


[0:36:52.1] KM: Do you go to theinterfaithcenter.org to buy tickets?


[0:36:58.1] SS: You don't have to buy tickets, but we would like you to register for the event. You go to theinterfaithcenter.org to register, or you can just show up. It's a free service. Everybody is welcome to the service, end of the meal. There is no charge. We just want you to come with an open attitude and get ready to be with people who are different from you.


[0:37:21.3] KM: Wonderful. Wonderful work. You are listening to Up In your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Miss Sophia Said, a worldly woman and the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center located at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, who is working to reduce fear and hatred among the world religions.


You were named the peacemaker of the year by the Arkansas Coalition of Peace and Justice. Was there one specific thing that they chose you for that? Was it your work with the children? Was it your work with putting together the Interfaith Center? How did the Interfaith Center come about?


[0:38:00.4] SS: Interfaith Center is a ministry of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, which was founded by Reverend Susan Sims Smith and Reverend Chris Keller. I was independently working in the city creating interfaith programming, like the multi-faith youth group I talked to you about. Because I thought that it's my passion, it's my calling. As an American Muslim, I must contribute to the community. When Reverend Susan Sims Smith heard about my work from others and when the word spread, she reached out to me. She asked me to join her at Interfaith Center. I was very happy to do that, because there is no – it was the same mission. I joined Interfaith Center back in 2012 when it was just starting.


[0:38:54.6] KM: Like you said, you always hold your festival each year around 9/11, because it's a fearful time for Muslims. It's not just Muslims that come to your festival. Do you call it a festival?


[0:39:08.6] SS: It's an interfaith prayer service.


[0:39:09.9] KM: You call it a prayer service. I have been to once years ago. You had speakers from several religions that year. Who are your participatory religions?


[0:39:21.1] SS: Interfaith Center has participation from Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha'i, people who we call spiritual seekers who do not adhere to any one religion. Hindus of course, atheists, agnostics. We welcome everybody and all these religions and leaders from these religions have been a part of our work.


[0:39:48.7] KM: You named it love thy neighbor, because?


[0:39:52.5] SS: Because I think that's one common golden rule, common to all the different world religions. Every religion teaches you to love your neighbor.


[0:40:01.7] KM: That's a wonderful mission for you to have. I have a gift for you today. Here it is. It's a desk set. That is the US flag where you're living. That is the Pakistani flag. Look, she recognize –


[0:40:12.3] SS: Oh, wow. Thank you.


[0:40:13.8] KM: That’s Utah.


[0:40:14.7] SS: That’s Utah.


[0:40:15.4] KM: That's Arkansas.


[0:40:17.2] SS: Oh, thank you so much. That is so neat. That is so neat.


[0:40:23.1] KM: What do you want your legacy to be? What is the future going to hold for Sophia?


[0:40:28.7] SS: Honestly, I don't know because I do not plan my future. I definitely do want to see – I live in a country, which is a country – it's a dream country for people to come to, especially who have passions, who want self-actualization in life, people like me. They come here, because it's the country where dreams come true. You can actually rely on your own hard work and be something, because the barriers are minimum. I have been able to do that. I want to make sure that these opportunities are available to the next generations of Americans, immigrants and non-immigrants alike.


My dream is that whatever we can do to protect the legacy of the American dream, to protect the values and the freedoms that this nation offers to its citizens. We can only do that if we learn how to live with each other, how to interact with each other, how to communicate with each other. We cannot build walls among each other. We need to learn interfaith cooperation, to create inclusive communities.


Because I have enjoyed so much from this nation, I have – this nation has given me so much. I want to make sure that the child who lands on the shores of America from Syria, he or she has the same opportunities that you had and your grandfathers had and that I have and my children have. I think, we all have a responsibility to keep America's values intact as a nation of immigrants, as the most diverse nation in the world.


[0:42:11.0] KM: Do you fear for us? Or are you optimistic?


[0:42:15.1] SS: I'm very optimistic.


[0:42:16.9] KM: Of course, you are. That's the way you are. Sophia, thanks for joining me and my listeners. This has been a great interview. I have enjoyed meeting you and talking with you so much. Gray, who's our guest next week?


[0:42:30.8] G: Guest next week is Mr. Hank Kelly.


[0:42:34.0] KM: Mr. Hank Kelly is a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas. He was recently elected president of the Rotary Club 99 in Downtown and he has been also the president of Flake and Kelly Commercial Real Estate. Another successful business that I don't know if he found. I guess, he found it. It’s got his name in it.


I just wanted to thank you again, Sophia. I have really, really enjoyed meeting with you. Thanks. Good luck with everything you're doing.


[0:43:01.1] SS: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.


[0:43:03.0] KM: I hope to see you September the 5th at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. For those listeners who might have a great entrepreneurial story they'd like to share, send a brief bio and your contact info to me, kerry@flagandbanner.com and someone will be in touch.


To all, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring, or enlightening. If you haven't, you haven't been listening. That whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I'm Kerry McCoy and I'll see you next time on Up In your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.




[0:43:39.3] G: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today’s show, go to flagandbanner.com, select Radio Show and choose today’s guest. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Subscribe to podcasts wherever you like to listen.


Kerry’s goal is simple, to help you live the American Dream.



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