Umrah, also known as the lesser pilgrimage, is a religious journey with a variety of benefits for Muslims who are blessed by their Lord to perform it. It was reported by Abu Hurairah that Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, said that the performance of Umrah expiates the sins between the Umrah performed and the next one. Additionally, Umrah gives Muslims the opportunity to visit and pray in the House of Allah where, according to hadeeth, each obligatory prayer is worth 100,000 prayers. Many who perform Umrah also visit Medina, the second holiest city in our religion, a place that is full of blessings and history. For many, an Umrah trip is a transformational experience that will always be a beloved memory in one’s heart. For many converts to Islam, taking this transformative journey can also seem like a fleeting dream.
Embrace: A Project of ICNA
Embrace is a convert-led organization that focuses on supporting converts to Islam. Their mission is to empower, integrate, and serve our American Muslim convert community by providing social and educational spaces that encourage growth, shape their Islamic identity, and provide them with the tools they need for their lifelong journey. This organization was founded in response to the challenges and difficulties facing American Muslim converts. Studies show that 7 out of 10 converts eventually end up leaving Islam, returning to their previous religion. A primary factor for this alarmingly high turnover rate is the lack of belonging and support many American Muslim converts feel from the larger Muslim community.
Umrah, a Transformational Journey for Converts
Embrace partnered with “3 Puerto Rican Imams,” another convert-led organization, and Amax Travel to provide a life-changing Umrah trip specifically for American Muslim converts. This trip was conducted towards the end of February, 2020. Embrace wanted to provide an Umrah trip catering to converts during which they can grow spiritually and experience it with other converts who have similar backgrounds. This Umrah trip could serve not only as a spiritual experience but also as a community-building opportunity to develop friendships and connections that would last a lifetime. This is especially important as many converts develop feelings of loneliness and isolation as they try to navigate the many changes to their lives and lifestyles once they have converted. Additionally, Embrace wants to help converts become active members in their own communities, and even embrace leadership roles. As American-born Muslims, they can do much to help change the negative perspective of Islam in America. Through this Umrah trip, Embrace hoped to help converts learn the history and religious significance of the many venerable sites in Mecca and Medina. From there, converts could use their experiences and growth to further benefit their own local communities.
The Umrah trip had over 40 participants, the vast majority of whom were converts to Islam. The group was diverse, some being Muslim for decades while others having converted more recently. It was an especially emotional journey for the more experienced converts who have been waiting nearly a decade or more for this opportunity. Sr. Karysa Gurwell, a Puerto Rican convert of 8 years, said that the connection to her Lord that she has been desperately craving had been so beautifully fulfilled through this trip. Br. Jeffrey Sykes, an African American convert of three years, explained that being able to share this journey with other converts who have been Muslim for one or two decades and might have been waiting long to experience Umrah, highlighted for him the value of the trip itself and how fortunate he was to experience it so early in his own journey of Islam.
The trip was led by two American convert imams, Shaykh Gyasi McKinzie and Imam Wesley Lebron. These two imams were able to easily identify with the other converts and teach them from personal experience and from a perspective that converts can easily relate to. The two imams led discussions as the group visited multiple historical sites in both Medina and Mecca. Shaykh McKinzie pointed out to the participants that all of the companions at the time of the Prophet were converts to Islam like themselves. Participants really appreciated this point as it highlighted their own value in the contemporary Muslim community, as well as their connection to the earliest followers of Islam.
Shaykh Gyasi McKinzie (left) and Imam Wesley Lebron (middle) leading a discussion near Mount Uhud.
Brother Malik Shaw, a longtime American Muslim convert, explained that converts do not typically get the opportunity to go to Umrah or Hajj with individuals of the same ilk. He expressed that it can be very difficult for converts to connect with other Muslims who may not completely understand the experiences and challenges that come with converting to Islam. Being able to share the experience of Umrah with those who can understand you, and can easily relate to you, makes the experience all the more impactful.
The convert pilgrims making du’a at Mount Safa’ and Marwah
The last day of the trip was very bittersweet for the participants. Before even leaving, everyone’s heart was yearning for an eventual return to Mecca and Medina. The participants felt extremely grateful and blessed for the unforgettable experiences they had and the powerful relationships they built. Heading back home after such a life-changing journey, everyone knew they were truly not alone, but connected in deep ways to those with whom they had shared their experience.
Little did the participants know at the time of their departure that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would implement a temporary ban on all foreign Umrah trips due to the COVD-19 pandemic just a couple days after the Embrace Umrah trip ended. While unfortunate, this fact served to further increase everyone’s gratefulness for being able to experience this wonderful and revitalizing trip when they did.
Kenneth Misurella is a co-founder of Embrace and its National Secretary General.