Stepping before the congregation, Governor Charlie Baker took the microphone at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and softly offered “Salam,” a greeting of peace.
“How’d I do?” he then asked, as light laughter rippled through the crowd.
Weeks into his second term, Baker on Friday made his first visit to New England’s largest mosque, where he delivered a message of inclusion and embracing a community’s differences to hundreds of congregants.
Baker attended the prayer service in Roxbury at the request of senior imam Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, making him the first sitting Republican governor in Massachusetts to appear at a Muslim house of worship, according to organizers. Then-governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, visited the mosque in the spring of 2010.
Political affiliation did not play into Baker’s six-minute remarks. But his visit could serve to further separate him from others within his party. In 2016, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio questioned President Obama’s visit to a mosque in suburban Baltimore, his first while in the White House.
Rubio said Obama was “basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims,” and Trump, who once proposed banning Muslims from entering the country, remarked that “maybe [Obama] feels comfortable there.” President Trump, now midway through his first term, has been criticized for making few attempts to connect with the American Muslim community and for sharing anti-Muslim videos on social media.
Speaking Friday, Baker, a Protestant, said he’s visited dozens of houses of worship since first winning the governorship in 2014, often to find similar themes in the sermons.
“The languages are different, the stories are different. But the meaning is the same,” Baker said. “Everybody’s trying to get to the same place. The paths are different. But the goal — this desire to be better than you were yesterday, to be a better person, to serve, to grow — I hear it everywhere I go.”
Addressing reporters afterward, Baker did not directly answer a question on whether the visit could serve as a message to those within the Republican Party, instead noting that he’s sought to show he’s “the governor of all of the people of Massachusetts.”
“Whether you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, I think it’s important for me to make clear to you that you have a place here and that I want to be able to speak with some personal experience to the way you practice your faith and to what your faith is all about,” he said.
“I’m not one of these people who believe at the end of the day that division is what being part of this country is all about,” he later added. “It’s just the opposite. It’s about difference. And difference is a good thing, and if we treat it with the respect that it deserves and we learn from it, we grow.”
Dressed in a dark suit, Baker sat quietly on a rolling chair alongside other interfaith leaders as Fahmy delivered a 40-minute sermon, encouraging the congregation — about 1,500 people attend the weekly prayer service known as jummah — to be “a source of mercy and refuge to everyone.”
Fahmy delivered the invocation at Baker’s State of the Commonwealth speech in 2018, and has since offered prayers at Representative Ayanna Pressley’s swearing-in ceremony and Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s State of the City address last month.
“We can’t fear people. We have to love them,” Fahmy told the congregation Friday. “A lot of what we think about others, a lot of what we think about one another, I promise you the fear, the anger, the hatred — it’s all trumped up. It’s not real. And it certainly should not dictate how we’re going to live out the remainder of our lives in this world.”
Several in attendance said they appreciated Baker’s appearance, though they said his party affiliation mattered little.
“I see it at face value, that this is a person — or anyone, regardless of who they are — if they come and want to meet our community and they’re respectful of us . . . I think that’s a positive thing,” said Faris Masri, a 27-year-old engineer from Quincy.
Muhammad Suleiman, a 23-year-old student from Boston, called Baker’s remarks “heart-warming.”
“It showed a sense of unity that he came,” he said. “To me personally, it shows that he cares, that he cares about the Muslim community.”