Catholic health system helps launch Muslim center: Avera’s untold story of community building

By Jodi Schwan

It’s the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the Muslims Community Center in Sioux Falls is open even in the middle of the night.

Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. When they are able to eat, it’s often done as a community.

There is a special prayer said at 3 a.m. the last 10 days.

There is a custom of staying in one place for days, to pray and stay away from worldly activities.

All of these religious observances and more happen in the center at 3932 S. Western Ave., the only place of its kind in Sioux Falls.

Dr. Hesham Elgouhari

“It’s something very unique and very productive,” said Dr. Hesham Elgouhari, as he goes on to explain why:

“A Catholic organization helped a Muslim organization to start.”

Building a bridge

Shortly after Elgouhari moved to Sioux Falls nine years ago to work with the liver disease group at Avera Medical Group, he and a small group of physicians approached Sister Mary Thomas, the senior vice president of mission and service at Avera McKennan, with a request.

“We were looking to get some sort of center to serve the community,” he said. “Not a mosque, just a comprehensive area where people can come and pray and socialize and learn.”

The ask was made “with some trepidation, not knowing how the Catholic sponsorship for Avera was going to be receptive to their needs,” recalls Dick Molseed, the health system’s executive vice president of strategy and governance.

There was no need to wonder.

The Muslim doctors thought that, as a sister, “I live in a community and I would understand the importance of community,” Thomas said. “I said, of course.”

Thomas brought top Avera leadership together and told them of the need.

“She said, ‘It’s not because they’re Muslim or because we’re Christian, it’s because these people need a place. They need help, ” Molseed said. “They have a tie to Avera, and they need assistance.”

The Muslims Community Center is at 3932 S. Western Ave.

So Avera started looking for space. It found a spot in the hospital that could be used for prayer, which Muslims must do five times daily. Then came the search for a community center.

Avera had just opened its Prairie Center and had 9,000 square feet in a retail center along Western Avenue it no longer needed.

“So we worked with them to remodel it and supported their efforts,” Molseed said. “They were very concerned about the finances of this because they were just coming together as a community. We helped them financially for a very short period of time to make renovations and with rent until they got organized, and then their collections could pay for everything just like in my church.”

The dream suddenly seemed within reach, Elgouhari said.

“They showed nothing but support and sympathy and help and kindness,” he said.

Thriving center

By 2015, the Muslims Community Center was operating so effectively that it became time for tenant and landlord to switch sides.

The center bought entire the building from Avera for $1.1 million.

“And now we rent space from them,” Molseed said. “It’s a wonderful transition.”

The center is critical to supporting the area Muslim community, which Elgouhari estimates has grown to between 4,000 and 5,000 people in the Sioux Falls area.

It’s the place where kids learn Arabic, where the community holds a weekly mass prayer and where Islamic school is taught on Sundays. But it’s also the place where baby showers, birthday parties and blood drives are held, and where people in need of financial help can find it.

“And we have huge activity for interfaith. A lot of churches, high schools, colleges, co-workers, the Avera Leaders Program and other people come and visit us all the time to build bridges with the community,” Elgouhari said. “We try as much as we can to correct people about Islam and Muslim issues, trying to show the peaceful nature of Islam and the harmony of Islam, and it’s all volunteer except for our imam.”

Because the center was conceived with an open-door approach, Sioux Falls largely has avoided issues of segregation and silos that can occur within the Muslim world, Elgouhari said. Believers from Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia have bonded with Muslims from India to Iraq.

“We decided from day one we would always have an open door for everyone,” he said. “We would welcome everyone, anytime. There’s no financial commitment.”

The diversity also leads to one impressive monthly potluck, Molseed added.

“If they ever invite you, you have to go,” he said. “The food is phenomenal.”

The center also has had an unexpected benefit for the medical community, he said.

“What we found afterward was there were a number of physicians who were on the precipice of maybe leaving Sioux Falls. And they looked at Sioux Falls much more positively, and it wasn’t just Avera physicians. It was Sanford physicians and other people of the faith.”

“The center is very, very important to recruiting physicians and keeping physicians,” Elgouhari agreed. “Personally, I would not have stayed in Sioux Falls nine years if the center wasn’t here. So it helps retain and recruit not only physicians, but professionals. People coming in for engineering roles, software, banking. All of them come and see the building and the activities and services and say it’s great.”

It’s an outcome rooted in Avera’s mission of supporting the marginalized, Thomas said, “standing with those who do not have access to the goods of the society they’re in.”

“This is part of who we are as sisters to stand with them,” she said. “This is a longstanding tradition that I came from, and this approach made sense to me, and it has continued to blossom. Good can come from this. And I think it has born true in ways we never would have imagined. But we had to be willing to step out.”

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Catholic health system helps launch Muslim center: Avera’s untold story of community building

Avera’s willingness to help Muslims start a center for their faith has created a stronger community.

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