The Muslim Mechanic and the Catholic Baker

“Who is my neighbor?”

Jamal Hapatsha (via YouTube)
Jamal Hapatsha (via YouTube) (photo: Screenshot)

On September 15, 2014 my mechanic, Jamal Hapatsha, had a massive heart attack right inside of his gas station here in Haledon, New Jersey. Since he had recently been robbed, Jamal had high-resolution cameras installed to deter theft — and ironically they captured the entire awful event of his cardiac arrest as it happened in real time. (Warning: the video is pretty hard to watch.)

The first person to attend to Mr. Hapatsha was his neighbor-in-business, Kris Mulawka of Verp’s Bakery, who was just pulling into the service station with a flat tire. In the video, Mr. Mulawka works his best to resuscitate Jamal for five full minutes before the arrival of the Haledon police officers, the St. Joseph’s paramedics, and the Paterson EMTs.

In great, good news, Jamal Hapatsha survived and is fine thanks to the quick first aid on the part of Kris Mulawka and the first responders.

But the subtext here is that Jamal is a faithful and practicing Sunni Muslim and Kris is a Catholic. Indeed, now, on the shelf of Verp’s bakery is a commemorative plaque from Jamal to Kris which reads:

“…If anyone saved a life
It would be as if he saved the life of mankind.”
Quran, Chapter 5, verse 5:32

Indeed, so great was Jamal’s thanksgiving that a special reception was held for Kris and all the first-responders at the Haledon Town Hall, in which all were presented with the same personalized plaque on behalf of the Hapatsha family. A recording of that joyful event is found here:

Haledon, New Jersey is unique in that it is a relatively small town (about 9,000 souls) with an increasingly large (and practicing) Muslim population. A rather enormous Mosque and Islamic cultural center is located less than two miles from my house, where Jamal and his family worship.

However, Haledon is also the home of several Catholic strongholds including Mary Help of Christian Academy, one of the first and largest Salesian apostolates in North America. It also has three Catholic parishes (including one staffed by the ever-growing Society of Divine Vocations), and the Jesus Christ Prince of Peace Chapel and Campus Catholic Ministry Center at William Paterson University’s which is so large (and located at the University’s main entrance) that many people mistake the entire college (a State institution) for a Catholic one.

We didn’t plan it this way, but my wife and I (and now our twins) have lived in Haledon for almost fifteen years—we moved out of Brooklyn less than a year after 9/11. In all that time I have never heard (or even, for that matter, read) of any anti-Muslim “hate crime” — nor has the Islamic Center and Mosque ever been viewed as anything but a place of worship (as opposed to a hotbed of sleeper cell activity). I’m not saying that Haledon is crime-free—as mentioned above, Jamal’s gas station was held up and, on another occasion, the bank across the street from the actual police station was robbed. (When asked, the bank robbers claimed they didn’t know the police station was right across the way!) And I’m sure that this tiny hamlet is no different from the rest of America in terms of bigotries and racial prejudices that lurk deep in the darkness of the hatred of some human hearts.

Not long ago I spoke with Haledon’s recently-retired Chief of Police, Louis Mercurio, who was born and raised in nearby North Haledon, about anti-Muslim “hate-crime” (and, for that matter, anti-Christian crime on the part of Muslims). “None. Absolutely none,” Chief Mercurio said referring to the amount of religious-based crime in Haledon. “Muslims first started moving to Haledon in the 1960s,” he recalled, “and by the 1970s more and more Muslims settled here. They all seemed to have been very successful in their businesses and I can’t think of a single instance of Muslim harassment or Christians being attacked by Muslims in Haledon.”

In one of those ironies that one could not invent: Jamal Hapatsha’s brother works in the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department as a peace officer, just two miles from “downtown” Haledon.

And speaking generally of Muslim-Christian relations in Haledon, for the most part, we get along with one another, I think mainly because we have to: my cardiologist is a Muslim with a practice in Haledon. And Jamal (and other mechanics) work on the cars of Catholics without thinking twice about it. Indeed, some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had with Haledonians is in that very same space where Jamal had his heart attack: often, while waiting for my car, I’d talk to various Muslims about their faith — on the walls of Jamal’s shop you can see the ceremonial daggers — and they would ask me about mine.

In America we’ve watered down the word “hero” to quarterbacks and outfielders whose main accomplishment is an ESPN SportsCenter “Top Ten” play-of-the-day. But as Jamal would be the first to point out—and as you can see from the video itself—the real heroes are those who save lives: Kris could have waited a few minutes for the police and paramedics and EMTs to arrive, but he worked tirelessly to save his neighbor’s life.

“But because he [the scholar of the law] wished to justify himself he said to Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10: 29) Here in Haledon our neighbors are in large numbers, Muslim. And Catholic. And heroes.