Like many participants in the Boston Marathon on Monday, Leanne Scorzoni will be running to honor the victims of last year’s bombing. But Scorzoni will also be running in a hijab: she converted to Islam after the attack, and wants her participation to emphasize that Boston’s Muslim community was also hurt by the bombings.
Scorzoni has never run the race before, but the thirty-two-year-old Boston native has watched from the sidelines for decades. Scorzoni was raised in nearby Danvers, and every year her family would arrive at a spot near the corner of Clarendon and Boylston Streets at about 8:30 a.m. sometimes bringing pots and pans to help cheer on marathoners.
Last year, Scorzoni staked out the same spot near the finish line and waited to be joined by a friend of hers named Sam. Unfamiliar with Marathon Monday tradition, he arrived late and, at about 2:30 P.M., he asked where the nearest bathroom was. Scorzoni was reluctant to give up her view of the race, but eventually agreed to guide her friend through the crowds. When the bombs exploded at 2:50, the two were browsing at a nearby Banana Republic on Newbury Street, approximately four blocks away from the finish line. The store’s loud music muffled the blasts, but when Scorzoni turned on her cell phone, she found dozens of texts from friends and family, asking where she was and if she was O.K.—she had been standing less than two blocks away from the initial explosion. Scorzoni doesn’t believe a divine power carried her away from the attack that killed three people and injured more than two hundred and sixty: “It was because my friend had to pee,” she said.
The next day, Scorzoni says, local F.B.I. agents visited her at her job at Massachusetts General Hospital, where they asked about a photo she had uploaded to Facebook of Sam, who is Muslim and from the Middle East. Shaken by the bombing and the encounter with the F.B.I., Scorzoni regularly checked in on her Muslim friends in the days after the bombing. As the media began to sort out the background of the Tsarnaev brothers, local reports also began to surface of sporadic verbal and physical attacks on Muslims, and of hate mail being sent to mosques, including the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, in Roxbury, which the Los Angeles Times originally reported that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had attended, confusing it with the Islamic Society of Boston, located in Cambridge. Scorzoni read about the letters on the center’s Facebook page, but she also saw the many comments of support that came from across the country.
Scorzoni was raised Catholic, but she abandoned the Church in 1999, shortly after family members publicly announced that local priests had sexually abused them. “I was eighteen; I was angry. I was just like, I’m not doing this anymore,” she said, adding that she would often belittle friends and family members over their religious beliefs.
Years later, one of her relatives who had been abused told Scorzoni that he had gotten over his anger toward religion and that she needed to do the same. When she moved back to Boston, in 2011, she remembered seeing many ads for the I.S.B.C.C. on public transportation around the city, and later found out that the center was two blocks from where she lived. She first visited the I.S.B.C.C. in the summer of 2012; on her way to the grocery store, she asked a woman who was leaving the mosque if anybody could visit. “I was thinking it was like Mormonism, where only Mormons can go in,” she said.
Scorzoni went into the center’s bookstore, where she met Sam for the first time and engaged in a three-hour discussion about religion with the shop’s owner. As she began to make new friends at the mosque, she would observe prayer services and occasionally sit on prayer rugs and meditate. The I.S.B.C.C. thus became a special place for her: it was she where she began to feel comfortable again with being in religious surroundings. In Islam, Scorzoni found “more of a sense of ritual and meditation and contemplation I wanted in my life.”
Five weeks after the bombing, she called Suhaib Webb, the imam of the I.S.B.C.C., and told him that she was ready to convert. She walked to the mosque in jeans, a shirt, and flip-flops; after the ceremony, she and Sam celebrated just as casually, eating watermelon and chicken fingers on the mosque’s steps.
The I.S.B.C.C. has been a visible force in the local Muslim community’s efforts to support victims of the bombing. Last Friday, the I.S.B.C.C. organized a khutbah, or sermon, in remembrance of victims, and, on Tuesday, Webb spoke at a night of “Remembrance and Hope” at the Old South Church. Scorzoni was also in attendance and, at one point during the evening, runners were asked to stand. “Everyone started clapping, and all the runners just started crying, and soon everyone was crying,” she said. “Everyone in the church prayed for all of us, not even just the runners—prayed for the city.”
While she regularly attends services and will wear a hijab on Monday, Scorzoni also carries what she describes as “white privilege,” which many other Muslims do not have. She works part-time teaching English as a second language; many of her students are young Muslims living alone in the United States or working seventy-hour weeks to support their families here. She knows that the Tsarnaev brothers, who lived in the United States for almost a decade, also had better upbringings than many other Muslims in the area, and thinks that their actions left lingering scars for those who dissociate from their radicalism.
“I just see it as the same way there’s good Catholics and you have the Westboro Baptist Church,” she said, referring to the extremist group that often stages protests against the gay community. “It’s just such a helpless anger, when you curl your hands into fists and you just want to say, ‘You’re forcing everyone else to go five steps back from where they’ve come from.’ These two kids just cheated other people out of their livelihood, their spots—people who could’ve made their own lives better.”
Two other I.S.B.C.C. members will join Scorzoni on Monday to run in the marathon. Officially, Scorzoni is running to raise money for Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Pediatric Hematology and Oncology. But, when people ask Scorzoni what they can do to help, she tells them to go to the marathon and show that the tradition will continue, uninterrupted.
On Monday, when Scorzoni crosses the finish line, her family will be there to cheer her on, as will Sam and other friends from the I.S.B.C.C. “I believe we are moving away from, ‘Hey, look, a Muslim doing something normal,’ ” Scorzoni said. “Now we see a myriad of cultures and religions here, as it should be.”