The three men were old enough to have beards but young enough to look impressionable.
They were walking toward me knowing I was out of place. It was, after all, their mosque, their prayer hall, and yet here I was in black skinny jeans and a bright blue shirt – tucked out.
By contrast, they had subdued robes and prayer caps and a severe sense of awareness.
As they approached, now quite close, I felt my chest tighten and adrenaline skyrocket. For better or worse, I had a fight or flight urge that I could not deny.
Then one of them broke out in a broad smile and said, "Hello," reaching out his hand.
"Hi," I said, voice cracking.
They continued past me to get their shoes and leave the hall, one of five prayers over for the day.
I was surprised by my reaction and wondered why in this Garden Grove mosque, the Islamic Society of Orange County (ISOC), home to the world's second largest religion, I should feel anything but warmth and openness.
The reason, I think, is that I'm a non-Muslim American, raised on TV news, bombarded by singular views and agendas that don't necessarily reflect reality.
It's the reason I went on this educational trip put on by Hoffy Tours based in Laguna Beach (hoffytours.com). There were more than 50 others who spent a Saturday touring ISOC and the Islamic Institute of Orange County (IIOC) in Anaheim. The two mosques are among 22 in Orange County that serve about 40,000 Muslims.
"This tour was definitely a departure from my typical architectural appreciation tours," said Bill Hoffman, tour host and owner. "I chose the tour because people right now are curious and very interested in Islam. Media coverage is over 90% negative, and my guests wanted to know more."
In addition to the formal prayer observance, the tour included various presentations by Islamic leaders, a Q&A, roundtables and a remarkable Koran recitation by a young boy.
The entire day was remarkable, in fact – and exhausting. The topics were heavy and trended toward differences, misconceptions, hate and terrorism.
It was like a day-long TED talk of UN ambassadors broadcasted by PBS. Indeed, the tour attendees resembled retired, scholarly librarians eager to continue their education.
Which is all a good thing.
There was an academic diplomacy to the conversations. Around the lunch tables, each with a guest Muslim expert, no one interrupted or argued about arcane doctrine. Instead, there was acceptance about the details that define Islam over Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism.
The intent was not to prove anyone wrong, but to embrace what is right.
"We have to work together," said Muzammil Siddiqi, the leading imam in Orange County. "The majority of people are seeking peace."
Siddiqi, who earned his doctorate in comparative religion from Harvard University, frequently pointed out the similarities between Islam and other major religions. He is a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue and was asked twice by President George W. Bush to lead a national Muslim prayer, including an interfaith observance on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Ground Zero in New York.
Back on the tour, the day started at the Anaheim mosque. Outreach coordinator Jamaal Zaheen took pains to de-emphasize the negative stereotypes that often overshadow reality.
"We feel like our religion has been hijacked," he said, admitting that the news is sometimes hard to bear.
Muslims feel just as much outrage as non-Muslims when terror strikes – perhaps even more so because it's an assault on Islam, which promotes peace.
The recent events have also put a strain on their day-to-day lives. They've modified their behavior and think twice about whether to pray in public.
Nicole Bovey is the chair of public relations at IIOC. She was raised a Christian but converted to Islam several years ago.
She struggles like any suburban mom but with particular differences. During Ramadan, for example, when Muslims are fasting it can be tough on children because schools generally don't think about followers of Islam when they set up a "senior breakfast."
For both Bovey and Zaheen, there's more positive than negative, and they try to improve their lives through good intentions – and have some fun along the way.
When asked about the complexity of the five daily prayers, time zone changes and the location of Mecca, Zaheen reached into his pocket and said it's easy.
"It's all about the app," he said smiling, holding up his phone.
The most popular prayer time app is called Muslim Pro, used by more than 30 million Muslims around the world. In addition to local prayer times, it has fasting information during Ramadan, Koran recitations and a compass showing the direction of Mecca, among other things.
Despite the relentless news coverage, Zaheen is heartened by the "overwhelming support" they've received. For him, the best approach is to continue the dialogue.
"I don't want this to stop here," he said to the group. "I want this to keep going."
If the bus ride home was any indication, people got the message. Most were buzzing in conversation. Some shared impressions over the bus intercom, admitting surprise, concern, confusion and hope.
"For many on the tour, it was kind of a shock to see these beautiful mosques in the middle of 'suburban' Orange County," Hoffman said afterward. "Our Muslim hosts were incredibly welcoming and articulate. They answered tough questions and emphasized that terrorism and violence is anti-Islam. They also pointed out that moderate Muslim voices are not covered by the media.
"Being a former teacher, I take pride in giving fun and educational tours. This one was a great learning experience and I'm still thinking about it."