It’s the Holy Month of Ramadan (May 5-June 4 this year). During this sacred time of spiritual reflection and increased devotion to God, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown (no water either) to increase their attention on the plight of the hungry and to focus on God’s call to help those in our midst who go without. It’s like what we Christians do during the fasting days of Lent times 10.
The original language in which the Quran was written, and the liturgical language of Muslims, is Classical Arabic. So, last Sunday in our morning worship service, in an act of solidarity with our Muslim neighbors, we observed the Passing of the Peace, where the minister says, “The peace of Christ be with you all,” and the congregation responds, “And also with you” — or in other Christian circles, “And with your spirit” — in Arabic. This made a congregant uncomfortable. The fearful rhetoric spawned by the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, about Muslims being terrorists who want to impose Sharia law had informed their understanding of Islam. Speaking Arabic in a Christian church (which millions of Arab Christians do) was a bridge too far.
I can appreciate their discomfort. Islamophobia is not uncommon. The Pew Research Center found in 2017 that half of all Americans believe that Muslim citizens are anti-American and more prone to violence, and a third believe that Muslims should be subject to greater scrutiny than other groups in the U.S. It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand. But Jesus calls those who follow him to not only love others as we love ourselves, but to go into those places that agitate us and to listen to and learn from those that make us uncomfortable in order to form a deeper understanding of God’s abundant love attested to in Psalm 23: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
The Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen writes, “In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.” I hear Jesus speaking to this assumption when he preaches, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” I will be always be uncomfortable about my neighbor if I rely on fearful assumptions spoken about them to craft the image I have of them.
What can we do about this? Well, the New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl said, “When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”
Our confirmation class and their mentors did just that by visiting the Islamic Community of Bryan-College Station last month. We were treated to a gracious presentation about Islam and invited to observe an evening prayer service called the maghrib. We learned about Jesus being recognized as a divine messenger of God in the Quran, about obedience to the law of the land being a Muslim’s religious duty, about prayer — five times daily — being central to the faith, about how much our religions have in common with each other and about the importance of us being in solidarity as neighbors who understand and respect our differences.
Nouwen’s observation that we assume strangers to be dangerous is a sad reality fostered by our continued fear of those we don’t know and can easily keep out of the comfortable circles where our perspectives are shaped. Cable news told me that undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. were gang members peddling drugs and taking our jobs; but talking with and listening to those neighbors at the border between Brownsville and Matamoros, I learned that they were afraid for their lives and fleeing violence in Central America and Africa so that they might reach family in the U.S. and then find a job that none of us want in order to take care of their desperate loved ones stuck back home.
Some Texas lawmakers told me that trans people are men dressing up as women and sneaking into bathrooms to harm women and girls; but the transgender folk I’m blessed to know exemplify courage unlike any I’ve ever seen by living a life of honesty, inside and out — the kind of honesty that encourages me to not hide my shortcomings from the almighty God that I want more of in my imperfect life. And I’ve learned that they just want a restroom they can use in public like any human being needs when nature calls.
Some preachers told me that gay people have an agenda against me, but the gay folk that God has given me the opportunity to build friendships with share with me that their agenda is the same as mine: take care of family, pay the bills and be a good neighbor. Rachel Held Evans said it better when she wrote, “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God wanted to use gay people to show me how to be Christian.”
It isn’t my neighbor’s responsibility to disprove my discomfort about them, but it is a requirement of my discipleship with Christ to be a neighbor. Nouwen says, “When we recognize the breath of God in others, we can let them enter our life and receive the gifts they offer us.” This recognition is the neighborliness that leads to new life and the salvation of us all.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.