Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

Evil and a Challenge

There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.” Laurie Penny

I arrived in the country of Oman one day ago for a short vacation. Right now I am sitting in a small slice of heaven on earth. I am surrounded by incredible beauty – palm trees and blue sky are above me and a pristine beach surrounded by a slate-blue sea is in front of me.

Waves from an infinity pool splash behind me and there is just a touch of a breeze, enough to create a perfect 78 degrees.

The ocean is far below me, down some steep steps. It’s a small lagoon surrounded by craggy rocks. Palm trees are scattered across the landscape. There are no flies, no ants, no bugs of any sort. It is as near perfect as life on this earth will ever get.

I am sickeningly aware of the sharp contrast between this landscape and that of the carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a community is grieving after being targeted in a terrorist attack. They were targeted as being unworthy to live. Because that’s essentially what terrorists do – they decide that a group of people are not worthy to live. True, they have their own skewed ideology that tells them this is okay, but that doesn’t make it any less evil. And that’s what it is. Evil. They destroy life, deciding to eliminate that which God created and called “good”.

I spend all day every day with Muslims. They are my colleagues, my friends, my cultural brokers, my students, my community in Kurdistan. Five times a day the Call to Prayer goes off at this mosque behind our apartment. Five times a day I’m reminded of my own faith because of the faith of others.

And so I am deeply saddened by what happened in New Zealand.

If you are as well, challenge yourself to reach out to those who don’t look like you, believe like you, think like you, and behave like you.

Ask a Muslim co-worker how they are doing.

Find out if there is a mosque in your area and call them, expressing your sorrow over what happened in New Zealand.

Call out evil when you see it. Commit to kindness and giving others a chance. Embrace beauty, create beauty, look for the beauty in others.

Communicate across boundaries. It’s not easy, but it will change you and challenge you. You will be better for it.

It’s not enough to write a meme or cover your social media profile with a statement. We must do more.

And remember, evil won’t win.

International Women’s Day 2018

Every year I write about International Women’s Day – the day set aside to honor women, to highlight the critical role they play in all of life. From nurturing life at its earliest stages to nurturing families, communities, and countries, women are critical to human survival. Not only do women change the world within homes and communities, but they also change the world in their workplaces. But there are still huge changes that need to happen so that women can not only survive, but thrive.

The very first International Women’s Day took place in New York City in 1909 on February 28th. In 1917, the Soviet Union declared March 8th a national holiday. It is interesting that the first countries to embrace International Women’s Day were socialist and communist countries. (That, my friends, is an observation, not an opinion.)

Though I believe implicitly in the importance of this day at every level, this year I find it more difficult to write about. I feel curiously uninspired and not a little discouraged. It seems that we can’t even agree on Women’s Day, let alone anything else. Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies.

As I was thinking about this, I decided that today I would highlight a project that I have been involved in this past year and introduce some of the unique women who have participated in the project.

Let me give you a little history: I began my job working for a state department of public health nine years ago. I began in a consultant role, and three months later I was hired as a full-time employee. The program I work for is a federally funded women’s health program that focuses on breast and cervical cancer screening in underserved communities. Two years after I started I began asking aloud if we might think about doing a project with the Muslim community in Massachusetts. It’s a big, diverse community and I believed we had a lot to learn about the community. Every year I brought it up. Like a record that is scratched and broken repeating the same thing over and over I would say “What about the foreign-born Muslim community? What can we learn in this community?

A year and a half ago, we received funding to do an assessment on attitudes toward breast and cervical cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community. I was over the moon.

We finished the assessment this fall, and our next steps are working side by side with the community and taking what we have learned to develop community and health provider trainings.

This project has been a gift. In an era where Muslims are seen as ‘other’ and therefore suspect, I have had the privilege of meeting with Muslim women from many parts of the world. All of them were born elsewhere and most came here as refugees. I have met doctors from Syria, Algeria, and Iran. I have met public health professionals. I have met housewives and many in the service industry. Every one of them has experienced untold loss, and many can never go back to their countries of origin; many cannot go home.

There’s Heba, a brilliant doctor from Syria. She has embraced this project and opened her heart. She is a gifted teacher and watching her speak to her community is amazing. Besides this, she has a new baby boy and a four-year old daughter.

There’s Afsaneh. Afsaneh is from Iran and she is also a doctor. She too has welcomed the project, leading dynamic focus groups so that we can learn from her community.

There’s Houria from Algeria; Saida and Naima from Somalia; and Annam from Pakistan. All of them have offered their unique perspective and stamp on the project. They are diverse in age, culture, and views of Islam, but all of them care deeply about their communities and their faith.

Those of us who are working on the project have been received into the broader Muslim community with uncommon generosity and grace, sharing meals and conversation, brainstorming sessions and ideas. Although we could easily have been viewed suspiciously, we weren’t. Instead we were welcomed with arms and hearts wide open.

And we have learned so much. Women shared honestly and openly about their views towards women’s health in particular, and the health care system in general.

I’ve learned a lot in this project, but one of the biggest things I keep coming back to is that change takes time. For me, being bold for change meant being persistent in my request for time and funds to do this project. Being bold for change means humbly going to a community and saying “I don’t know enough. Please help me understand more.” Being bold for change means going out of your comfort zone and hearing another point of view, another side of an issue. Being bold for change means building bridges that connect, not walls that divide. All of this takes time.

Today on International Women’s Day, I celebrate this project even as I remember the bigger picture that shows me so much more needs to be done. Happy International Women’s Day 2018 – All is not lost. 

Building bridges means moving beyond my enclave of cultural comfort to a place of cultural humility and willingness to learn.”*

____________________

*from Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging

On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.

I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked


Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey will be released in March of this year.

What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?

Worlds Apart is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid (which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years), Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.

My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan.  Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.

In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*

Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.

There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head:  “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.

One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject.  I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.

In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present.  But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.

In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations.  The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.

What made you write Worlds Apart? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?

I began to write Worlds Apart way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.

Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?

There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.  Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.

When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would  look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action.  I believe strongly  that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life. 

Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269) 

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things. 

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States.  It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.

Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?

You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about  “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA.  I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.

What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?

Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.

If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?

I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed,  I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”


*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:

BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”  Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.


NOTE: This piece has been edited to reflect the new title and re-release of Passages through Pakistan to Worlds Apart:A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner

 

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


Last night I went to an Iftar celebration. It was sponsored by the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative – a group that periodically meets to focus on specific health needs of the Muslim community in the area. It was an eclectic group of people, each of us with strengths in different areas, community members and advocates.

And of course – Nabra’s death came up. You may not know the story. Nabra Hassanen was a 17 year-old who lived in Northern Virginia. Early on Sunday morning, Nabra prematurely lost her life to a man filled with rage and bent on destroying life. She was assaulted and beaten with a bat, her body left in a pond to be found by law enforcement a few hours later.

Nabra had celebrated a Ramadan meal with friends and was on her way to the mosque with the same group of friends when the incident occurred.

Seventeen. Muslim. A young woman. A person of color. Now dead.

A death like this makes no sense – indeed it is put into the album for the unexplainable. Is it road rage? Is it a hate crime? No matter what you call it, it won’t bring Nabra’s life back. She’s gone – gone way too soon.

A song in the old musical South Pacific unwillingly goes through my head:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Taught to be afraid. Taught to hate. Taught to kill. Taught to think of people as less than. Because when you are carefully taught these things, you can treat people as you like without conscience or remorse. 

What might our world look like if we were taught to see the image of God in each person? If we were aware of how bound together we are in our life journey? What might it look like if we saw people as God sees them – beloved and worthy? If we changed our worldview from glorifying the individual to humbly loving collective humanity.

My heart weeps for Nabra’s family and community. This assault must feel so big and so awful, so personal during the month of Ramadan.

My heart also weeps for the cancer of prejudice and racism in our society, that we are so carefully taught to despise and hate, without even being aware. 

And even as I write this, I know I am not innocent. For any time I ignore others, anytime I dismiss another as unworthy, I’m doing the same thing. The consequences are less, the action and heart attitude is the same. When we deem people as unworthy, we can do whatever we like to them. 

How can we change this societal narrative? How can we begin to see ourselves as integrally connected, bound together in this journey? Your grief is my grief, your sin is my sin, your joy my joy, your burdens, my burdens. 

How can we rid ourselves of what we have been carefully taught and soften our hearts? 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism is alive and well. Contrary to what many believe, monks and nuns do not merely seclude themselves from the world. Instead, they align themselves with the world through prayer. They pray for the world. They are “intentional in living this mystery of our mystical unity and responsibility.”*

St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “and what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of merciful men pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grubs his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear if or see any injury or slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually…” 

What more is there to say, but that God would “unteach” us that which we have been carefully taught; that he would give us hearts of mercy instead of stone. 

And that we would take seriously our mystical connection and our mutual responsibility and act upon it. 

*Scott Cairns in The End of Suffering

On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

I am Not Muslim: On Identiy Confusion Solidarity

Pakistan - Minaret

During the weekend, an “I am a Muslim too” rally took place in New York City at Times Square. A picture of the event shows a large crowd gathered, all mouths opened in unison. A couple of white women are front and center, holding signs of a woman in a hijab made up of stars and stripes – a poster courtesy of the talented Shepard Fairey that has gained popularity from sea to shining sea in the past month. I will spare you and not get into how problematic it feels to create a hijab out of the American flag – that’s another conversation.

For now, I want to focus on the rally. I did not participate in the rally and I’m shaking my head at what I consider the shallow acceptance of the claim:”I am Muslim too.”

Actually, I am not Muslim. I grew up with Muslims as my friends and aunties. I was cared for by Muslim women and learned from them. I went on to raise my children to live and love a Muslim country and the people who surrounded us. Muslims cared for my children when they were small. They were our friends, our neighbors, our babysitters. I continue to count Muslim women as some of my closest friends. But I am not Muslim.

And the grey-haired woman in the forefront of the picture I saw wearing a statue of liberty tiara? I am 99.9% sure that she is not Muslim either.

I am not in favor of participating in identity confusion solidarity. And that’s what this particular demonstration felt like. It felt like a shallow way of showing support. 

By contrast, I had no problem promoting and marching in a pro-immigrant march a couple of weeks ago. The message felt completely different.  It was solidarity without identity confusion.

To say I am a Muslim means that I accept the truth claims of Islam. To say I am a Muslim means that I accept an identity that is far bigger than a sign on poster board. I do not share the identity and I do not share the truth claims of Islam, just as my Muslim friends do not share the truth claims of Christianity. There are many commonalities, many things that can bind us together as friends and neighbors, but there are also key differences.

Why do I have to chant “I am Muslim too!” to show solidarity with my Muslim friends?  There has to be a better way. 

In the past two years I have had the privilege of getting to know the Muslim community in the greater Boston area. I have been doing a health project with foreign-born Muslim women and through it I have been welcomed into several of the many Muslim communities in the area. I have shared meals with Pakistani, Iranian, Syrian, and Somali women. I have been invited to hear their views on health care and learn from them more about how public health can better serve them. I have been to mosques and to homes. The connections and friendships that I have made are a testament to the generosity of the Muslim community.

For me to say “I am Muslim too” feels like it’s an insult to the resilience and experience of the community.

It doesn’t feel like solidarity. Just like it would feel like I was insulting the Black community if I held a sign saying “I am Black too.” Because I’m not black. We cannot assume that we know what the experience of another is just because we march with big signs. I have no clue what it is like to have to flee a country and know I can never go back. I have no clue what it is like to face prejudice because of my skin color. How on earth would I know what it feels like to be concerned for my sons because of their skin color?  I have no clue what it is like to be attacked because I wear hijab. These are experiences that I cannot claim as my own. 

What I can claim is to want to support the community in ways that are lasting and sustainable. What I can claim is a desire to know the community better, to invite people into friendship and connection. What I can claim is to be learning more about my own privilege and how that can be used for good or for ill.

As I looked at pictures from the march this weekend, I wondered how many of the people present actually had Muslim friends. I wondered how many have actually invited people into their homes to share a meal, to share a conversation. I wondered how we can take the obvious energy and time that went into shouting “I am Muslim too” and turn it into something that could help the Muslim community in the long-term.

So – no, I am not Muslim and I don’t believe that this kind of solidarity is helpful for the long-term. I don’t believe that identity confusion will help my Muslim friends. But, because I place high value on my Christian faith, I will do whatever I can in my small spheres of influence to support a community that I love.

The Bubbles Inside our Heads

stereotypes

Every time I do a workshop on culturally responsive health care, I use the picture above. The audience sees it on a big screen and I give them a minute to take it in. Then I ask them “What’s wrong with this picture?” It’s not long until someone gets it; until someone says “They are stereotyping each other.”

Exactly. It’s pretty simple. 

I have quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and I will continue to quote her wise words: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect; it’s that they are incomplete.” She doesn’t stop there. She goes on to say “No one is a single story.”

The cartoon characters have formed opinions based on stereotypes. Neither of them are capable of complexity, of seeing beyond the surface and trying to understand each other. It’s an excellent cartoon showing the great divide between cultures and the danger of stereotyping.

I call this picture “The Great Divide.” There is this chasm separating these two that has far more to do with the bubbles inside their heads than reality. Indeed, research tells us that if they did get to know each other, they may find they may have much in common.

In the book Who Speaks for Islam, tens of thousands of Muslims, both men and women, were interviewed in 35 countries. Here are just a few of the findings:

Counterintuitive Discoveries in Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Who speaks for the West?
Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

Dream jobs
When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job.

Radical rejection
Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.

Religious mainstream
Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.

Admiration of the West
What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.

Women interviewed overwhelmingly said that their top three concerns were political corruption, lack of unity among Muslims, and extremism. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that much of the time we are like this cartoon. We live according to the bubbles inside our heads. None of us are immune. We form opinions and assumptions based on our cultural values, our religious views, our socioeconomic status, the media we listen to, watch or read, our countries of origin, the countries that adopted us, the families in which we were raised, and the list could go on.

Bubbles aren’t inherently bad — often they help us to make good choices; but other times they prevent us from seeing people as they really are. They float down through our brains and cloud our vision.

My African American friends often fall victim to head bubbles. At one time, the director of my program was an African American woman raised in Ohio and transplanted to the East Coast. She was amazing and had degrees after her name that I could only dream about. But no matter where it was, when she walked into a new doctor’s office or clinic, immediately the person behind the desk asked for her Medicaid card. The bubbles above their heads told them that she was black, so she was poor. She was black, so she must have public assistance in everything from food to insurance.

I have met some people who immediately assume if someone is from Mexico, they are undocumented.

Others who get onto planes and fear the woman in hijab who is sitting in front of them.

I’ve had people react to me according to who the bubbles in their heads tell them I am, and I am left frustrated and hurt that they were unwilling to find out more about me, unwilling to see a story beyond the surface.

Bubbles in our heads can convince us of all sorts of things. 

Bubbles 2

The challenge is to be aware of them, to recognize them for what they are: stereotypes and biases that are rooted in our subconscious, and must be recognized and confronted.

I have found that the best way to confront these bubbles is through relationships. Once we form friendships and respect for the one who is other, we are less likely to react according to the bubbles in our heads. We are more willing to see both people and situations with the complexity that they deserve. We see beyond the surface and respond to people as individuals with inherent worth. We learn to love them.

A couple of years ago, Robynn said this on Communicating Across Boundaries: “In the very insightful book, Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer encourages us to ‘suspend judgement’ –which essentially means the same thing as cultural humility. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assign meaning. Don’t guess. Don’t interpret. Instead suspend judgement. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn. Learn. Learn.

As for me, besides being willing to learn and seek forgiveness, more and more, I am asking God to replace the bubbles in my head with the Jesus Prayer – a simple prayer that says “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me — A Sinner.”

It’s the best way I know to clear the bubbles and replace them with the love of God.  

A Challenge to Christians During Ramadan

Roxbury Mosque

I am on the mailing list of a large mosque in the Roxbury area of Boston. While Egypt’s minarets give us a journey through history and Turkey boasts Ottoman style mosques, the mosque in Roxbury is modern. It sits across from Roxbury Community College, its dome and minaret smaller than those in the Muslim world. I’ve been told that there were protests when the mosque opened.

Being able to express and live out our truth claims in freedom is a gift. A gift that I’d love everybody to have.

And because of this I’m glad that there is a mosque in Boston. I’m glad that my Muslim friends and acquaintances have a place to worship. When I lived in both Pakistan and Cairo I was grateful for a space where I could worship; grateful for the presence of churches in a Muslim country. These churches formed a good part of our community.  And controversial as this may seem to some, I want this for my Muslim friends. In a country that claims freedom of religion, they should have a place to worship.

Yesterday began the month of Ramadan for Muslims. I’ve written in the past about Ramadan – about loving neighbors more than sheep, about my outsider perspective. Once again, I find it a good time to bring attention to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who in one way or another will be celebrating the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is a month long period of fasting. It is intended to be a time of spiritual discipline, praying, and generosity. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, liquids, sex, and cigarette from the from sun up to sun down. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and the month of Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year.

There are some good articles that you can read to help understand more about the month of Ramadan, and I have linked them at the end of this article, but today I want to issue a challenge to fellow Christians, those who hold to my faith tradition.

How many of us feel frustration when our faith is misunderstood, when myths abound, when others reject us because they disagree with what we believe?

But being rejected for our faith and truth claims is not fun. It’s lonely. It’s defeating. It’s discouraging. We want to scream when we hear misconceptions about Christianity and shout “No – that’s not the way it is! If we could just have a conversation….”. We long to engage with people about our faith because it’s important, because it’s foundational to who we are and how we live. Engaging with people over their beliefs does not mean we are watering down our own. How do so many come to believe that relationships, friendships and listening to others, means that we will fall down some slippery slope of forsaking our truth claims; of being false to that which we believe?

So as the month of Ramadan comes around, we have an opportunity to engage with Muslims.  We have a chance to live out what we want others to live at Christmas and Pascha or Easter.

With this in mind, I would challenge you to engage with Muslims. Get to know someone who is a Muslim.  Ask them about Ramadan and what it means to them. Ask them about the traditions that surround Ramadan. Just as Christians are not monolithic, so it is with Muslims, and traditions change according to country and family. Wish Muslims at your work place “Ramadan Kareem” or “Ramadan Mubarak.” Or better still, ask them – ask them what to say. We have the choice to engage with others and learn about what they believe. Are you willing to engage people during Ramadan?

We live in a world that quickly rejects based on appearance, religion, actions and more. How do we learn to live in truth to what we believe – which means that at some point we will disagree – and yet not be afraid to engage?  How can we remember the importance of friendships and relationships in living out our faith?  

I ask myself this question all the time – how about you? 

Aticles on Ramadan:

*An earlier edition of the post omitted the important detail of Muslims fasting only during the daylight hours. The piece has been corrected to reflect that fact. 

 

Beware: the Language of Heaven is Hell for the Passenger

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While living in the Middle East, we would often quote Islamic scholars and proclaim that we were “learning the language that we’ll all speak in Heaven.” We were not joking. With its rich phrases and flow, Arabic is a beautiful language.

After five minutes in a taxi in an Arabic speaking country, the beautiful sound of Oum Kalthoum’s voice will lull you into relaxing and enjoying all that surrounds you. You would never say a mere “Good Morning” in Arabic; rather you would say “Morning of Goodness!” to which another would respond “Morning of Light!”  You don’t say the mean-spirited “She talks too much!” Rather, you would say the descriptive “She swallowed a radio!”  And nothing so plain as “He’s crazy!” Instead, you would say “His brain is like a shoe!”

Twenty six different countries speak Arabic. It is a language that is centuries old, spoken by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is used in worship by both Christians and Muslims. It is a language with a history of narrative and poetry, a language of song and speech, a language of expression and beauty. While sometimes I shake my head at the impossibilitiy of the ‘ta marbuta’ and the fatḥah(فتحة) /a/, ـِ a kasrah (كسرة) /i/ or ـُ a ḍammah (ضمة) /u/, I absolutely love this language and I will continue trying to learn it until the day I die. 

Evidently, not all think as I do. Earlier this month, a student from University of California, Berkeley was removed from a flight. A passenger heard the student speaking Arabic and reported him. As reported by the New York Times, the student was from Iraq and had been to an event where the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had spoken. The student called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about this event. Unfortunately for the student, an arguably sheltered, bigoted, and clueless fellow passenger headed to the front of the airplane to report him. The rest, we might say, is history.

When I first read about this story, I thought I had no words. Anyone who reads CAB knows that I speak out about these things regularly. And there are times when I want to hear other voices, I want others to do the talking, the writing, to ask the hard questions. But there is a dearth of Western, White People willing to speak into the current climate of fear and xenophobia that creeps like a cancer through our country. This climate is perpetuated by ill-mannered politicians who vow to police Muslim neighborhoods; who ‘one-up’ each other on who can be the most bigoted.

When did we decide that Arabic was the language of terrorists? When did the 295 million Arabic speakers in the world become suspect? A passenger made an assumption based on limited knowledge and world view. An airline heeded that assumption. Instead of questioning her further, asking her if she knew Arabic, finding out more, a decision was made by the airline to remove a man because of the language he spoke. Deanna Othman says this in an article on Alternet: “Southwest Airlines has set a precedent with its action on that flight. It has validated the insidious paranoia that has become rampant in our society. It will unjustly lead Muslims and Arabic speakers to rethink their language of choice when boarding a plane.” 

This should trouble, if not terrify, all of us. It’s one thing when a passenger is misinformed and foolish. It is entirely another when a corporate entity asks no questions and falls into the reactionary fear that causes poor decisions. 

Because here is the truth: 

Unbreakable stereotypes, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and fear of the one who is ‘other’ – all of these are far more dangerous than any language will ever be.

To you I pose these questions: When did fear begin to replace common sense? How can we change this? What can we do indivdually and/or collectively to respond? إن شاء الله [Insa’Allah] we will find a way to move forward together.

“Go and Do Likewise”

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Almost every week I see some sort of announcement on social media about an event that speaks to Christians responding to Islam. Generally, these announcements add the phrase “in light of [insert phrase].”  The [insert phrase] has been everything from “recent attacks” to “current political climate” to “refugee crisis.”

But never have I seen an announcement that reads this: A Talk on Christians responding to Islam in Light of the Good Samaritan.

***

When I was twelve years old, my mom and I were in a bad car accident. It was the monsoon season in Murree and we were driving in the rain. In the best of times, these were winding mountain roads. During the monsoons, they were also wet and slippery. We were headed to my school for an event when a can of brake fluid slid under my mom’s foot. She veered and we went over the cliff. Miraculously, what stopped us from rolling over to a certain death was thick barbed wire. I knew my mom was hurt and that we needed help. There were no cell phones. There were no pay phones. We knew that we were in a precarious situation, where abrupt movements could mean that our heavy Landrover would slide further down the cliff. The area was isolated; it could be minutes or hours before the next car came by. Out of nowhere came a public bus, filled with Pakistanis. I will never forget the kindness of the men who peered in through the window and pulled us out of the car to safety. We were other. We were not Pakistani, we had no citizenship, we did not share the same beliefs, we did not share the same customs. But that didn’t matter. We were in trouble, and they rescued us.

This is the story that I think of when I think of the well-known parable that has lasted through the ages. A parable that inspires Good Samaritan Laws across the world. The parable of the Good Samaritan.

***

The parable lies in the Gospel of Luke, the 10th chapter. We are told that a teacher of the law came to Jesus. He asks a question about eternal life. Jesus, the one who sees hearts and hears the real questions, the questions of the soul, poses the question back to him. After all, the man is an expert when it comes to the law, schooled in Rabbinical studies. We can be sure that he knew the Ten Commandments and more. So the teacher of the law says something that he has known and memorized for a long time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus answers in the affirmative. “You’re correct,” he says.  In other words, “You got this. Go do it and you’ll live.”

But the man presses further. “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to really love, and who can I dismiss. Who is my real neighbor?

This is when Jesus begins to tell a story.  It takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a windy narrow road and a perfect place to be robbed.  A man is beaten up, left naked and almost dead. A priest who serves in the temple in Jerusalem walks by, sees him, and crosses to the other side. Then a Levite, who also serves in the temple, walks by. The same thing happens. The man who is beaten up is one of them, he is not ‘other,’ yet they don’t stop. So along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised and detested. Jews of the day would not associate with them. Jewish travelers would add 40 kilometers onto a trip rather than go through Samaria. They considered Samaritans heretics and enemies. The Samaritans had equal animosity toward the Jews. They could not stand them. But Jesus gives us a counterculture picture of a Samaritan who sees the one who is ‘other’ and has deep pity on him. He can’t leave him there. So he bandages him up, he pours oil and wine on his wounds, and he puts him on his donkey and takes him to shelter. He pays the innkeeper and asks him to take care of the man. “I’ll return,” he says. “I’ll come back and I’ll pay any extra expense.”

It’s at this point that I realize this: We just don’t get it. We don’t get the weight of this story. This was huge.  Loving others isn’t about loving those who are like us or who believe like we do. In God’s sight, loving and caring for others is not defined or confined to ethnicity, religious belief or lack of belief, nationality, lifestyle, or any other category.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” Jesus finishes his story with a question. A question with a simple answer: “The one who had mercy on him.”

The hardest part of the story comes in the final four words: Go and do likewise.

The words are not a suggestion or an idea. The words are a command.

Why is it so hard? Why is our default pattern to think of our neighbor as someone who is like us, someone who we like?

Throughout the Middle East, I watched Christians who were not afraid of their Muslim neighbors. I watched Christians who had lost everything, yet still they prayed for those who had hurt them. I heard powerful words of love and grace. I heard the words:“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches. Love is stronger than hate.” Throughout my life, I was given grace by Muslim neighbors and friends, I was literally rescued from a car accident by men that I never saw again, Muslim men with long beards and prayer beads.

But I watch now and I shake my head. We in the West somehow don’t think the story of the Good Samaritan applies to us. “What about national security” “What about preserving our ‘way of life’” (whatever that means) “What about the sacredness of our soil?”  I have heard these cries in the past few years. These words make me shake my head in dismay and disbelief. These are the cries of Christians.

If we would stop to listen, the words of Jesus come quietly, insistently:

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?

The one who had mercy on him.

Go – and do likewise.

How to Build a Bridge

constructing-a-bridge-v2

In an old book titled Observations on the Re-building of London Bridge by John Seaward, he says this:

It is generally acknowledged that the construction of a commodious bridge over a wide, impetuous river is one of the noblest efforts of human genius. In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected. On the contrary, it has everywhere been esteemed for its great utility and has engaged the attentive care of enlightened men.

I want to focus on these words: In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected.  I’m struck by how much this applies to work of non-physical bridge-building and how wise we would be to pay attention to these words. If we have any hope of moving forward, bridges need to be built. We need to learn the art of bridge-building.

I sat in a clinic this morning talking to a man who is building bridges in the Muslim community. He builds these bridges person by person, activity by activiy, conversation by conversation. His passion is contagious and everything he says reflects a love for this community.

As we talked he told me some things about the community that I hadn’t heard before. A young Muslim man, beaten to a pulp while he was walking down the street; a Muslim mom in hijab out walking with her baby in a stroller, assaulted in broad daylight; Muslim food service workers being told they are “F%&*in terrorists” as they give change back to their customers. Those are only a couple of the stories that I heard.

Every single one of the people we talked about came from Syria.

Think about that for a minute. You have to be an ostrich to not see what is going on in Syria. Ghost towns with bombed out buildings; people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs; stories of families separated, of children lost. It challenges every notion we have of humanity.

And all of them came from Syria. 

At one point he said: “Few people have any idea of the extent of stress present in the Muslim community.” 

I came away wondering “In what universe is this okay?” I came away wondering how this is any different than ISIS. I came away choking on rage. I came away thinking that “bridge-building” is no longer just a nice idea, it’s an essential part of civilization. You don’t ignore the art of bridge-building.

“Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them.”*

There is an art to building bridges.

I am not an engineer, but I do know how to look things up on google. And there are a few things about physical bridges that can be used when we think about bridge-building in our communities.

Know what you want your bridge to accomplish. Understand why it is important to build a bridge. Maybe it’s easy to understand, maybe it’s about making a community stronger, or offering health care services. But maybe it’s more difficult to know what you want to accomplish. Be able to say in clear language why you think bridge-building is so critical in our world.

Phrases to use: “I’d like to understand” “How can I help you understand why this is important?”

Understand the ‘load point’. The load point is the area on a bridge that needs to be able to sustain the most stress. This is critical. What are the areas where you see the biggest gap or divide in thinking? Those will take the most work, so start with the easier pieces. Perhaps the easy points are around food and kids — focus on the commonalities and then move into the harder things.

Phrases to use: “Tell me more.” “What do you think?” “How else can I help?”

Gather the materials – or the right people. Everyone doesn’t know how to build bridges, but gathering the right people gives credibility and strength to your bridge.

Phrases to use: “Can you help?” “Thank you for being a part of this.” “Thank you for going out of your comfort zone.”

Build the bridge step by step, activity by activity, conversation by conversation. Bridge-building doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people died building the Golden Gate Bridge until the bridge builders put a safety net under it. Be willing to be patient. Rejoice in small victories and progress that seems slow.

Phrases to use: “I want to learn.” I want to understand.” “I trust you.” “I’ve got your back, I’ll stick up for you.”

Evaluate and learn. Test your bridge, and if it breaks look at why and how. Ask questions, and humbly admit what you don’t know. Keep on building and learning and growing. An Arab proverb says this: “Those who would build bridges, must be willing to be walked on.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb.

Phrases to use: “What else might work?” “What have we not thought of?” “How can we do it better?”

And now I speak to fellow Christians.  Frankly, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of fear mongering and hoarding, I’m tired of people saying “we must be practical.” I can’t help thinking what our world would be like had the God of the universe decided to be practical. He surely would not have decided on a virgin birth; he definitely would have dismissed the idea of death on a cross; and as for loving the likes of us? Forget it.

Because this I know, and I know it well: We know the ultimate Bridge-designer who bridged heaven and earth so that we could find our way. So we are called to build bridges and tear down walls. There is no other way. 

Note: When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that I was writing it on the anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. One year ago on February 10, 2015, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot in their apartment complex. Shot for being Muslim.

*The History of Bridges

Waving Olive Branches

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Olives are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Served with almost every meal, they vary in color and size, offering a pungent, salty taste. Eat them with bread and white cheese and you have a meal fit for royalty. The trees are everywhere – in gardens, along the sides of roads, and in churchyards. You cannot escape the olive branch.

For years, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace.  In early August, on my first evening in Iraq, I saw the symbol of the olive branch in a new way.

We had been invited to participate in a women’s meeting in late afternoon, but immediately following the meeting we were whisked away to a performance put on by actors from the city of Qaraqosh. Exactly one year ago that day, Qaraqosh had fallen to the Islamic State. Until that time, I had only read stories about Qaraqosh in the news. Now, I was meeting real people with real and poignant stories.

One woman, a lab technician, was walking home from work, only to have a neighbor rush up to her and say “You must leave! ISIS is coming!” She was the primary caregiver for both a father and sister who were disabled. In her words, she became “very afraid.” The next morning, her neighborhood was deserted and she saw the ominous, black ISIS flags in the distance. By a miracle, she was able to secure bus space for her family, but had to leave everything else behind.  When you are fleeing for your life, your priorities of what matters and what you should take change in an instant.

The play we were privileged to see was about the fall of Qaraqosh. The heartache and loss that people experienced as they had to leave their homes and community was palpable. Vivid color and music drew us in. The stage set alternated between dark and ominous, where ISIS soldiers took center stage, to a bright and vibrant background of churches and ancient city streets.

The play was in three acts with monologues by three main actors. It was all in Arabic, but like all good acting, it didn’t just rely on the spoken word.

There were many poignant parts of the play, but a couple parts stood out. During one scene, a  beautiful little girl came skipping and dancing on stage. She symbolized the story of Christina, a little girl who was pulled by ISIS from the hands of her mother while she was fleeing the city. Of all the stories of Qaraqosh, this one was the most difficult and symbolized all the loss and pain of a community.  As the main character reached for Christina, she was gone.

During another scene, one of the actors reminisced about Palm Sunday, a day when the whole city of Qaraqosh would wave olive branches as they remembered the coming of Christ to Jerusalem.

But it was the end of the play that left a defining imprint on my heart and soul. The three actors came out on stage, holding hands and raising them high. They practically shouted words of forgiveness and grace:

“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches.”

This play was not ending on a note of despair, but of hope. This play was a tribute to resilience, to perseverance, to faith, and to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. We give up our rights to hold on to wrong-doing, we give up our rights to be victims, we extend grace to the perpetrator. Sometimes forgiveness costs us everything we have, everything we can give. But there is no ambiguity in the Biblical call to forgive, there is no grey area, there is no “but what about…?”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”*

The command is clear, and I was witnessing a group that didn’t just act this out, but lived this out.

The actors on stage and the people in the audience were witnesses to a greater love, to a greater command then our human desire for vengeance and revenge. When they left Qaraqosh, they lost everything but their lives. Yet here they were, publically proclaiming grace and forgiveness.

Their grace and forgiveness was as present and pungent as olives and olive trees in the Middle East.

I have seen a lot of examples in my life of forgiveness, but this one was the most powerful.

I fell asleep that night with my heart full, the images of olive branches waving above me, images of forgiveness and peace.

*Matthew 5:44

In the Face of Hate – Love Out Loud

minaret

in the face of hate – Love Out Loud by Robynn & Marilyn

In Philadelphia, a severed pig’s head is thrown at the door of a mosque.

On the street in Boston a man tells a Muslim woman walking with her children that he hopes her children burn in hell.

A Somali restaurant in North Dakota is burned.

A Muslim shopkeeper is beaten.

Our Muslim friends say they are “laying low.”

And so we need to speak out. This is outrageous and offensive. This must stop. There is no “other side” to this debate. We speak as women who have lived in Muslim majority countries collectively for too many years to count and were treated with dignity and hospitality. But even if we did not have that background, as Christians we are compelled to speak out.

We are saddened and we are angry. How is the hateful behavior described above any different than that of ISIS? ISIS hates that which is different. They want conformity of thought and behavior. ISIS despises all those who disagree with them. But isn’t that what a mosque burned down and a beaten shopkeeper says? Doesn’t the threat of hell for small children and a massacred pigs head reveal the same heart? Don’t those vile actions declare that our culture too hates what is different, wants conformity and despising anyone who dares to disagree with us? Make no mistake, the roots of this behavior come from the same place as violent terrorism–hearts steeped in anger and hatred and fear.

One of the saddest parts of all of this is that Muslims have experienced both sides of these horrors. They’ve suffered the majority of the violence of terrorism and they’ve endured the terrible violent reactions to terrorism.

Muslims all over the country have spoken out against this barbarity, stating that this does not represent the majority of Muslims nor of Muslim cultures. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center says this on their website:

“The ISBCC, an American-Muslim institution, deeply grieves the loss of life by extremists who use a twisted interpretation of our faith to justify heinous acts. This tiny handful of extremists does not reflect our values of peace and justice, and our commitment to the freedoms that make America great. We are also deeply troubled by bigots who would attempt to tie the entire American Muslim community in Boston to those who carry out acts that run counter to everything we, as Americans, stand for…”

But it’s not enough. They need others to speak up for them. They need sympathetic allies who bravely stand with them.

Marilyn and Robynn belong to a group of people who have lived life beside Muslim friends and neighbors. We have birthed babies, gone to funerals, celebrated at weddings, and cried at sick beds together with Muslims. We have recognized and respected each others truth claims, even as we choose to disagree, but we have remained friends. We have those who we would give our lives for, and we know they would give their lives for us.

And frankly, we are done. Enough is enough. These types of reactions have got to stop!  It seems to us that in the face of so much hatred it’s time to love out loud! Inspired by a letter by Sofia Ali-Khan, where she writes to Non-Muslim Allies asking us to stand up for and with Muslims (a letter gone viral now and one which we highly recommend tracking down!), we’ve compiled our own list of ways you might intentionally take action. (https://www.facebook.com/sofia.alikhan.7/posts/10153301068060893?fref=nf)

in the face of hate… Love Out Loud

Speak up against hate wherever it surfaces: in the lunch room at work, on the bus you ride, in the foyer at your church, in your living room, around your dining room table.

Host a discussion group at your local library. Invite a Muslim friend or two to share their story.

Host a book club. Read a book by a Muslim author. Check out goodreads for ideas (https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/muslim-author).

Talk to your kids. Teach them how to respond to hate speech. Instruct them how to love out loud. They are watching you react. Let them see a heart that cares and defends the oppressed and ill-treated.

Offer to talk to your kids youth group, or to a social studies class at school. Share your story of growing up with Muslims. Or share a story you’ve read of others who have grown up with Muslims.

Intentionally sit next to someone on the bus or train wearing a hijab.

Deliberately greet someone in a hijab. Be warm. Be welcoming.

Do you know Muslims that live in the US? Write them an email. Tell them how much you hate what’s going on. Tell them how much you appreciate them.

Cook Pakistani food…or Arab food…..or Afghani food for Christmas. Take pictures post them with recipes on Facebook.

Forgive ignorance when you hear it….but also bravely speak out. Tell a story. Educate gently.

Get together for coffee with Facebook friends who are different from you. Hear their stories. Listen to how they grew up. With relationship comes acceptance. With acceptance comes opportunity.

Invite a Muslim family over for a meal or for dessert. Reach out. Just your invitation alone says you reject the message the media is feeding you.

Write letters to public figures that insist on propagating falsity and calling it truth. Stop donating money to organizations that have spoken out with hatred. Distance yourself from people that refuse to engage the conversation with kindness.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper welcoming Muslims to your town. Say something like, “I want you to know that in the face of so much hate speech in the media, I’m glad you’re here. Welcome!”

Stop by your local mosque. Apologize on behalf of the ignorance and fear in the recent media. State humbly and quietly that you appreciate the diversity a mosque brings to your community. Declare that there are people in your community who love and respect Muslims. Feel free to admit confusion over recent events but also say that you know that all Muslims are not terrorists. Say it out loud.

in the face of hateLove Out Loud

Related Arcticle: What Growing up in a Muslim Country taught us about Christianity.

Here is an excellent article we highly recommend that is refreshingly honest and free of politically correct speech.

A word about fear: “Fear looks to others to justify itself. Fear sees conspiracies in every corner. Fear gets caught up in group-think which, in our saner moments, we would scratch our heads at and wonder how we sold our thoughts in the slave market of sheep herders.” We are selling our thoughts in the slave market. Here are some other thoughts about fear:

Love, Fear and the Syrian Refugee

The NYTimes Daily Briefing had this to say this morning: Donald J. Trump, called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country.

At an assembly at Liberty University on Friday, Jerry Falwell Jr., under the banner “Training Champions for Christ since 1971”  said this: “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” Followed by:“Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

It seems particularly appropriate to publish this guest post written by a man who lives in Afghanistan. I first read it on a friend’s newsfeed and felt it important enough to reach out to the writer and ask for permission to publish it on Communicating Across Boundaries.

 

no to refugees

Love, Fear and the Syrian Refugees: My View by C.L.

Every day I live in Afghanistan I have a choice to make. Those Muslim refugees streaming to Europe, they’re friends of mine. That ISIS in far off Paris; an outpost of its caliphate is in the city next to Kabul and its minions circulate silently through my city looking for targets. I’ve lost ten friends to the Taliban extremists. Fear knocks at my door every single day. And I choose love. I would defend my family with my life if a terrorist came after my family. And I choose love. The love I choose is for the literally 99.9% of my Muslim friends who hate the extremists. It’s for the Muslim man who literally put his body between me and danger for no other reason than he cared for me as a human.

I smell fear among Christians in America. Why do I say it’s fear? Because fear breeds irrationality. Fear doesn’t listen to facts. Fear looks to others to justify itself. Fear sees conspiracies in every corner. Fear gets caught up in group-think which, in our saner moments, we would scratch our heads at and wonder how we sold our thoughts in the slave market of sheep herders.

Look, I’m not at all immune to fear myself. I was in the Afghan city of Herat during a crisis when I received a frantic call from a diplomat in the US Consulate that communicated to me that I was in imminent danger of being swept up by an angry mob seeking the blood of an American. At that very moment my entire world narrowed down into a simple, raw, laser focus of survival. That is what fear does, it preempts logic, preempts even strongly-held beliefs for the sake of survival. And that is what I see with the issue of the Syrian refugees.

In our calmer moments, how many of us believe strongly in welcoming strangers and refugees? Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt. The Bible is full of passages that command us to welcome refugees, going so far as questioning our faith if we turn away widows, orphans and refugees. For heaven’s sake, the Pilgrims were refugees and, contrary to the myth we’ve created about them, significant numbers of them were unsavory folks escaping justice, not religious persecution.

So, we hear that 100,000 Syrian refugees are going to invade the US as a Trojan horse for ISIS. We hear that the Paris attackers were all Syrians who surreptitiously joined the hordes of mostly young, military-age men swamping the borders of Europe. It’s inevitable that the same will happen to the US because we have no good system to screen them. Panic! Fear! Does anyone realize that the “facts” that I have just stated are simply not true? But fear ignores the facts. Fear throws out deeply-held beliefs.

Choose love. There are 750,000 legal refugees who have come to our shores since 9/11 and not one of them has perpetrated a terrorist attack. That’s pretty good screening, if you ask me! And what if one terrorist did get through? Do we hate the 749,999 of them because of the one? Do we abandon our principles and beliefs and let the terrorist do exactly what he aims to do, make us lesser humans by reverting to our baser selves?

Where is Jesus in all of this? And think about this: do you realize the rejection of Syrian refugees by Christians in America is bringing shame on the name of Jesus here in Afghanistan?

Choose love. Every single day K and I make a decision to choose love and to act out from that love. If we can do it do it in Afghanistan, surely you can choose love in America too. Welcome the Syrian refugees… in love.

Note: Should you want to reach out to the author, please feel free to contact me through the comments or the about page.

Photo Credit –Edward Brown

Refugee Facts & Resources

Office of resettlement

I thought it would be helpful to compile resources here for those of you who are looking to know more about resettlement and how the refugee process works. The resources are a mixture of those found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

Refugee Information:

How to Help: 

  • Make Refugee Kits! Family and Infant Refugee Kits I cannot stress enough how useful these kits are. We have taken over 100 to Iraq and Turkey and sent even more. It’s an excellent Christmas project. I reached out to the folks at Medical Teams and here is what they said:“Thank you so much for your email – and your support for our mission. We will gladly accept shipments at our Tigard Oregon Distribution Center – 14150 SW Milton Court, Tigard OR 97224. Again, thank you for your interest in our project – We are so touched by the kindness and compassion from people around the US!”
  • Conscience International
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities
  • Heart for Lebanon

Note: I purposely did not put in the typical large organizations, namely because I think it’s easier to know where your money goes with the smaller organizations. I can absolutely vouch for the low overhead of these organizations as well as seeing in person the work that is being done with refugees.

Helpful Articles: 

Why You Should Care: 

In closing, I want to say this: there’s an acronym in social media “smdh.” It stands for “shaking my damn head.” As I see the reaction to refugees by fellow Christians as evidenced by statements by Christian leaders, I am literally shaking my damn head. I don’t get it.  We have made refugees the scapegoats for egregious, condemnable acts of violenceSo I issue three challenges:

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 26-31

*******

Purchase Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and all proceeds will go toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced people! 

no to refugees
Photograph courtesy of Ed Brown

Memories of Eid Celebrations عید مُبارک

Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends and readers today.

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.The second Eid celebration is always held on the tenth day of the Lunar month. This Eid celebration is called Eid al Adha or “Feast of the sacrifice” and is usually celebrated by sacrificing a goat.

Today is Eid al Adha and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations.  I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up. 

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand. We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Whoo. whoo. whoo. Slow and steady, make it through this pain. I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed. I look at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. It’s about me, damn it, and ‘they’ all better know it. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I can’t give in to my deep feelings of loss and grief. The call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, will no longer be heard echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge on what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays like Christmas and Easter when you are far away from family. Thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and I am blessed.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.”  The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him “Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

My heart travels far away during times of celebration and holiday, but today, in the place where I am learning more about writing my name in the land, I can come back to earth and connect in real time. It is a gift. 

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift. 

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