I am Not Muslim: On Identity 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 Loneliness of Immigration

old-books empathy quote

My husband and I repatriated to this country many years ago. We came from the city of Cairo, Egypt and arrived at Dulles Airport with five children, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat. It was the sum total of everything we owned.

The first two years were excruciating. We didn’t know anything about living as a family in the United States. From school to church, everything was new, everything was different.  We didn’t know how or where to shop, get licenses, set up utilities, or find doctors.

Loneliness would creep up on me at unexpected times and places, it’s vice-like grip clutching my heart so that it felt difficult to breathe. I would find my solace in a couple of close friendships and in finding my safe spots – the odd coffee shop where I could retreat with a book and hot drink while the kids were in school; a space in our living room where the sun would shine in the afternoon, bathing the room with light.

The move was many years ago, yet every time I sit with an immigrant or refugee, I still remember the time as though it was yesterday. I still remember the loneliness and isolation I felt; the disconnect of coming from a relational society and moving to one that was based on the individual.

There is a body of research that points to the disenchanted immigrant as susceptible to becoming radicalized. More and more governments are paying attention to this and strategizing on what to do and how to change this trajectory.

The marathon bombing is a an excellent example. Tsarnaev was a part of the community in Cambridge — where we have made our home for the past 8 years. Tsarnaev was at the same high school as my daughter and they had many friends in common. He was a student in a school that deeply cares about tolerance and diversity. Yet, once Tsarnaev was no longer a part of that community, he was lost. Everything I have read or heard points to a fundamental loneliness and isolation that can be a part of the immigrant experience — the loneliness of being ‘other’, parents in Russia, hasn’t spoken to his uncle for years, and living anonymously in a big city. This does not excuse or justify his behavior. His actions killed and wounded people and those wounds have left scars to last a lifetime. Many people feel lonely and estranged and they don’t build bombs and kill people.

I don’t want to tackle the radicalization piece of this – it is too complicated and multi faceted. But the loneliness and isolation is important to address. How can those of us who understand what it is to be ‘other’, to be new to a place, extend friendship to those who are missing so much?

As I think about that question, I can’t help but think about my husband. Through the years he has befriended hundreds of people who are immigrants or visitors in this country. He approaches them with genuine interest and understanding. He is not afraid to enter the story of a stranger. Our lives are so much richer because of the people that he has met.

The seats around our table at Thanksgiving are filled with immigrants, most of them present because of a conversation with my husband. Years ago, he memorized the capital cities of every country in the world and he knows several phrases in more than a dozen languages. All of this has brought our family rich friendships. From pictures to silver bowls to pungent spices, the items in our home are a witness to these friendships.

Loving the one who is ‘other’ is in the fabric of his being and all of us benefit.

We are living in a time of fear and mistrust of immigrants and refugees. This is not new or unique to the United States, nor is it new to other countries. But it is still troubling. As long as we remain isolated in comfortable cul-de-sacs and enclaves, this fear and mistrust will continue and get worse. The only way to escape this problem is to take a deep breath and extend a hand of friendship. If you don’t believe me, just ask my husband.

 

And Lady Liberty Weeps….

 

statue-of-liberty-v3

“Give me your tired, your poor,” she says.

Ah, but first we must verify income and employability; we must make sure these people fit with “our way of life.” We must make sure these creatures are not leeches who steal jobs from those who really belong.

“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”

Make sure the huddled masses have clear lungs and negative TB tests, their HIV status is negative, and that no communicable diseases will be passed on to our current healthy, chronic-disease-free citizens.

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

But first, these wretches must fill out forms in triplicate or learn to swim. UNHCR, Homeland security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement must approve said forms. I heard that one lucky wretch has an interview before 2022.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,”

Wait. What’s that you say? They’re Muslim? Muslims need not apply. And are they really that destitute? Come on! They have cell phones!

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Which door? Ah! That one – the one that says ‘Trump Towers.’

And so the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning for freedom, the wretched refuse, the homeless and displaced, the refugee turn away, eyes vacant and heads shaking, trying desperately to find another door.

And Lady Liberty bows her head and weeps.

“Letting Them In”

So many beautiful colors of people at the Red Sox game! #NationofImmigrants #Diversity 


Two times a year, I facilitate a patient navigator/community health worker course. It is a core training that helps to prepare this workforce for working in clinic and community settings in the United States. The course is a hybrid of both in-person and online modules and runs for around 16 weeks.

At the end of the course, we have a ‘graduation’ of sorts; a time where we celebrate the success of the students.

Passing out the certificates is always exciting and emotional. It’s not easy to carry on your daily workload of working with patients while completing a course that demands your time, focus, and energy.

But it’s so much more than that. The truth is, the majority of this workforce are immigrants or refugees. They were birthed, raised, and educated in another land. They are doctors and lawyers, engineers and pharmacists. They left all that behind, and now they navigate other members of their community through a complicated health system. These are people that the United States “Let in.” The irony is profound. They have done nothing but make their communities stronger. They have learned the rules and language. They have sacrificed and worked hard.

Last week,  we held our last class of the year. In that space we had the final learning session, but more importantly, we celebrated their achievement. The final exercise is a case study that they have to present to a small group. They all presented in English, even if their first language was not English. Despite the fact that I have studied three languages, I can’t even imagine doing a case study in anything other than English. I’m just not good enough – but they are.

We gave certificates and they walked away knowing that they accomplished something. But this is only a fraction of what they have accomplished. At a recent conference, I wrote this and I echo it today in this space:

Look around you for a moment. You are among an amazing group of people. You are in a room full of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. In this room are community health workers who bridge two worlds to serve their communities.  In this room there are navigators who were doctors in Syria and pharmacists in Iraq; there are people who didn’t know any English when they first arrived in this the country, but now interpret for those with no voice. In this room, you will see women who survived the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and now make sure Haitians in this country can navigate the health care system. You will eat lunch with Syrians who survived ISIS, Iraqis who survived sanctions, an invasion, and displacement. You will have conversations with men and women who have traveled the world, and now sit in this space, dedicated to helping others. In this room you will find people who have a past history that could have determined the rest of their life, but instead they have chosen to share their stories and help others. You will find doulas who work with women who are far from home, comforting them and helping them through the pain of labor and childbirth. Look all around, and you see those who educate and advocate, who listen and connect, who bridge healthcare gaps all over the country. Look next to you and you will see one whose heart is open to so many different people. Look around and you will see a group of people who are, above all, kind. You are in the company of amazing people.

Last night, I was at a Red Sox game in Boston. It was a beautiful night with perfect weather and the Sox won! But it was more than that. As I looked around, I saw people of every different color and ethnicity. All singing “Sweet Caroline” – the iconic Neil Diamond song of the Red Sox; all cheering; all eating the famous Fenway Franks. Every color, every ethnicity. I’m the first to criticize the United States, the first to take a step back and look at it critically, but as I looked around, I had a moment. In all the sadness that has been a part of this week, in the killing and horror of Orlando, it was a moment to be proud to be living here.

And above all, I don’t want that to be taken away. I don’t want our country to become one that gets more and more scared, that shuts borders and fears the one who is “other.” I don’t want the “we can’t let them in” rhetoric to dominate. 

Because all we do is “let them in.” They give us so much more in return. The trade is hardly fair. 


Truth Echoes

Did you hear? Did you hear what they did about immigration?” My friend’s eyes were big and troubled.

“No.” I said.

Janira is originally from El Salvador. She has been living in the United States for over 15 years. She works at a hospital, pays taxes, and tries to get by. She is a U.S Citizen and as such has every right to be here.

But like most people in immigrant communities, she has many friends and acquaintances who are undocumented. People who left their countries for a myriad of reasons – drug and gang violence, unemployment, war, and natural disasters are just a few of those reasons.

Janira was referring to the raids carried out on Monday by immigration officials targeting Central American families. I hadn’t heard about them, so I shook my head and just listened.

“It’s terrible,” she said sadly. “They knock on people’s doors and they just take them in the middle of the night. These people…they have nowhere else to go. So hard. These are people from my community. They are not bad people. They have no other choices.”

We talked until the subway came to a shuddering stop and she got up to leave.

“Thank you.” she said.

But I knew I hadn’t done anything but listen.

There are times in our lives where we wonder what God thinks, and then there are other times when it’s as clear as the sky on a cloudless, summer day.

Because I don’t know what the government should do about immigration, but I sure know what the Church should do once the immigrant is among us. 

And I don’t know all that the government should and must do about racism, but I know what the Church should do. 

And I don’t know all that the government should do about refugees, but I know what the Church should do. 

Because, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the Church is neither master nor servant of the state. The Church is its conscience. 

Because the Church is about Christ crucified, Christ risen, and Christ coming again. 

Because the voice of God comes with whispers and roars and gentle calls and the words echo through generations because that’s what truth does – truth echoes. Truth will not stay silent. Truth rises up – generation after generation after generation. Truth speaks and hearts are softened.

And the voice of God needs to be heard through the actions of the Church.

And he’s saying this with a mighty roar: 

“But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24

And he is saying this with a voice of challenge: 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

And he is saying this with a gentle whisper: 

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien…” Deuteronomy 10:18

And he issues this Call to Obedience: 

“Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.”Isaiah 1:17

And he smiles with Joy and says: 

“How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!” Psalm 106:3

To those who would say “We must be practical,” I reply “Every time people try to be ‘practical’ they compromise on the Gospel Message.” Christians in Hitler’s time were just “being practical.” We know what happened.  To those who say “But it takes time and money” I reply “I know.” And to those who say “I’m not sure what I think about these issues,” I shake my head and say “But is it really about your political thoughts? Isn’t it supposed to be about what God thinks? When you are the one who is hungry, when you are the one who needs refuge, when you are the one who seeks justice – then you will know exactly what you think about these issues.”

So next time we wonder what God thinks about immigrants, and black lives, and refugees, and the poor, and the oppressed, and the one who suffers, and the one who grieves, remember – his voice is clear and there is no ambiguity in his words.

Because the God of the universe cries this throughout time and it echoes to eternity: 

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

She Lived a Large Life


The best thing I did all week was attend the funeral of Chong Wright. Chong and her husband, Wilbur, attended our church. Wilbur, a once tall soldier in the US army is now slightly stooped, his shoulders humbly sloping toward the earth. His Korean bride of fifty-one years, Chong, was tiny. Her legs were slightly bowed. Her sweaters, hand knitted and pastel pink, always bunched up on her small frame. The two of them would hold hands and hobble along.

Whenever Chong saw me, her eyes would light up. We would greet each other and have a short little conversations. English wasn’t the language of her heart but she made such an effort, in tiny sound bites, to communicate. What she couldn’t speak with her mouth she shouted with her eyes. They were always bright and welcoming. She looked into you and you knew she was happy to see you.

On Monday morning I read the notice of her death and the announcement that a memorial service would be held that very afternoon at a funeral home just around the corner from us. I wanted to go to tell her husband and their one child, Mary, what a bright spot their loved one was. I wanted them to know she would be missed.

Maybe thirty people gathered in the funeral home’s chapel. The strains of a recorded piano playing, Edelweiss, wafted over the group as we waited quietly in the pews. There were several pictures of Chong on the front table framing a large bouquet of pink and white flowers. Chong and Wilbur—at their wedding, while stationed in Germany, with their daughter, with their grandsons.

During the service I learned more about Chong than I had ever known. Chong Wright was born in Sinuichu, Korea on December 26th, 1940. When she was still quite young both her parents died. She then went to live with her grandmother. At the start of the Korean War, when she was ten years old, they fled, as refugees from North Korea to the safer South. Her grandmother died when Chong was thirteen years old and she went to live with an uncle and his family. Three years later, when she was sixteen, she enrolled in beauty school. Using her own resources she trained to become a beautician.

On September 8, 1964 Chong and Wilbur were married. Not all of Chong’s family was supportive of her marrying an American soldier. One family member told her that if she married Mr Wright, she’d be so poor they wouldn’t even be able to afford toilet paper. This began a personal commitment to paper products! Chong’s daughter, Mary, said that they always had great stockpiles of toilet paper, paper towels, and paper napkins. Long after Mary had married and had children of her own, Chong continued to supply them with paper products!

Wilbur and Chong were stationed in many places before coming to Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s where they were stationed when Wilbur retired from the Army life.

Whatever Chong did she worked hard at it. She was frugal and managed to pay off two homes and two cars. She was generous and good hearted. She was a good mother and a devoted grandmother. Both grandsons spoke of her generosity to them. On Thursdays she gave them money. They played games with the boys. They attended every band concert, school play, choir concert, musical. If the boys were there, so were Wilbur and Chong.

Last December there was a band concert at the mall. The seating was insufficient. I had gone early to save seats for our family. Just in front of me I saw Chong and Wilbur saving seats for their family too. At one point Chong turned and saw me. Her entire face lit up in recognition. She bobbed her head in greeting, her eyes beaming.

Chong Wright’s circle was small. There weren’t a lot of people at the funeral and many that were there came because of love and friendship with her daughter, Mary and her family. It might be easy to dismiss the significance of a person like Chong Wright—unknown, an immigrant, she couldn’t speak English very well. But Chong made a difference in the lives she touched. Her life mattered. Her circle wasn’t large but it was deep. She lived with integrity. She loved well. She made an effort to connect in the ways she knew how—playing with a baby, greeting those she knew, giving to her family. She was loyal and faithful until the very end.

It was such a profound moment for me. I have this relentless longing for a larger world. I want to go places, meet people. I want to make a difference. I want to have a global impact. But here was Chong– Her world, at the end, might have been little and yet her impact was undeniable. She will leave a large hole in the stories of her grandsons, her daughter, her son-in-law, the few at church she smiled at. Her life mattered. The breadth of her experiences, the suffering she had endured, the places she had traveled–for being a person of small stature she lived a large life and then settled into a small space. And she did so with grace.

I would do well to live…and die…..like Chong Wright.

On New Names and Citizenship

name tags

A few years ago, a woman I know from Haiti became a citizen of the United States. It was a long and weary process, full of the pit falls that only those familiar with government bureaucracy would understand.

But she did it. She studied. She took citizenship classes. She worked hard. And she did it. She became a legal citizen of the United States.

She was completing the last set of forms when the woman at the desk asked her this question: “Do you want to change your name?”

“What?” she replied, puzzled. The woman explained that she always asked people if they want to change their name at this point, because if they changed their name right then they wouldn’t have to pay anything extra. They just change it and put it with all the other paperwork.

“Yes!” was the answer. “Absolutely yes!”

In a spit second decision she became Lola. L-O-L-A.

“Done.” said the bureaucrat. And so it was.

When she relayed the story to me, we were driving home from a meeting about an hour away from Boston. We were talking about being ‘other’, about moving from your country of origin, about the journey to belong. She began talking about her desire to become a citizen and then her unexpected decision to change her name. She had no reason for becoming Lola other than seeing someone across a room one time whose name was Lola and realizing she liked the name.

For some reason this story fascinates me.

What’s in a name?

We meet Chinese immigrants all the time whose names are Jeff, Sam, Bob. Scott, Kim, Jessica. Of course, those aren’t their Chinese names at all. They have chosen them because it’s too hard to explain a hundred times a day how to pronounce their names to a group unaccustomed to the different sounds of Chinese. The same goes for other immigrants or refugees. They arrive as Tarek and they become Tom. They arrive as Khadijah and they become Carly. They arrive as Fang and become Louisa.

What is lost in the process? What has to be pushed to the back of our existence when we change a name?

Or is anything lost?

Is something gained by actively taking charge and deciding that a new name is part of the process of adjusting? 

Maybe it’s both. Maybe these new names speak of loss and gain.  Expatriates who have raised their children in other countries will often give their children a first or middle name from their adopted country. We gave our daughter Stefanie the middle name ‘Sevim’ – a name that means ‘my love’ in Turkish. Our son Joel is Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner – ‘Rehan’ is a dear friend of ours, originally from Pakistan. Those names represent countries we love and feel attached to. These names don’t represent loss – they represent gain. They tell a story. 

When we move to different countries there is a lot we leave behind, but there is a chance to change as well. There is a chance to reinvent ourselves, to start fresh. It’s a new beginning in every way. Does taking on a new name facilitate that change.

My friend from Haiti misses many things from her country of origin. But she chose to come here for various reasons. She also chose to take on the name Lola on the day she became a citizen. No one made her do it, she just did it.

What do you think? Do you go by a different name in other countries? Do you think we lose something when we change our names to adapt to the places where we live? 

Photo credit: http://pixabay.com/en/name-nameplate-badges-trailers-441078/