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.

Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

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“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

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

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

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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.

A Bigger Picture

I arrived back from Egypt yesterday, bleary-eyed after hours of travel. Having coffee in Cairo, sahlep in Istanbul, and mint tea in our Cambridge living room reminded me yet again of how connected our world is. We fell asleep and woke up on the other side of the world. 

The trip was a gift that will take a while to process, and I plan to do some of that online, but for now I feel like I’ve been invited into a bigger picture. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have been deeply angered, troubled, and discouraged by the infantile politics that have become an acceptable part of our society. I am increasingly frustrated by how deeply I am connected to social media in all its forms. The trip was a break from all of that and revived me in the best way possible.

Just two days ago I stood in the shadow of a 4th Century church while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. All around me, women in hijab were entering the church to read the history, view ancient icons, and hear stories about this church that has survived centuries of life. The church is known as either the “hanging church” or the “The Church of the Virgin Mary.” Built into the walls of a Roman fortress, this church is considered the oldest in Egypt.

Just down a stone path from the ancient church is the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue, built in the 9th century over a 4th century church frame. The voices of thousands who had been there before echoed from the silent walls. While leaving the synagogue, we passed a fully veiled woman, only her eyes showing. I had seen her earlier in one of the churches, now she was making her way down the same path we had come to visit the synagogue.

We were in Coptic Cairo, an area known as one of the oldest in Cairo. I have been to Coptic Cairo many times before but I have never experienced the sense of life and God’s orchestration of life like I did.

Throughout the Bible, Egypt is seen as a place of preservation, protection, and testing of God’s people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all played a part in Egypt’s history, each with truth claims that sometimes seem similar and other times are completely opposite and non-negotiable.

As the call to prayer rang out from mosques across the city, one beginning as another was ending, I was struck by God’s big view of people and history. I see this pinpoint in time; he sees from beginning to end. I focus on the small things while he calls me to see the big things. I am stuck in time; he is the creator of time. I often see a narrow way to grace; he who is grace personified opens his arms wide as he calls us to himself.

In those moments, I realized yet again the call to a see a bigger picture – a picture beyond politics, beyond the current crisis of the day, and beyond my own inadequacy. I’m called to see the world through eyes of love and grace only possible through knowing the Creator. 

It’s a mystery that will take a lifetime to understand.

 

Three young women asked for photos with me, both individually and as a group. I was completely honored and glad the moment outside this church was captured! 

 

The Bubbles Inside our Heads

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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.