Pillars – How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus

“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and
honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we
connect rather than collide.”

Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.

Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.

Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.


When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.

Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.

Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world?
Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.

Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions?
I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.

How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community?
I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed
meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.

REVIEWS:

Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation
“This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”

Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World
“Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”

At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:

“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”

You can purchase the book here.

Eid Celebrations & Memories

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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.

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 Identity 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.