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

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.

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. 

Related articles

Ramadan 2014- What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

This post is a re-post from two years ago but is just as accurate. Thank you for joining us.

Today begins the Holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is marked by fasting daily from sun up to sun down. As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about Ramadan our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

1. At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.

2. We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.

3.We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.

4. We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.

5. We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.

6. We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.

7. We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.

8. We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.

9. We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.

10. We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.

11. We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion. We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend. They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!

12. We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste through words of breaking the fast. It is going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of colour, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamin. It is colour infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon. Bread normally made on a flat dry pan-fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate. Christians in Pakistan learned that from their neighbors.

And we learned by heart through the richness of our lives, watching all unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast.

Related articles
Ramadan 2012: History, Dates, Greeting And Rules Of The Muslim Fast (huffingtonpost.com)
A Look at Ramadan from an Outsider

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The Hard Questions at A Life Overseas

Today I’m over at A Life Overseas. I’m going to say ahead of time that this one was a difficult one to write. When we hold truth claims, when we place high value on our faith we end up grappling with some tough questions. So I write this with great humility and trust that the One who hears our hearts is far bigger than any of us imagine.

**************

Cairo, Egypt, Islam, Minaret

It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the solid blue, desert sky. The call to prayer echoed across the city of a thousand minarets. My blonde-haired 7-year-old looked at me, her deep blue eyes serious. “Is Faiza going to Heaven?”

We were living in Cairo, Egypt and Faiza was our baby sitter extraordinaire. But she was so much more.

She was our informal language teacher, our cultural broker, our friend. And she would iron our clothes just to be kind so that we looked like we stepped out of a dry cleaner’s shop. We had been in Cairo for 3 years and Faiza was an essential part of our lives.

We loved Faiza.

Faiza was a devout Muslim and our children knew this. She prayed five times a day and faithfully fasted during Ramadan. She gave to the poor and cared for those in need. She had even gone on the Hajj to Mecca – something every Muslim is encouraged to do in their lifetime if possible, but for a woman who was a widow and had only the money she made from babysitting this was a huge sacrifice.

Faiza would arrive at our house clad in a long, plain galabeya(traditional Egyptian dress) with her hair completely covered by a white hijab, always carrying with her pita bread and crumbly white cheese known as ‘gibna beda.’ This was her lunch but my kids grew to think of it as their snack. She lived her faith out loud, praying in our living room as soon as she heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street. She was ever patient and cared for my kids the way she would her own grandchildren. Read the rest here.

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When There is No Other Hand

English: Fiddler On The Roof Français : Un Vio...

Although I’ve not seen it in years, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows/movies. I’ve watched the movie numerous times and seen the performance live as a musical theatre production at least twice.

The scenes that have found place in my memory are what I call the “other hand scenes”. These are scenes where Tevya, a hardworking, ebullient, loving father and husband is talking to himself and to God. He is trying to make sense of the changing world around him and his value of tradition, yet also trying to figure out where tradition is not merely tradition but something far greater, something that cannot be compromised. The ‘other hand’ scenes are great pictures of a dialogue between a man fully comfortable communicating with his God.

We learn early on the value of tradition for Tevya:

“But in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

The ‘other hand’ scenes come as Tevya watches his daughters, one by one, fall in love and want to marry. First his challenge is that his oldest daughter wants to marry a poor tailor, but ‘on the other hand he’s an honest hard worker’. We watch him process and ultimately compromise tradition, giving his blessing on the marriage. We see a similar pattern with his second daughter and feel his pain as she heads off on a train to Siberia to be with the man she loves.

But there comes a point where Tevya won’t compromise. Where in his own words “there is no other hand”; where it’s less about tradition and more about bottom-line belief.

I think a lot about this, about compromise, about what I am and am not willing to compromise. Communicating across cultural boundaries is a lot about give and take, a lot about compromise, a lot about negotiation. And when we communicate across truth claims and faith differences, make no mistake — we are communicating across cultural differences, we are communicating across boundaries.

We live in an age where many are quick to criticize dogmatic truth claims. One of our friends who does a lot with interfaith dialogue says that there are times when you shake your head in disbelief because those who get together for interfaith dialogue water down their truth claims so much that they all sound the same.

That’s not dialogue. That’s monologue

When a Christian says that it doesn’t matter if Jesus is an allegory, and a Muslim says that the creed is unimportant then it’s not an interfaith dialogue – both have given up essential elements of their faith.

There are other times where people clearly and graciously state their claims, and, even if it bothers you, they won’t back down. There is no other hand. They will listen, and ask questions, and have genuine interest, but their faith compels them to hold fast to certain truth.

When it comes to tradition, belief, and truth claims I feel a lot like Tevya. I have this running dialogue with God, trying to sort out where and when I am willing to compromise and when I realize there is no other hand. Because if I bend that far, I’ll break.

“On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand… No. There is no other hand.”

What about you? Have you struggled to work through faith, what you will compromise, and what you won’t? I invite you to join the conversation – we need your voice.

Beyond the Headlines – Pakistan Zindabad

“It seems that violence is the only lens through which ordinary people in Pakistan are viewed in the media. Even if it’s a story about a Pakistani rock band, it will be set in the context of a violent society. There’s nothing false about the perspective. Pakistan has a problem with violence. Violence is used to silence journalists, and judges, and moderate religious scholars. And it seems to be getting worse. Every time I see somebody on television speaking out in anger against extremism or corruption—I’ll say a prayer for them. And every time one of those people is murdered, those of us who aspire to be like them grow a little more afraid.

So it’s not that the reports of violence are false. But they are only a small part of the truth. There’s so much other life being lived here.

But there’s only so much space in international newspapers. And there’s so much news in the world. So only the most jarring stories make the cut.”* 


When I was growing up and we would return to the United States for year-long furloughs, not many had heard of Pakistan. At the time Pakistan was a relatively new country, having recently gained independence from British controlled India to be a separate Muslim state.

Fast forward to today and it is rare to have a day go by without some news of Pakistan – and it’s rarely good news. While Malala Yousafzai made headlines for her courage in the face of persecution and terror, most headlines speak to danger and despair.

I belong to a peculiar tribe of people. Like any tribe we don’t all like each other and we don’t all get along. But certain things set us apart. We all grew up in Pakistan. We all fight against the stereotypes that dominate the news of Pakistan in the west. And it’s safe to say that most of us love Pakistan. We love what it gave us, we love what we became because of it, we love that it continues to struggle and shows an uncommon resilience despite terrorist and drone attacks, corrupt politics, and floods. We love the people and the place. 

Today, August 14, is Pakistan’s Independence Day and with it comes a desire to show readers something beyond the headlines of newspapers.

Because Pakistan is far more than what you see on television or read online or in print. Pakistan is pristine, untouched beaches and some of the tallest mountains in the world; it is many ethnic groups and a resilient people; it is ancient ruins of the Indus Valley (one of the oldest known civilizations) and hospitality to strangers.

So today I hope for Pakistan, I pray for Pakistan, for peace, truth, and rest. And along with those prayers I offer you glimpses of this beautiful country.

Pakistan Zindabad! Long Live Pakistan!

Blogger’s Note: These beautiful, National Geographic quality pictures were taken by Dan Mitchell, son of one of my high school friends, Jon Mitchell. Many thanks to him for permission to publish them on Communicating Across Boundaries.

Watching mountain goats A lot of stories in this face Beautiful people Father and son Gulmit Gulmit, Northern Areas Making naan Northern Pakistan Northern Pakistan - Alexander the Great lives on! Over 30 people on this car Rakaposhi Reflection Signs in Chinese and Urdu Vegetable stall view from Eagles nest Hotel

Purchase Passages Through Pakistan here – all proceeds go toward refugees in the Middle East.