“When tragedy happens we look for someone to blame,” my pastor said this past Sunday, reflecting on Orlando’s mass shooting that occurred the night before and imploring us to pause to grieve the lives taken. Yet blame is the easiest thing to do. It’s what the religious leaders during Jesus’ time on earth were all about: catch a woman in adultery and blame her. Find a man born blind and blame him or his parents for sinning. The list goes on.
One community that’s receiving blame after this incident is Muslim immigrants and refugees.
We blame our fears and we fear what’s unfamiliar. Among communities of faith, some might discourage encounters with people holding worldviews different from their own because such interactions could result in questioning or even rejecting their beliefs. For me, however, engaging on a deep level with people holding beliefs varied from my own has actually expanded and deepened my faith. Living several years in Bangladesh gave me insights on stories from the Bible that I would have never recognized had I stayed in the United States. Furthermore, my Muslim friends taught me about reverencing God, showing hospitality to strangers and praying in a disciplined fashion. To this day I still pray with my palms facing up, a position that indicates receptiveness to receiving God’s blessing.
A couple stories from the book I’ve been writing offer additional glimpses into the spiritual insights I gained from my experience of living with a Muslim family in a country far from my own:
Daisy*, the younger of the two daughters, was an energetic artist with a zest for life. Her older, more docile sister Nadine* would tease us and say that Daisy and I were “dushtu bons” (naughty sisters). She sometimes accompanied me to the English service at the Assembly of God church and after one service asked me to explain the meaning of the word “fellowship.”
“It’s like when you’re worshipping and you feel connected to God,” I tried to explain. She looked at me confused. As I was reflecting on our conversation later in the week, Revelation 3:20 came to mind:
“Look! I have been standing at the door, and I am constantly knocking. If anyone hears me calling him and opens the door, I will come in and fellowship with him and he with me.”
I thought of how Daisy and her family demonstrated hospitality to me, a trait prominent in Muslim cultures. My western mind was blown as I realized my understanding of “fellowship” had been limited and shaped by my religious experiences and had deviated from the original Biblical context. I excitedly shared the verse with Daisy and my insight into the meaning of this word that she had been so wonderfully displaying to me.
Another evening I shared the Last Supper story about how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
“You all have been doing so much for me,” I said. “But Jesus taught that we should serve others. And in his day, people wore sandals and had very dirty feet, much like here. So I would like to wash your feet.”
“Oh no! You can’t possibly wash our feet!” they exclaimed.
I was their honored guest and a foreigner at that! They insisted on washing mine and I eventually agreed on the terms that I would get to wash theirs in exchange. It was a beautiful, sacred moment and gave me insight into the depth of shock Jesus’ disciples must have felt when their leader washed their feet.
Yet should friends like Daisy and Nadine find themselves in the United States, I cannot promise they would receive the same level of hospitality. Should they with their brothers and mother come to my country, the United States of America, would anyone invite them to their home? For many refugees and immigrants, they never get offered a drink of water, let alone someone giving up their own bed and washing their dirty feet! Fear causes us to suspect, rather than welcome. Biases presume that newcomers arrive only to take with little to offer. And simple busyness prevents many of us in the United States from engaging deeply with anyone, especially our newest neighbors in town!
Although I haven’t blamed these communities, I’ve still found myself making stereotypical assumptions. For instance, two weeks ago my pastor showed a video of a brief interview with a refugee family whom we at Rainier Avenue Church are welcoming into our neighborhood. As the father told his story, the mother sat in silence, hushing their children. I assumed she knew little to no English and had no formal education. Imagine my surprise when the interviewer turned to her and in English more fluent than her husbands, she told of how she had a degree in computer science and had worked at a university in Baghdad. Assumptions busted! She and her husband have so many talents to offer—from education to experience. Yet how well will we welcome them? When they apply for jobs, will we turn them away? When they ask for a place to sleep, will we tell them to get out of our already-crowded city? I am grateful to organizations like World Relief that are helping families like this one get connected to housing, jobs and most importantly people. And perhaps in welcoming new friends the way they would to us in their country, we will experience deeper understanding of each other and of God. For in the words of a twentieth-century prophet:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963
*Names changed to protect privacy