Love Thy Neighbor, The Mosque, and a Few "Takers"

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” ~ Thomas Merton

This is the Al Omari Mosque in downtown Beirut. It’s old, I think before it was a Mosque, it was a Crusader castle, before that a pagan temple. Al Omari suffered extensive damage during the Lebanese Civil War; it still wears some of those scars. I always remember fairy lights strung along its edges. It was simple, old, and beautiful to me.

Mosques don’t hold a negative view for me. They are a place of worship for Muslims. As a Christian, I respect Muslims and their place of worship. I also have lived in the Middle East and was surrounded by Mosques. I heard the call to prayer five times a day by multiple Muezzins (the person appointed to lead the call to prayer) on loudspeakers. It was a good reminder for me, as a Christian, to stop and listen and pray.

One of the most important things I do in America is be a bridge for Christians to engage Muslims. Part of this “bridge work” is to bring Christians into the Mosque. I’ve done this many times and each time our Muslim friends have shown such extraordinary hospitality. It also is a way for Christians to overcome their fear of Muslims and their misunderstanding of how Muslims practice their faith. My goal is to break down walls, so Christians can engage with love and respect and have a greater understanding.

Every time I lead a Mosque visit, there is pushback from my community. I think it’s fear and an unwillingness to be uncomfortable.  It’s heartbreaking to me because how will we learn to love our neighbors without engaging them where they are comfortable? But, every once and in awhile, I get a few “takers.” I wanted to give you some feedback from our latest Mosque visit from husband and wife, both of whom had never been in a Mosque before. Ladies first.

Ellen’s Reflection on the Mosque Visit

There are rules for entering a mosque, especially for a woman. We prepared ourselves ahead of time, stepping out of our Colorado jeans and tank top lives to venture into what most Americans would see as a mystifying and perplexing space. This meant that our heads and necks must be covered, check. (And note: I’m really bad at headscarf wrapping, so mine kept slipping off. No one seemed to mind.) Arms and legs must be covered, check. Women must enter through separate doors from the men, and by the way, no shaking hands with men, check. I noticed that most women even avoided eye contact with men as well. No problem for this introvert. Shoes must be removed, for we are entering a holy place, check. I loved that part. It felt not unlike the singing of the Alleluia at church when I’m simply positive that Jesus himself has sauntered into the room. Holy ground. But, don’t let the soles of your feet show, check. Ok, but that is not as easy as it sounds.

Love, respect and openness to learn was the plan. A sweet elderly man named Mohammed led us into the main prayer room and graciously answered our questions. Men and women pray separately in order to protect their hearts, we learned. The concern is that if men and women were to pray together, the devil could use the opportunity to whisper distracting thoughts or evil suggestions. In the same manner as in Christian churches, male and female relationships are understood in light of a romantic/marriage narrative only, with sex being the only and inevitable eventuality. This is an ancient belief that continues to shape the thinking of Christianity as well, even in 2015. Nevertheless, just like most Christians, their desire was to be fully attentive to God alone during their prayers. Their devotion was heartfelt and beautiful.

Suzann asked me to talk about what surprised me. None of what was expected of the genders was a surprise, and I am always glad to do whatever conveys respect to those whose home I am in. However, my first actual surprise was the sense of belittlement I felt from some of these things. The sense of belittlement was not imposed on me from anyone there. It was fully mine-- I brought it with me. I realized that some of these things reminded me of my long gone Christian fundamentalist background, when, for example, a Christian man told me that he would not only never read a book written by a woman, he wouldn’t even want to touch it. It brought back old feelings of being a second-class citizen. I was left to wonder, how much of our own inner struggles shape our perceptions of those we deem to be “other”? And how much fear and judgment do we project onto them as a result? Learning to love these gracious people meant owning my own stuff. I was glad to discover that compared to those old experiences, the attitude in the mosque felt much more respectful. The women seemed to be at peace and confident in their devotion.

We were with them when they broke their fast for the day. I sat with the women on a cement floor covered with sheets, and enjoyed dates, soup, pita bread, rice, chicken schwarma, and other things the names of which I can’t remember. All of it was delicious, and all of it was generously and graciously given, just like at a church potluck. I looked forward to and enjoyed the Middle Eastern hospitality. In many ways, it felt like a gathering of my husband’s Armenian relatives. They were always checking to be sure I was comfortable and happy, always piling more food on my plate. They had been fasting all day but I had not, yet my comfort was their sincere concern.

The women were as delightful as I hoped they would be. We shared long conversations about our relationships with our adult children and caring for the elderly, dreams for the future and recipes for today. You know, like you do. Several times I was asked why I had come to be with them that evening. I told them I wanted to learn about their faith and hoped that we might create peace and friendship together. This was always met with wide-eyed surprise and smiles of gratefulness. There were many gracious invitations to return. I also got an invitation to a wedding.

I have come to believe that traveling to places unknown, even when they’re in your own backyard, can be the best form of discipleship. I have traveled quite a bit and have found that that experience tends to open one’s mind to the experience of the “other” as kindred. You will meet Christ in his many forms if you are willing to see. You will learn more of what it means to love.

In all honesty, in many ways visiting the Mosque felt just like being a “newcomer” at a Christian church. I have observed that at its most basic level, religion is religion. We may differ in theology but not in devotion. The Mosque is a place for meeting God in what some might call his distressing disguise-- in plain sight behind the eyes of the “other”. 

Aram’s Reflection on the Mosque Visit

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than the others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.   – Matthew 5:46-48

There is no fear in love.  But perfect love casts out fear.   -  I John 4:18

With sadness and horror I watched as some of my Christian friends lit up Facebook with outrage when the Empire State Building was lit up in green to honor Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.   I cringed as these friends posted and shared quotes from sources such as the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” which said that “the idea that the Empire State Building would turn green for Eid not a day after five US soldiers were murdered in cold blood in the cause of Islam on American soil is surrender . . . we have indeed been conquered.”   American Evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham went so far as to say “we are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the US until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized…”

Conquer? Surrender?  I could write so much here on how the life and teachings of Jesus are diametrically opposed to such language of empire and fear.  But for now I’ll say this: that when I’ve ventured to challenge such sentiments, after many rounds and exchanges where I appeal to Scripture and the words and ways of Jesus and his disciples, I’ve observed that sometimes my friends will (almost grudgingly) acknowledge that this is indeed what Jesus teaches, and they’ll usually end with a caution or warning to me, noting my “naiveté,” and saying, with a sigh, “I hope you’re right.” 

But hoping one is right is a cop out.  Jesus’ words implicitly call us to make things right.  It requires intention on my part.  It requires action, stepping out.  This was why I felt it important to attend the mosque that Friday night.

As I reflect on that night, it strikes me that I did have some fear.  But it was not what I expected.  The first sense of fear I had, sitting in the mosque, was that we were at risk, not from within the walls, but from without.  What if a Muslim-fearing, Muslim-hating person or group was planning on targeting the mosque this night?  I’m almost ashamed to admit that, but albeit briefly, that fear was there.  The other fear I recognized was simply a fear of saying something stupid or asking a question out of ignorance.  But that fear was unfounded as our group of nine white Christians were welcomed with nothing but grace and hospitality. No question was a stupid question.  What I also noticed was that, though, in my mind we stood out, the reality was that we didn’t.  Nobody gawked at us, and I felt neither the extreme of being shunned, nor being overly attended to.  And what I came to see is maybe it’s because, as our friend Mohammed explained to us, the community there is comprised of over 35 nationalities.  People of all colors, cultures, traditions, customs, and tribes.  People who have crossed some boundaries and lines for the sake of something greater.  

Crossing boundaries is a movement away from fear.  It is to take a step into one’s hope.  Hope for a better world.  A more perfect world.

A special thanks to both Aram and Ellen for their reflections. And for all who have come to the Mosque with me over the years, thank you for a willingness to step out of your comfort zone to learn, to engage, and to take that first big step to loving our Muslim neighbors. What a blessing for us to expand our world and our hearts!