Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslim’s for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (the Arabic translation of God).
It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another.
Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.
As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.
When we begin to spend time with the “other,” we will be struck by our shared humanity. The “enemy” or the person on the “wrong side” of an issue is actually more like us than we may have realized.
Muslim communities around the U.S. are often subject to hatred, discrimination and scapegoating in the post-9/11 context. As a result, the majority of Jesus-followers only know of them through the latest sound bite or polarizing political pundit. That not only fails to honor their tradition, it fails to honor them as humans.
What do we do? We listen. And that is exactly what we did last night. As is often the case when we have entered contexts foreign to us in the posture of humility and learning, we were moved not only by how much we share in common with “the other,” but how much we have to learn from them:
I complain if I get to a meal a couple hours late, let alone miss meals all day long. For our friends, they gladly give up these material needs for 30 days during daylight hours as a way to worship and re-center themselves around the things they value most. Sitting with them as they picked up their forks for the first time all day, I was inspired in my own devotion.
What do I willingly give up in order to deepen my worship?
At one point, the Imam stood up before this diverse crowd of Muslim and Christian leaders, city officials and politicians and shared a series of questions he regularly challenges his community to ask:
1. Do you know your neighbors’ names?
2. Are you viewed as a good neighbor?
3. Do you reflect the best of Islam to your neighbors?
In that moment I was struck by the similar language I use in leading my community of Jesus-followers. He went on to describe ways these questions had been answered “yes” by his community. It was inspiring, convicting and remarkably hopeful.
The whole point of the evening was to create space for people of different faiths, political persuasions and ethnicity to simply share a common meal together. It was rich in conversation, experience and collaboration around a shared future. It was not designed to water down any of our unique beliefs or traditions, but to acknowledge our differences and move forward in mutual respect and understanding.
There was never a feeling of trying to be persuaded or convinced of anything. It was a genuine extending of a hand to build a future where we find unity in our diversity, where faith, religion and tradition can be taken seriously while engaging one another respectfully.
Janny and I not only met new friends who we hope will be part of our lives for a long time, we drove home with full hearts—hearts that were affirmed in hope being possible. Hearts that were convicted to learn more. Hearts that were inspired to continuing to build a narrative of hopeful engagement rather than fearful division and hatred. As followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to choose this way forward. It is a gift and an honor.
We were affirmed in our belief that we cannot simply learn about Muslims, we must learn from them. It is in the act of sharing life together around a table that we not only display the best of our faith, but we are exposed to the best of theirs.