The author of this blog post is a missionary in North Africa with Pioneer Bible Translators. She, along with her husband and two little girls, lives on the outskirts of a refugee camp working to facilitate disciple-making, Bible translation and mother tongue literacy among two least-reached Muslim groups. Her favorite things about North Africa include drinking scalding hot mint tea, wearing colorful tobes, watching her daughters play on ant hills, and hearing people’s stories. Her least favorite things include rats in the kitchen and dry season dust storms.
I grew up on the coast of Kenya. Many of my classmates were from India and every year my girlfriends would invite me to attend Navratri, a Hindu festival that involves lots of traditional dancing and amazing food. I felt like Cinderella every year as I walked up the steps to the local temple hand in hand with my friends and wrapped up in a borrowed turquoise sari, bendi glittering in the center of my forehead and arms heavy with bangles. I loved every minute of it. But every year, my parents would only let me attend if Anila was going.
Anila was my best friend from school. Her family was also originally from India so she spoke Gujarati and had shiny saris in her closet fit for the occasion. But my parents would only let me go with her for one reason only, and that was because Anila was a Muslim. And they knew that though we would dance with our Hindu classmates until we had blisters on our feet, at some point, when it was clear to Anila that prayers were about to be offered to deities we did not share, Anila would take my hand and quietly lead us outside into the cool night. There we would sit on the temple steps and talk softly until it was appropriate for the two girls who worshipped the God of Abraham to go back inside. My parents would only let me go with Anila because they knew that the only person as serious as I was about not participating in idol worship was my Muslim best friend.
Anila and I have stayed close over the years. We both attended universities in the States. She went to Stanford. I went to Abilene Christian University. She married a white Baptist boy from Washington who converted to Islam and had two baby girls. I married a white Church of Christ boy from Georgia and had three. I moved to Sudan. She stayed in the States. We’ve seen each other several times over the years and every time we get together, we talk about how we need to write a book. How we need to develop some kind of presentation that we can give at churches and mosques and universities all over the country about our common ground. Because while the world is losing its ever-loving mind over the great abyss that it sees separating her and me, we still find ourselves sitting on the temple steps together. A Christian woman and a Muslim woman, whose lives and faith are perhaps more similar than they are different.
Anila’s experience of being a devout Muslim in a (so-called) Christian nation is amazingly similar to my experience of being a Christian in a (so-called) Muslim nation. (And, just for the record, she is incredibly devout. She prays five times a day, faithfully reads her Koran, fasts every Ramadan and, to my knowledge, has never touched alcohol). While she fights labels like terrorist because of which direction she faces when she prays, I have had to fight the assumption of being sexually loose because of the country that issued my passport. We both have grown out of conservative sects of our religions and have made relatives uncomfortable with whether or not we cover our hair or worship with musical instruments. We are both constantly horrified at the violence committed in the name of our faiths and deeply resent the way politics have hijacked our religions.
There are some days that I don’t know whether to be proud or dismayed by the fact that our world is in such a place that our friendship often feels more like a desperately important metaphor that needs to be shouted into the cacophony of the world instead of just a couple of moms that laugh about how they used to pass notes in Economics class. There are powerful voices all around us that would have us believe that the greatest division in the world today is between Islam and the West. They paint a powerful, scary image of a thick red line on one side of which stand Christians, on the other, Muslims. But I don’t believe this is true at all.
While I don’t find the idea of lines to be that helpful to begin with, in as much as they do exist, one that has come to be quite significant to me runs the other way altogether, a longitude – not a latitude – that cuts right through the continents of both religions. And really, like most lines, it’s more of a continuum, actually. On one far side stand all who deal in fear and hate and ethnocentrism. Every kind of bad Christian and bad Muslim alike, everyone who discredits the very faith they claim in favor of fear and power is cowering angrily together in that place.
The crowd more towards the middle of the continuum is undoubtedly the biggest. The indifferent and apathetic. Those driven only by the American Dream or the Saudi dream, keeping God safely in a convenient political or social box where he can’t cause too much trouble. Those who just want to make a buck, or who remain unbothered by injustice that doesn’t affect them.
And then far on down the continuum stand the rest of us. Those of us trying to live lives defined by compassion and selflessness. Those defiantly speaking to all the things we have in common instead of all that divides us. Those who don’t claim to have all the answers to the mess of this world but are determined to keep trying. I believe this group is bound by their hunger for God and their desire to live in ways that are pleasing to him as best as they know how. I am trying very hard to be on this part of the line, doing it more successfully on some days than others. And I believe Anila is standing there with me.
Jesus was the world’s worst at messing up all our lines. Who is a neighbor or an enemy, who is a sinner and who has great faith, who is against us and who is for us – it all gets very confusing when Jesus shows up. He’s constantly asking us to look again. Wherever we find ourselves on the lines of this world, we have to be willing to open our eyes and look around one more time. And when we do, we may be amazed to see who we are standing next to.