I was driving back from Ferris State University beaming with pride on a September morning. I was taking my first college class as a senior in high school. My radio jam was pumping through the car stereo when the DJ came on, sullen, and not at all matching the dance beat of the song.
“Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center in New York City.” He said.
“Fire is emitting from the building and people are jumping to their death. There is panic in downtown Manhattan as reports are being released that this isn’t an accident. America is being attacked.”
That’s how I remember September 11, 2001.
Even more importantly I remember what happened in the year following; fear, crazy intense fear, especially from the media. The ease of travel completely disrupted. All of the sudden I hear more about Islam than I ever have. Politicians and news reporters alike perpetuated the story that we were to distrust Muslims. Sure, they tried to say Muslim extremists but in that first year there were sweeping generalizations made (and to this day sweeping generalizations are still made).
By the time I entered seminary I was tired of Christians, media, and politicians telling me I needed to fear Islam. I don’t like fear and I don’t like people telling me how I should feel about others. I needed to find out for myself what Islam was about which meant I needed to make friends with Muslims. The problem was I wasn’t too sure how to do that in Holland, Michigan.
One of the requirements at Western Theological Seminary is the intercultural immersion trip. Students are required to visit a place around the world for two weeks where a Reformed Church in America missionary is present. Three options are presented and the student can choose which destination they feel God is calling them to.
The three places my class was allowed to choose from were India, Chiapas, and Oman. In the weeks leading up to the time we had to decide where to go I asked for God’s guidance. It became very clear that I was supposed to go to Oman. I had never heard of Oman before that year but clearly God was going to orchestrate experiences in my life and this wonderful Islamic country was going to be the place of my next conversion experience.
I didn’t know what to expect upon arriving to Oman but I had an immense curiosity that was going to lead me to a place of Holy Spirit guided wonder and new friendships. I learned about the rich history of the RCA mission in the Arabian Peninsula. I learned about over a hundred years of Muslims and Christian missionaries working together for the common good of society. While proselytizing is illegal in Oman, I learned how people of faith could be friends without trying to convert the other. In Oman I learned how to truly love my neighbor, even my Muslim neighbor.
Here is a fantastic clip by current RCA missionary to Oman, Rev. Douglas Leonard, executive director of the Al Amana Center. Rev. Leonard does an excellent job at deconstructing the recent unrest in the Middle East.
Oman changed my life in many ways. One day I was shopping in the souq (open market) and I was curious what it was like to wear a headscarf and an abaya (beautiful, black cloak that the women wear). I had no idea how to purchase the most fitting abaya and headscarf for me. There was a group of congenial women talking outside one of the clothing stores. I bolstered up my confidence and asked them if they would help me look for an abaya.
What happened next completely surprised me. Their joy and generosity swarmed me. They grabbed my hands and took me into the store and began wrapping different colored clothes all around me. I was a stranger but their hospitality and curiosity in me, and I in them, united us.
Two women from that group have become close friends of mine. Every time we correspond we talk about how our faith in God influences us. They share sacred texts from the Qur’an and I share sacred texts from The Bible. We talk about how certain verses are similar and we talk about how certain verses are different. We express our prayer requests and we pray for each other.
I remember one of the first questions my friend asked me was how many times do I pray. Of course that question makes sense because Muslims are to pray at five specific times in a day. Her question to me influenced me to do some research about the Christian Offices of Prayer. I loved the idea of rooting ones life in the rhythms of prayer and I was joyful that I found ways that Christians do it too.
I learned how to be a better Christian because of my Muslim friends.
I have learned what it means to devote my life to the rhythms of prayer because of my Muslim friends. I have learned that perfect love casts out fear and there is nothing to fear about faithful Muslims. My friends who are Muslim challenge me and remind me how important the prophetic works of Jesus are.
I met God in Oman and was converted to a life of interfaith relationships.
Till next time…