If you were to ask me “Jes, tell me about a life-changing experience you have had?,” one of the first stories that comes to my mind is the times I’ve traveled to Oman. I’ve shared about this before on The 12, but let me briefly refresh your memory.
In the winter of 2009 I traveled to Oman with my seminary colleagues. I stayed at the RCA supported Al Amana Centre. I chose to travel to Oman because I was tired of the media telling me I should be fearful of the Middle East. I wanted to see for myself what this region of the world was like. I’m so glad I did because Oman captured my heart and imagination. The peace, the friendship, the interfaith joy, and the beauty I experienced in Oman captured my attention so much that I traveled to Oman again in the Spring of 2009. I needed to be there.
The first time I went to Oman I needed to a get a hijab to go to the Grand Mosque, but I didn’t want to get just the hijab I also wanted to purchase an abaya. I had so many western ideas on what hijab and abaya would feel like that I wanted to challenge my assumptions and work for a feminism that included my sisters with hijab. I went to the market and began going through the abaya stores. So many beautiful black garments with different designs on them I had no idea which one to chose. How did I know what was the most fashionable abaya of that season? I’m didn’t want to wear last year’s style, I wanted the stylish abaya of the current year.
I needed help in my purchase. So I went outside the little store in the market and scanned the souq (the marketplace) to see if I could intuitively find some guidance. In the crowds of people I saw a group of about seven Omani Muslim women laughing and offering a welcoming presence. I decided to garner some courage and inquire if they would help me find an abaya and hijab.
As I got closer to the congenial group of women they noticed I was coming toward them and turned toward me. I said “Excuse me. I’m not from here, obviously, but I would really like to get an abaya and hijab. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know I’m looking for a stylish abaya. Would you mind helping me?” The women, without hesitation, gathered around me as if I was there long lost cousin. We were holy boundary crossing, a Christian and Muslim women. One woman (who would later become a friend to this day and ended up visiting my church in New York City) enfolded me in her care. She poked fun at me, just as a sister does, and wrapped my head for the first time. I felt vulnerable because I didn’t know what I was doing. She stood back and smiled and cried out, “beautiful!” as she helped me wear my hijab properly. We went out to eat after, a Muslim and a Christian, learning about each other in our hijabs.
Oman is a place of conversion for me. I converted to a new understanding of my Christian faith in Oman. I already loved Jesus, but it was in Oman that the Holy Spirit came upon me and converted me to interfaith solidarity work. To love God with my whole heart means I must love my Muslim neighbor with my whole heart. To love God means I am compassionately curious about my neighbors who have different religious practices than I do. Loving Jesus looks like standing in solidarity with religious groups that are being oppressed and mistreated.
This Fall I have had the chance to share how I believe faithful Christian practices lead us to interfaith friendship. From the White House, to protests, to being interviewed on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story with Ray Suarez, this has been my message: loving our Muslim neighbor is one of the most Christian orthodox things we can do for this is the heart of the Gospel – to love God and love our neighbor, especially when they’re wearing a hijab or kufi.