Learning, So Better to Love
Some weeks back I mentioned a painful conversation I had with Imam Adam Fofana, the leader of the Islamic Center of Central Georgia (I mistakenly said Islamic Center of Middle Georgia then), about some indignities he and his congregation have faced in recent weeks. You may remember that among other things, some men come to his home early in the morning, egging his car and further intimidating his family.
The week following my column, Adam invited me and some members of our congregation to come and join his congregation for a potluck meal they host on the first Friday of each month, and perhaps say a few words. So back on March 3, Richard Green, Brett and Jessica Northenor and I were guests of our Islamic brothers and sisters for an incredible potluck meal.
Their congregation, which we learned dates back to the 1980s, is largely made up of immigrants, counting people from over 30 countries. The table-spread that night reflected this incredible diversity, featuring dishes from across the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, and even some classic Southern cooking from some of the African-American members. It would have been rude not to go back for thirds.
Their facility is a converted warehouse in Centerville that they have retrofitted for their worship and community needs. There is a common worship area, though Adam told us they keep with Islamic tradition and men and women pray separately. There are also separate places for men and women to eat and fellowship, though Adam says this is due more to limitations in the space; no single common area is large enough to hold everyone at once.
The hospitality we received was humbling, and something I hope guests to our congregation would experience. In fact, in reflecting on the evening we were struck more by the similarities we observed than the differences—a truth of most interfaith dialogue or communion I’ve experienced.
Children ran and played. Boys wrestled with each other. Adults talked about home, work and whatever sports event was current. We answered questions about Christianity that were similar to those we might ask a Muslim guest, though no doubt more well-informed. Did I mention the food was fantastic?
After supper we all, men and women, gathered in the prayer room, where Adam asked me to speak on the topic of “the common good from a Christian perspective.” I spoke mostly of our duty to love our neighbor as ourselves; that this is the second part of the Greatest Commandment, and actually clarifies the first: to love our neighbor is to love God. Though, I must tell you, I can’t remember ever having spoken of this imperative more sheepishly, as I imagined how it matched up to the audience’s recent experience.
I closed by citing Matthew 25, when Jesus says whatever you do “to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [do] it to me,” one of the more powerful and challenging passages from the Gospels.
In the Q&A after I spoke, one man raised his hand and asked, politely, how much most Christians in America knew about Islam. I told him not nearly as much as we should. He said he wondered that, because they have a story very similar to the one I described from Matthew 25. Others nodded their heads in agreement, and began to quote it aloud. It matched Matthew 25 almost word for word. We all, it turns out, are called to see God in the other.
So often today we fixate on what separates or differentiates us from others. We find our box, our people, our tribe, our party, and tend to stay put. Comfort can be intoxicating.
I don't mean to downplay the differences between us and our Muslim brothers and sisters--indeed, these differences are real, and often highlight the beautiful textures of each faith.
Yet held against our similarities in hope: in what we want for ourselves, our families and our neighbors--what we are called by our God to do--all these differences seem very small.
And these are things we're not likely to hear from the anxious voices of news and opinion that so saturate our lives. They are things best learned by real presence, a shared conversation, a shared table, a shared meal.
Our faith teaches us that strange things happen in the breaking of bread. This, too, it turns out, is something we share.