AT A LOCAL MOSQUE
We all need friends. “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for a friend,” said Jesus. So it was with much joy that we accepted the invitation recently extended by Sheik Ahmed Taajir and Abdi Moalin, the administrator of the Umatul Islam Mosque in Minneapolis to a dinner. “Bring forty of your [Christian] community leaders and we’ll bring ours for a dinner together at a time that works for you,” they said.
As Mike Netterer of SALT (Somali Adult Literacy Training) put it, “We should have been the first to invite you, since you are the more recent arrivals.” But Lord willing, we will reciprocate.
So on the evening of Saturday, July 18, 2009, representatives of various south Minneapolis and Phillips Neighborhood churches, ministries and agencies gathered at the mosque and were treated to food, friendship and an informative presentation on Islam and peaceful coexistence by Sheik Abdisalam Adam of the Dar Al Hijrah mosque.
Coexistence between our different faith communities is not only possible, it is imperative, he said.
In his presentation was an invitation that we guests take seriously, to work together with them on matters of peace, health care, community welfare and fighting poverty. It helped to have people representing some of the agencies and churches already involved in such community matters, such as Urban Ventures, Messiah Lutheran Church and the Center for Changing Lives, and SALT, plus some other ters and leaders who already have experience in starting and running inter-faith organizations, sports clubs and tutoring programs.
But the evening was not just about programs, presentations and plans. Over the generous dinner there was time and opportunity for people of both faith communities to meet and talk about personal concerns in common, such as education and careers for women, health and family.
I was also asked to share for about ten minutes on peaceful coexistence. Because coexistence and tolerance can be such weak, vacuous concepts in mainstream American culture, I felt led to ramp up my thoughts and talk instead about hospitality, in its Biblical, Kuranic and pan-African senses. After my talk, we presented Sheik Ahmed and the mosque with a book about Minnesota history, and the various people and communities who make Minnesota what it is, because they are now part of the ongoing Minnesota story.
I include a written version of those thoughts below:
“It is quite an honor on my part to have received this invitation to share some words about peaceful coexistence and living together. I hope that my words will bring honor to God and to everyone here, especially our gracious hosts.
“But I must begin by acknowledging a cultural thing, related to my upbringing, something which I have had to unlearn over the years. In my individualistic American culture, we commonly think that to coexist peacefully and be good neighbors simply means that we let each other be, that we keep our noses out of each other’s business, that we stay out of each other’s hair, because, as the American proverb says, “Good fences make for good neighbors.” That’s often what we mean by the word, “tolerance.”
“But that’s a very empty and even negative way of approaching being neighbors and co-existing peacefully. It can even lead to the worst-case example that Becky and I experienced with some neighbors when we lived in a suburb of Detroit some years ago. A couple living next door to us may have thought they were being good neighbors by simply refusing to even acknowledge our existence. Whenever they left the house they would march straight toward the car, and never even answer any word of greeting from us or anyone else.
“One day I was playing in the yard with our two daughters, who were three and six years of age at the time. I had a big cardboard box over my head and was chasing them around the yard. It was all very silly and undignified, but they loved it. At that very moment, the neighbor lady left her house and glanced over in my direction. I felt somewhat embarrassed and waved to her, but she immediately turned her face toward the car, with a cold, stony expression, and kept on walking. Here was a simple invitation to join us in being human, even to share a smile at my expense, and she turned it down. Now Detroit is a tough town, and perhaps she thought she was protecting herself from the complications of relationships. But in that idea of neighborliness and coexistence, all sorts of fears and misunderstandings can flourish and grow.
“But that is the mainstream idea of coexistence with which I grew up, in mainstream American culture. And I didn’t really recognize that for the problem it was until Becky and I lived for several years in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. There we were effectively adopted by a Muslim family of the Jula tribe, who took an interest in helping us learn their language, their culture, and how to coexist peacefully and enjoy living and being in that country. The head of the household is a man named Gaoussou Barro. Becky and I were given his family name: I’m Moussa Barro, and she’s Korotoumou Barro. One of the things they used to teach us the language and the culture was their proverbs. One proverb I remember said, “Brothers who have sweet tasted honey together should also share bitter lemons.” Another said,“Even the teeth and the tongue don’t always get along.”
“After a year or more in Burkina Faso, I thought I was getting the hang of being a good neighbor when we went on vacation in the neighboring country of Ivory Coast. From there we sent Gaoussou and his family a post card. Three days after our return from there, Gaoussou came to visit us. He didn’t look very happy. I asked him, “Did you receive our post card?” He said, “Yes. But that’s the only way we knew you were out of town. You didn’t come around ahead of time to let us know you were going anywhere, and how long you’d be gone. And then, after you came back, you didn’t come around to tell us you were back. I had to come here to find that out for myself.”
“’Even the teeth and the tongue don’t always get along.’” But whenever we do bite our tongues, its mostly an accident, right? And when does the tongue ever say, “Okay, teeth, I’ve had enough of this. I’m off to find another mouth; you’re on your own for eating and talking.” No, the teeth and tongue are committed to each other for keeps, for someone and something much bigger and greater than themselves, despite their occasional mistakes and misunderstandings. And so Gaoussou, his family, and us remain committed to each other and in contact. The last time we saw him, he said we were like, “Same mother, same father.”
“What I’m talking about this afternoon is something stronger, warmer and deeper than peaceful coexistence or even tolerance as my American culture understands them. I’m talking about something stronger, higher and deeper, more strenuous, challenging and rewarding than the negative peace of just staying out of each other’s hair. Its a value that is very important in the Bible, in the Quran (which I have studied, at least in an English language translation), in Gaoussou’s culture, and, I believe, in Somali culture as well.
“I saw it demonstrated one night, again in Burkina Faso, when I was coming home and noticed that one my neighbors was also home. He was a truck driver, so he was often gone from home. But when I saw him that evening seated on the front porch under a light bulb eating his dinner, I greeted him and welcomed him back. He invited me to join him for dinner, which I accepted because it was a rare chance to visit with him, but secondly, I love the food in Africa.
“After I sat down in a chair next to him, his wife brought out a pot of thick millet porridge, called to. For dinner, you take pieces of that and dip them in a spicy vegetable sauce. She removed the lid and I saw that it had a skin over it, which meant that it had been cooked a few hours before, and had cooled enough to eat. Also, I saw that the skin had not been broken, so obviously no one else had eaten any of it.
“So I asked her, “Were you expecting someone to come by for dinner tonight?” To which she replied, with the most puzzled, quizzical look on her face, “Whenever we cook, we always set aside a pot of to just in case a visitor shows up.” I’m glad she didn’t ask me the next question, which I just read in her face: “And don’t you?”
“What I’m talking about is hospitality. Again, in American culture, hospitality is simply thought of as the art of hosting guests, like knowing where to place the fork in relation to the plate at the dinner table. That’s all very good, but it still falls short of the full-blooded value and virtue of hospitality in the Bible, the Quran and your culture.
“In the Hebrew Bible the people are told to welcome and host the sojourner and the one seeking refuge because “such were you in the land of Egypt.” In the Christian New Testament we are told to welcome sojourners and strangers because, by doing such, our ancestors in the faith have “entertained angels without knowing it.” That refers to our common ancestor, Abraham—Ibrahim–and the story in both the Bible and the Quran, about how he welcomed guests who turned out to be divine messengers with a promise of blessing for him. And as Christians, we are told to receive everyone as though they were Christ himself, because Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers, you have done for me.”
“I think of hospitality whenever I see people in much of Africa shaking hands, after which they often touch their chests, right by their heart. Have you seen that? I asked an African friend why they often do that, shaking hands with someone and then touching their chest with the same hand. He said its a way of saying, “I receive you. I receive you into myself, into this vulnerable, tender spot called my heart, where you may dwell at great reward to myself, but also at great risk. Hosting you inside myself can be a great joy; but it can also hurt at times.” Because “Not even do the teeth and the tongue always get along.”
“This time together tonight is, I hope, the start of more such times, in the sacred spaces of our churches, our homes, and even in our hearts, as well as in your sacred space here. I believe I can speak for all the Christian pastors and leaders here when I say that you all are just as welcome in our churches as I feel in this mosque. Its not an accident that our worship spaces are called “sanctuaries.” And I do like my many other African friends and touch my heart to say that I’m willing to take the risks of the teeth and the tongue in exploring not only living together peacefully, but of hospitality together in the fullest sense of the word. And I speak again for all of us in saying, in advance, thank you for this invitation and this encounter, for your hospitality and generosity which honor us so well.
“Both of our communities believe in a God who rules the affairs of nations and who works through them, even when they try to resist him. So I believe that God has brought our communities together here and now for reasons that will bless both of our communities, reasons for which we will go forward from here changed, no longer as we were when we came in. May God bless you.”