Tag Archives: Islamophobia

To My Friends

blackI believe in the power of words. I believe language gives us the ability to call worlds into being.

Yet, I feel like all the words have been used. There is nothing left to say. And I despair that we are using words to call a world into being that is full of violence, hatred, and fear.

To my LGBTQ friends: my heart aches. I have never been anything but white, male, and straight. In other words, I am usually the majority and the one with the power whenever I walk into a room. I do not know what it means to be marginalized. And I do not know what it feels like to be afraid simply because of who you are. I do not know what this massacre must feel like to your community. I want to be an ally. I am always, ever learning in my own stumbling way how to do that. For whatever that’s worth.

To my friends in the Muslim community: my heart aches. Here we go again. What happened in Orlando obviously bears no resemblance — not even a tiny resemblance — to the faith that I see you profess and practice. Yet you are being lumped in with the most radical and extreme adherents of your religion, even though you have said over and over that they do not represent your religion at all. You are understandably becoming fearful again to live in a country that wants to the world to believe freedom is our highest value and that it is the land of opportunity for everyone. Our actions too often demonstrate that we really believe freedom and opportunity are reserved primarily for white Christians. I heard my friend Hani Atassi interviewed on NPR, telling that the security fence put up around their mosque after San Bernadino had just been taken down a few weeks ago. Now it is being put back up. I have never given one second’s thought to putting up a security fence around my church. When a deranged Lutheran Christian shot 9 people last summer in a church in Charleston, he was called a disturbed young man with ties to white supremacists. There was no mention of his religion. This weekend, the perpetrator was immediately tied to Islam. It must be particularly difficult that this happened during your holy time of Ramadan, a time that I understand is intended to be full of the joy of practicing your faith in such a concrete discipline. You are my friends. I stand with you.

To my Latino friends: my heart aches. I don’t think we know whether the fact that the attack at Pulse occurred on Latino night by coincidence or design. But at some level that doesn’t matter. The majority of those killed and injured were Latino by ethnic heritage. I also don’t know what that feels like, to be targeted because of where my ancestors came from.

These three communities have been the target of hate, suspicion, and bigotry over the past several months. I don’t want to make a straight line of causation when there’s no proof — and maybe never will be — of the shooter’s motives. But as I said, I believe in the power of words. And the power of words to call worlds into being. And the words being used are calling into being a dystopic world that I want no part of. Naively, I have believed we could do better. NaiveIy, I have believed that we wanted to do better. I’m beginning to wonder.

A Modern Pentecost

imageAt least once a year when I have to preach on the great story of Pentecost, I sit at my desk wondering what that must have sounded like. The story in the Christian scriptures tells how the followers of Jesus were stuck indoors waiting for instructions about what to do next after Jesus had returned to the Father. The writer of Luke-Acts describes the sound of a rushing wind enveloping the room. Later in the day, those same Jesus-followers took it to the streets and there began telling the story of Jesus to the visitors who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I try to imagine the buzz on those Jerusalem byways as people from all over the world heard the proclamation in their own languages.

I caught a glimpse of the Pentecost phenomena on Sunday afternoon at the “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” Solidarity Event on Sunday afternoon. The event was sponsored by DuPage United, our local Industrial Areas Foundation community organizing affiliate. 850 people showed up. Yeah, I know. Amazing, right?

The numbers were impressive. But it’s not the raw number that is the important thing here. It’s what the numbers stand for and what happened. That many people showed up on a Sunday afternoon when they didn’t really know what was going to happen. What is a “Solidarity Event” anyway?

I have a hunch why our Muslim neighbors showed up. There is some measure of fear in the Muslim community. And with good reason. Too much of the hate-filled rhetoric coming from public figures is directed at them. They hear the language and see they the footage on television. Two days before our event, three Muslim teenagers were shot execution-style in Fort Wayne, Indiana. More importantly, they experience it in their daily life. One woman told a story of making phone calls for the PTA at her child’s school. The mom on the other end of the line asked her where she came from – she was born in America, by the way – and then proceeded to tell her that she didn’t belong here; she should go home. A Pew research poll a few years ago indicated that nearly 60% of Americans believe that Islam and American values are at odds. Yet 60% also admit to never having met a Muslim. My experience – at the event on Sunday also demonstrated – is that Muslims are eager to make connections and to dispel the stereotypes. The best way I can think of to do that is one person at a time.

But why would the Christians and Jews show up? I’m not exactly sure. But when I have talked with a few members of my congregation, they came because they don’t like what they see. The division and rancor in the national conversation disturbs tem. They don’t know what to do but they want to do something. So they showed up. And without exception, they have reported what a meaningful experience it was.

This event was designed and planned for the primary purpose of making connections across the communities, communities diverse in religion and culture, but communities that share so much in common.  We believed that if we could get people into the same room talking to each other, we could begin to dispel the stereotypes. We also wanted to make a public statement – directed especially at public officials and the media – that we will not tolerate hate-filled, prejudice-laced rhetoric.

The program wasn’t fancy. There were some introductory remarks, and a series of three speakers, each of whom spoke for 5 minutes. But the speakers weren’t the central focus. Between each of the speeches, the participants were invited to turn to their neighbor and hold conversation on a particular question. They questions were not particularly deep; they were not controversial. They were simply doorways into a one on one, human contact that is the fundamental building block of human society. Judging by the response of the folks on Sunday afternoon, it’s something that people are craving, even though the contact happened to be with perfect strangers.

In the last few days, I keep hearing powerful testimony of what happened in the conversations. Muslims told their stories of experiencing harassment and prejudice; non-Muslims learned and sometimes were shocked to hear that in this country where we supposedly honor the value of religious freedom, our fellow citizens do not feel free to practice their religion. A clergy colleague wrote me that she and a young Muslim woman sitting next to her realized at one point that they were both crying. The tears were partly sadness at the way things are, but they were also tears of hope at what might be, hope embodied by 850 people sitting together making conversation.

When small seemingly insignificant conversations become powerful moments for people, it says something. It’s worth noticing. It’s work that is fundamental to repairing the fabric of our society. We have a fundamental need to get beyond the isolation and division. We need a vision of what e pluribus unum might look like in the 21st century. That vision will not be enacted by politicians passing legislation; it won’t be happen by activists marching in public places. It will happen as we engage the long, slow, sometimes difficult, and ultimately rewarding and healing work of relating person to person, congregation to congregation. It will happen as we build those relationships, build our power, and then begin to take action.

In both the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek language, the words nephesh and pneuma can be translated variously: Spirit, wind, breath. Gathering in that room on Sunday afternoon, as folks used their breath to engage in conversation, it sounded like the rush of a mighty wind. And I’m convinced it was the voice of the Spirit.

On Being Afraid to Open My Scriptures in a Coffee Shop

bibleI had a morning meeting in Hyde Park. It’s about 25 miles from where I live and takes me through the heart of downtown Chicago. At best it’s a 45 minute drive; at worst, it can take more than an hour and a half. I hate sitting in traffic. My solution? Get up when the humans are still asleep and get on the road. Early. Upon arrival, sit in a coffee shop and get some work done until it’s time for the meeting.

It took 45 minutes. Perfect. Found that coffee shop, did my journaling and then turned to one of my lenten commitments: to read through the gospels in these 40 days. I sat there in that public place at a small table next to the counter with my little pocket bible open, reading Matthew 13 and 14.

Where I live, that’s a common thing. On those days when my morning meeting schedule takes me into Panera or Starbucks or Blackberry Market or River City Roasters, I can virtually guarantee that someone will be sitting there with a bible open. Just as often there’s a group (usually it’s men) having their small group/accountability group/prayer meeting right there in that public place. In fact, I remember some of those books I had to read for evangelism class in the seminary encouraging that very tactic as an opportunity to witness to the faith. Someone will stop and ask what you are doing and you can tell them about Jesus. It’s ubiquitous. It’s expected. So, afraid to open my scriptures in a coffee shop?  Never.

On Monday evening, I sat with a group of Muslims and Christians. This came up in the conversation:  my friend and colleague said in passing that she’s “afraid to open my Koran in a public place, much less pray.” A public place like a coffee shop. Or restaurant. Or library. Afraid of harassment, or worse, of physical abuse.

And I cried inside. A simple thing that is so common for Christians is something that our Muslim neighbors are afraid to do.

This xenophobic climate being fanned by public figures is not theoretical. It’s not empty rhetoric. Words matter. These are real people. And they are our neighbors. Fellow Americans. Fellow citizens.

Silence is complicity.

The Parable of the Assistant Manager in the Grocery Store


grocerystoreparable.jpgThere was once a woman wearing a hijab who was doing her weekly grocery shopping at her usual grocery store near her home. As she headed down the detergent aisle, a couple of middle-age white men made angry comments about her religion and ended with an obscenity to describe the woman and others of her religion. The woman went to the customer service counter and said, “I’m not done shopping,” she told him, “but I don’t feel safe here.”  The assistant manager told her he would protect her. For the next half-hour, he walked alongside her pretending to check inventory as she did the rest of her shopping. When asked about his actions, he said, “I was just doing my job.”  (Read the whole story by New York Times religion writer, Samuel G. Freedman.)

A few reflections:

1. In these times, we are told to be vigilant for things that are out of the ordinary. If you see someone suspicious, call the authorities. When we’re cautioned so often to look for the suspicious, does every stranger begin to look suspicious?

2. Maybe we should be more vigilant for someone who needs a helping hand or a gesture of kindness. Maybe we should be more vigilant for instances of hatred and discrimination and when we see them, call them out. We could use more expressions of our common humanity.

3.  I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and be harassed. Worse, I never even have to think about it. I don’t have to worry about the management following me around on the assumption that I’m a criminal. I don’t have to worry about hate speech directed towards me because of my religion. I don’t have to wonder what kind of ogling I might be subject to. I never give a thought to my safety when grocery shopping. The very structures of our society are programmed to make me feel safe. Mostly I don’t even see it. That’s privilege.

4. I love the assistant manager’s words when asked why he did it. “I was just doing my job.” He didn’t ask permission or look for adulation. He was just being neighborly. Showing basic kindness and compassion. And he didn’t, apparently, think about it. Jesus once asked his disciples why they were looking for reward for following him. They were, he said, just doing what they were supposed to.  “I was just doing my job.”

In my Christian belief system, God has called me into the circle of God’s love and transformed me. God has made me part of a community that is to be good news for the world. Being good news for the world is not so much about having the right answers, but about being God’s loving presence. To be God’s loving presence is not that complicated. It may be hard, it may take patience, it requires persistence, it is undoubtedly counter cultural. But at it’s heart, it’s not that complicated. Exercise kindness; be neighborly; assume a shared common humanity in the midst of the differences.

That assistant manager? His name is Mark Egan. If God is at work bringing the peaceable kingdom — and I believe God is — Mr. Egan has given us a glimpse of what that might look like.