The Neighborly Thing To Do: Day 8 of Ramadan

Last night, for the first time, I broke my fast in community.

I responded to one of the comments on my blog, from a man named Osman, who invited me to iftar (break fast) at the mosque in McKinney, which is only a few miles up the road.

Osman met me at the door of the McKinney Islamic Association with a smile and a handshake. I hadn’t been sure what to wear to this gathering, but Osman was wearing black jeans, a t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. I was wearing jeans, too, so I immediately felt at home.

He said, “Come in. This is a good time for me to introduce you to everyone.” He ushered me into a carpeted room, and I began to meet the different men and boys who were gathering.

The imam, a man named Musa (Moses), was busy putting down a blue tarp on the floor, covered by thin white plastic. Then he began arranging bottles of water and small styrofoam cups of orange juice on the plastic.

I was invited to sit with my legs crossed on the floor, alongside the other men of the community. Someone passed around small bowls of fruit for each person, and then came a plate of dates.

We each took one date, which is the traditional food first eaten by Muslims to break their fast. And at the appointed time, as a young boy prayed, we bit into our dates, lifted our cups and drank.

It was a holy moment.

Holy, because I did feel connected to the others in the room, even though I did not know them.

Holy, because I had been accepted and made welcome, even though I was obviously an outsider.

Holy, because God was there, in the same way that God is present when we take the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

We enjoyed the refreshments for a few leisurely moments, but then Musa announced that it was time for prayer. Men stood up, and then began arranging themselves into rows. The imam’s son-in-law led us in prayers. I asked Osman what was appropriate for me to do, and he said it would be fine if I sat in a chair with some of the older men, who couldn’t kneel and bow.

During the prayers, I was struck by both the foreignness, and the familiarity, of the ritual. The prayers were, of course, in Arabic, and I was unable to understand the words. But at the same time, while the men were kneeling and bowing, a number of children were playing noisily in the back of the room. Toddlers were giggling  and running around, while their fathers and grandfathers were intently praying only a few feet from them.

In many ways, it was just like a typical gathering at my own church! It was a mix of fellowship, worship, and family time.

After prayers, we lined up and filled our plates with chicken, rice, naan bread, hummus, and sweet pastry. As we ate, I began to get to know the members of the mosque.

I learned that their brand-new mosque, only a few blocks away, would be opening in a few weeks. They’d hoped it would be ready for Ramadan, but they’d run into the usual construction delays.

McKinney is an old county seat town in Texas, and has recently exploded in growth. But it’s still regarded as a primarily WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) community. So I asked several men if they’d perceived any resentment or animosity from other citizens about their presence in the community.

“Not at all,” they all said. In fact, the landlord of their current space had gone out of the way to accommodate their growth.

Musa himself has lived in McKinney for 26 years, and runs a thriving auto repair business in town. He told me a story about one particular neighbor.

Some time ago, a woman and her husband, a pastor, had moved in next door to Musa’s family. Over time, the two families began to get to know each other, share meals, and enjoyed each other’s presence.

One day, while out in the yard, the woman saw Musa and called him over. She said, “I have a confession to make.”
Musa raised his eyebrow at her.

“When I first discovered that we would be living next to you, I was terrified. I asked God why He would ask me to live next to a Muslim family. But now, I thank God that I have Muslim neighbors. You are a part of my family now.”

Even though the woman’s husband has since died and she has moved away, she still returns to visit Musa’s family on a regular basis.

That story stuck with me as I left Osman and my new friends, and returned home.

This is the essence of my Ramadan fast. I am, of course, drawing closer to God and enriching my own spiritual life. I am receiving personal, and private, spiritual benefits.

But I am also beginning to make new friendships. And these friendships break down the walls of stereotypes, prejudices, misunderstandings.

It’s corny to say this, but it’s true – this is how peace breaks out in the world. It breaks out when people who were formerly distrustful or wary of each other, sit down and eat together. It breaks out when people from different cultures and religions, come to observe each other’s rituals and prayers.

You can’t launch a war against people with whom you regularly break bread.

I am reminded of the beloved story in my own tradition, the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer had asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responded, “To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer said, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered by telling a story about a man who had been beaten and robbed by thieves, left on the road to die. A priest came by, but instead of helping him, passed by the other side. Then another religious man came by, but passed by as well. Finally, a Samaritan came by. Samaritans were hated and despised by the Jews for cultural and religious reasons. But this Samaritan bent down, cleaned the man’s wounds, and carried him to safety.

Jesus ended the story by saying, “Now, in this story, which one was the neighbor?”

Jesus’ listeners were taken aback. They couldn’t have imagined that a Samaritan would have been able to love a Jew.

I would propose that we Christians need to hear the story of Jesus anew. If he told it today, he might very well tell it as the story of the Good Muslim.

Muslims are our neighbors. They are very good neighbors.

The burden lies on us Christians to get to know them, to open our homes and churches, and welcome them.