Odd Man In: Day 12 of Ramadan

Last week, I posted about the difficulty of fasting alone. Many of my readers responded and invited me to iftar. Twice over the weekend, I participated in breaking the fast with a Muslim community, with plans to do so several times in the future, including tonight (Tuesday) at the Irving mosque.

One reader, named Jami, also commented, “Ramadan is easier, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling when done in community. But going at it alone also has benefits and can provide insight. In particular, I think it helps us identify with minorities and what it is like to be the odd one, with different customs and habits, out of sync with the rest of society — and that can, hopefully, make us more empathetic to that situation.”

I’ve meditated on this comment over the last few days, because I think it gets at the heart of my fasting experiment. As I fast, I realize that I have become the “odd one” in two different ways.

One, I am the odd man out in my family, church, and familiar circle of friends. I am not able to eat lunch or dinner with them. I have to politely decline the doughnuts in staff meeting, and say, “No thanks” to the cup of coffee offered me. My friends joke with me in a good-natured way about my fasting.

This is not a hardship, of course, but it does remind me of the situation of minorities in our culture. Not just religious minorities, but anyone who is simply different from the dominant culture. Minorities must constantly wrestle with their identity, and have to work hard to keep from being swallowed up by those around them.
I can imagine that it would be very difficult to be a Muslim in a country that mostly assumes that everyone around them is, at the least, a nominal Christian.

But there is another way in which I am finding myself to be the “odd one.” When I walk into a mosque, I feel the weight of hundreds of eyes upon me. It is plainly obvious that I am not a Muslim. I don’t wear the right clothes, and I don’t have my head covered. And I am a pale, bland white, in a sea of color.

This reminds me of living in Cameroon, West Africa. I was never more aware of my color and race than when walking the streets of Yaounde, or shopping in the markets of Douala, or worshipping in any one of our churches across the countryside. I was always “the white man” to the crowds.

This is an unnerving experience at first. Nobody likes to be the center of attention merely because of one’s difference from everyone else. You want to scream, “Hey, I’m just a guy like you!” But you can’t, because you really aren’t “just” like them. There are significant differences that can’t – and shouldn’t — be glossed over. They are differences, that’s all.

Slowly and surely, however, the experience of being the “Other” transforms the way you look at, and treat, the “Other.” In fact, you begin to stop using that word, “Other.” You start to reject the multitude of ways in which we build up prejudices and walls against people whom we are not like. You stop using language like “illegal aliens” and “towelheads” and other derogatory terms meant to put distance between you and someone else.

Indeed, being the “Other” creates empathy in us, and builds the foundation for us to begin to work to change the enmity that lies between us. Certainly there has been much enmity between Christians and Muslims in the past, but it is time to heal the wounds of the past and begin to live out a new future.

We have the resources in our sacred writings. For Christians, the words of the Golden Rule are a good starting point: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, treat the Other as if they were “One of You.”

For Muslims, the words of a Haddith may be helpful: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” In other words, treat the Other as if they were “One of You.”

One day, perhaps we will grasp the essential unity of us all, and celebrate the beautiful diversity of us all.