Luke 7:18-23, John 1:1-13, Psalm 147:12-20
Late in the summer of 2002, we were living in Baytown, Texas, which is a blue-collar refinery town 18 miles east of Houston. I was a stay-at-home mom to Julia, our three-year-old, but I had picked up a part-time writing gig for the local newspaper. I had been working with the managing editor to plan features for the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and we had decided that I would write about people in our community who had been directly affected by those horrific acts one year earlier. These people included a local resident who was in New York City on vacation that day who overslept in her hotel and missed the World Trade Center tour she was scheduled for, and one of Chad’s co-teachers who confidently tried to calm her high school students that morning by saying, “New York is so far away. This doesn’t affect anyone we know,” only to learn hours later that her mother had been on American Airlines Flight 11, the plane that hit the North Tower. These were compelling and difficult stories and I was honored that these people, still coping with shock and loss and grief, would share them with me.
But I thought there was a story we were missing. Almost every day, I drove past Baytown’s mosque. I knew the Muslim community in Baytown wasn’t very big, but these people mattered, too. Reports of anti-Muslim violence from around the nation, including our neighboring city of Houston, had made the news. Were our local Muslims afraid of those things happening in Baytown? What had the past year been like for them?
I decided to find out. I called the mosque and talked to the imam. He was friendly and eager to talk to me. After arranging a day and time, we hung up.
Then the panic set in. What was I supposed to wear to a mosque? The last thing I wanted to do was offend the people who were so graciously welcoming me—a Christian—into their holy place of worship. Should I cover my head?
Like a lot of non-Muslims in the U.S., I hadn’t given much thought to Islam or its American adherents until Sept. 11 had thrust them into the national spotlight. Since the attacks, I had hated the anger directed at them, and now, I also hated my own ignorance about their religion. After a day of watching me worry about proper mosque protocol, Chad—my constant source of common sense—said, “Why don’t you just call the mosque and ask?” I did, and the same friendly voice answered. Since I am a non-Muslim, he said, I would not need to cover my head.
With that worry out of the way, I showed up at the mosque the next day. Several men greeted me at the door, and the imam appeared in a white robe and hat. I recognized one of the men as a respected doctor who some members of my church went to. Some of the others worked in the refineries, just like the husbands of many of my friends. They all acted very respectful toward me, and they waited for me to sit down at a large table before they joined me.
Then something amazing happened.
We sat down and talked. Eight Muslim men and me, a Christian woman. We talked about the misconceptions people have about our respective religions, and we answered each others’ questions about what we believe. And they talked about their own sense of grief and loss from the past year. There were Muslims who died in the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon, they said. And their grief was compounded by the fear of the kind of retaliation against Muslim communities that been reported across the country.
There’s a debate in religious circles about whether Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. Some say Allah is a completely different entity than the Christian God, and claims that the two are the same typically result in controversy, as in the case of the Wheaton College professor who was fired for such a view in 2015. That day at the mosque, as a Christian woman at a table with a group of Muslim men, I believe both of our Gods showed up, but he was one. He’s a God that’s not limited by what we call him, or by the buildings we gather in to worship him. God/Allah transcends all things manmade and the unimaginable devastation we humans cause when we can’t handle the ways other people are different from us. That day at the mosque, we listened to each other talk about the joys, losses, and fears that we share. It was a truly holy moment, and God is always present for those.
Something holy happens when we listen to people who aren’t like us. The differences that seem so important fade against the realization that we really are the same. And it’s God’s presence that makes us that way. Maybe the key to achieving more peace in this world is just the simple realization that God is with us. With all of us.
By Deana Nall