United in Compassion
Afghani, Sudanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Rwandan…these were the nationalities of the refugees who gathered at English Club on Thursday nights. Faithfully they came to the apartment clubhouse, week-in, week-out, hoping to practice their beginning English and to make connections within their new community. A simple dinner. Songs in English. Games and flashcards. It wasn’t a lot, but it was our small effort to welcome and serve these new arrivals to our Midwestern city, who’d arrived with stories we could barely fathom.
My day job included teaching English to international students, most being Muslims from wealthy backgrounds. I often told them stories about English Club with refugees, and they seemed surprised that I wanted to be involved. Though my students shared the same faith as most of the refugees, their life circumstances were anything but similar.
One day after class, a Saudi student named Sana’a asked me directly, “Why do these people come to America? How does it benefit America?”
I paused and thought how to answer this question. “Well, since America began, we have welcomed refugees and immigrants…”
Then without blinking she asked, “Why do you help them?”
Intrigued by the intensity of her interest, I told her honestly, “I help the refugees because I am a follower of Isa al-Masih (the Arabic words for Jesus the Messiah) and his teaching to love your neighbor no matter their gender, religion, or nationality.” She seemed a bit surprised by my answer, perhaps because of the stereotypes she had heard in her country about Americans and Christians. We continued to talk about Isa for another ten to fifteen minutes, as I asked her questions about who she understood Isa to be. Our conversation was never argumentative or debating, just an open, honest discussion about Jesus. Then, just as quickly, we transitioned to talking about her planned visit to English Club and what games we could play and what gifts we could bring to the refugees.
A few weeks later, Sana’a and several of the other Muslim students in my ESL class brought a large and elaborate meal to English Club to share with refugees in celebration of Eid Al Adha. (Part of the Eid celebration involves giving one-third of the “sacrificial lamb” to the poor.) As they commemorated the provision of the sacrificial lamb to Abraham, I was able to share my understanding of Isa being the sacrificial lamb, once and for all. They listened intently.
I’ve been around a lot of interfaith dialogue, and I think it has its place. However, interfaith compassion, with people of multiple faiths coming together to do good in the community creates conversations that lead to relationship. In my opinion, it is easier to move to conversation, trust, and relationship starting with the hands as opposed the mouth.
Sana’a has since returned to her country, and I will most likely never hear from her again. But I trust that seeds of the gospel were planted as we spoke of Isa together, and served in his way. Who knows the kind of impact God can bring about in a region of the world that I may not ever get to see?
This story, told by Joel, is included in Carl’s new book, Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Understanding the World of Islam and Overcoming the Fears that Divide Us.