The news bothered me. No one could–or wanted to–deny the fact that repeated and terrible acts were being perpetrated in the name of Islam by extremists. But the broad brushing of all Muslims as security risks and the fear-mongering regarding refugees deeply disturbed me.
The “Big Scary Muslim” myth crumbled for me when I was in my early twenties. I had the privilege of teaching English one summer in Uzbekistan, and I encountered the warm and generous hospitality of Muslims that I would later come to know as characteristic. And yet, a few decades later, I found myself safely ensconced at the intersection of two cul-de-sacs in a mid-size, “white bread” American town.
To contradict the division and hatred that seemed to be on the rise, I had begun praying, as my pastor had wisely encouraged, for one Muslim friend. Unfortunately, God was moving on the slow side for me, so one day I picked up the phone and called the local mosque. The beauty of the Arabic language had always appealed to me, so I asked if they had any free Arabic lessons. They did not. However, they were kind enough to connect me with a woman who would tutor me.
Reem and I began to meet weekly at the local public library. Though we lived only ten miles apart, our social circles did not intersect. She was Egyptian, fully covered, and quiet in nature. And me? Well, the two of us were quite the pair. However, a friendship–as well as my Arabic–blossomed. Over time, she confessed to me that I was the first non-Muslim friend that she had in America. As with any other friendship, we laughed and cried as we shouldered some of the joys and burdens of life together.
Reem was very serious about her faith. She truly loved God and delighted in going to conferences with other Muslims where they would sing songs and hear from teachers. We shared that–a passion for God–as we understood him to be. Of course, we recognized the difference in our beliefs, and to be honest, at times I wondered if she was trying to evangelize me!
Our families got to know one another as well. The first time they came for dinner, I talked in depth with her about what would be okay for her family to eat. We had a lovely fish meal together, and I thought I had covered all my bases. However, her alarm went off just after dinner, and I had to lead her to my son’s messy room to give her a private place to pray. Oh well!
Reem doesn’t follow Jesus yet. I don’t know if she ever will. I hope she comes to know him, love him, and follow him. But Jesus never gave us that promise. He just told us to go, to be salt, to be light. And to love in his name.
One thing I do know…just as the “Big, Scary Muslim” myth was shattered for me by the hospitality of Uzbekis years ago, I think I helped shatter Reem’s “Big, Scary American Christian” myth. And the world is a better place because of it.
This story, told by Erica, is included in Carl’s new book, Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Understanding the World of Islam and Overcoming the Fears that Divide Us.
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash