Guest Posts, religion, Vulnerability

What I Learned From My Muslim Neighbors

January 29, 2017

By Jessica Yaeger

Recently, I went to the “Get to know your neighbors” event at my local Islamic Center. My dual goals were to learn more about a religion I knew very little about, and to show support to our local Muslims who I imagined were not feeling particularly supported by the words of our newly elected President.

On the way there, I was anxious about how it would go. How many people would be there? I had tried to dress appropriately to be respectful, but had I succeeded? Why can’t I think of any intelligent-sounding questions to ask if I am put on the spot or in a face to face conversation? Will this be safe or will there be violence there from.. someone? Good grief, I know literally not a single other person attending, what I am thinking?!

Once I arrived, I saw I was one of hundreds of folks who attended the event, young and old, men and women, many different faiths and races. The brief introduction to the Islam faith was not only incredibly educational, it also was entertaining. When I had imagined visiting for the evening prayers, I had not visualized I’d be laughing so much! Our tour guide (there was one for the ladies and another one for the men) was funny, but also gracious and knowledgeable, and assured us that no question was stupid or off limits. As a result, our group of women, who were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist and more, had an incredible dialogue that touched on scripture, God, prophets, head coverings, woman’s rights, and even terrorism. It was only 30 minutes of my life, but those 30 minutes changed me.

During the tour, I found the mosque itself was beautiful, with no statues or images but instead decorations including golden calligraphy, marble, rugs and a huge chandelier. Both the building itself, and then observing the day’s evening prayer, felt HOLY… the exact same way any Christian church feels comfortably holy to me, and the exact same holy I felt at the synagogue for my cousins’ Bat/Bar Mitvahs, and the exact same holy I feel witnessing nature or humanity on a grand scale. (I’ve not yet been to a non-Abrahamic faith’s place of worship (such as a Hindu temple), but I would expect they hold the same holy too!)

Then evening prayers started, the men up front and the women in a back row. The singing was gorgeous and melodic, and the words being in Arabic reminded me of a Catholic mass said in Latin. My infinity scarf draped over my head felt perfectly respectful, not to mention warm on a cold night! From the second I walked in, I didn’t one time feel afraid or worried, but instead welcomed, and part of the reverence, and safe. (Although, to see a police officer present at the door was sobering – can’t say I’ve ever felt the need for security at my own place of worship.)

Following the tour and evening prayers, there lastly a reception that featured overflowing hospitality – food and drinks and smiles at every turn. I was struck by the fact that this was a group of people who felt, to a very real degree, vulnerable and fearful for their futures, for our shared futures in our country. And yet, their reaction wasn’t one of despair or anger, but one of kindness, love and generosity, reaching outward even still to those who dismiss, fear or may even wish to hurt them.

At the reception, the Imam and the other leaders from this Islamic congregation shared inspiring words, but also experiences they’ve had in our community… and hearing those stories made me sad and ashamed for how they have been treated.

These Muslim families live here right where I do, shop at the same grocery stores as me, take their kids to the same movies at the same movie theaters, and drive on the same highways. Yet their experiences there, simply living here in our shared community, were very different than mine. Where I experience neutral, easy interactions and can move about almost invisibly if I want to, they experience a lot more prejudice and discrimination. Their day-to-day life includes tense interactions of suspicion, and even hatred, that make many everyday things an emotional challenge instead of a thoughtless, easy exercise like they are for me.

And this is the thing that struck me the hardest on the drive home:

Heading towards the event, I kept ruminating on how going to this event was HARD, but I was determined to do it still. Heading home from the event, I realized that I had it all backwards. Going today, to listen and learn, was actually the EASY answer, the easy choice. Work, yes, but easy work.

Love is ALWAYS easy. It may require us to be brave, or to work at it, or to feel loving while also feeling despair and worry, or to even forgive some great wrongs… but the actual loving part is easy, if we let ourselves do it.

It seems to me that when any one soul meets any other one, if you take away any learned or developed biases or assumptions or hatred, they both simply want to love each other and be loved. We meet each other as north and south pole of separate magnets. We WANT to be together, to BE love, and would quite easily do so if left to our base/best/earliest/holiest selves. Instead we often resist. And it’s easier to fight the pull when we don’t get near each other at all.

So we spend a lot of energy to do so, to stay away, to stay ignorant. Maintaining fear, hatred, or assumptions about things and people we don’t know or understand is actually WORK, whether we notice it or not. To go there, we have to literally turn off our default setting of love. We have to commit to NOT learning, to NOT trying. We have to, bit by bit, look away from and deny the humanity of someone else- and that can’t possibly sit right in our souls. Nor can it be maintained without work. We have to continually keep seeking out the things that reinforce our concerns, the voices that reassure us our fear is RIGHT.

In order to hate or fear another person, including one we have never even met…. we also may even have to ignore the tenants of whatever our own faith or personal morality is, which likely say something to the effect of “love others and be kind and good”. But, but, but- but we can find websites to say that this fear of this particular other is actually good! And articles that shout that the unknown is bad, danger danger! And people to pat us on the back for sharing their same fears and hatred – oh how it feels good to be accepted and validated! Yet, I wonder how many of us also feel a nagging inside us that maybe this hate, this fear, isn’t truly us being “good”, at all.

Maybe we are all just working too hard.

I was humbled, through the love shown me by our local Muslim (American!) community. I have not been paying enough attention, or showing enough concern, to how they are being treated. I have not been speaking up enough on their behalf when I see prejudice or hate towards them and other marginalized and vilified communities. And yet, following the command of their god as well as the words of their great prophets (including Muhammad, but also this other guy named Jesus, you’ve probably heard of him), THEY, these Muslims, my neighbors, members of my community, and our fellow countrymen, were truly living and showing their faith on that post-election night, treating strangers with kindness and sincerely wishing peace to, and acceptance from, all of us.

We are all so much more alike than different, if only we allow ourselves to remember.

If you are afraid of Muslims (a lot or a little), or if you’ve ever casually liked a meme associating Muslims with terrorists, or if you have a nickname for someone who practices Islam that you say around friends with a snicker, or if you are excited to see talk of rounding up Muslims and assigning them a number in a registry somewhere — I challenge you to go and meet some great, kind, loving (and normal!!) people at your own local Islamic Center. Their peace and charity, even in the face of discrimination and hatred sent their way, just might change your mind. You just might find them easy to LOVE.

Just like I did.

“Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” ~Proverbs 10:12

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. / There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. / Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” ~1 John 4:16,18, 20 (NIV)

“Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.” ~Prophet Muhammad

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” ~First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Jessica Yaeger is a maker, coder, designer, writer, thinker, mother, sister, wife and ENFP (in no particular order), who embraces duality: logic/feelings, function/beauty, grief/hope. As a designer and developer, she helps people with passion and big ideas turn that into something real so the  world can benefit from it. As a founder of The Live Sincerely Project, Jessica writes and speaks about purposeful living and striving to be one’s best self, even as life is hard and messy and beautiful. The foundation of her approach is the Live Sincerely Pledge, which is a manifesto for living with intention, and a commitment which has been made by thousands of people around the world. You can join in the Live Sincerely Project (and take the pledge too, if you’d like!) at The Live Sincerely Project.


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