Thursday, 2 July 2015

When Online Muslim Friends Provide Love and Community - Sarah Ager


This piece, written by Sarah Ager, was originally published as part of Altmuslim’s 
#30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.





I broke my first ever Ramadan fast with a beer.

I said my shahada (profession of faith as a Muslim) over Skype.

My first hijab was a beach sarong.

And before I had the Arabic pegged, I used to substitute the unlearned passages of salat with the Lord’s Prayer.

As you can see, my conversion was an odd, higgledy-piggledy thing. It was a strange process of shedding off old habits — retiring certain prayers, the gospel songs I’d always sung in the shower and the inherited family grace that blessed our dining table — all the while deciding which practices and rituals from my new found faith to embrace as my own.

For that reason, conversion can be both an exhilarating time and, as odd as it may sound, a period of mourning for a convert. I know it seems counter-intuitive to say that becoming Muslim, one of the highlights of my spiritual life, was also tinged with grief. But, it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. Saying goodbye to the religion that been my support during my formative years was sad and unsettling.

Not only have your familiar reference points shifted or disappeared entirely, you are also coming to terms with the loss of your faith community. I was incredibly fortunate that the overwhelming majority of my family and friends supported me as the news of my conversion slowly spread.

As wonderful as they were, I still had to face the reality that I wouldn’t be going to church on a Sunday on a weekly basis anymore. And naturally, my relationships would change as a result.

Even now, four years on, I’m still searching for a community to call my own. In the meantime, I’m thankful to live in an age where I can connect with Muslims from around the world at the right-click of a button. Despite being isolated in a tiny English town during my first Ramadan, I was able to immerse myself in videos, kutbahs (sermons), and lectures about Islam. I joined social media groups and found Muslims from around the world who shared their stories with me and passed on their experiences and knowledge. Many of those Muslims are my good friends now, separated though we are by country or continent.

But for all the encouragement I receive from online Muslim friends, it isn’t the same as a real life community experience, the lived-in physical experience of praying side by side, passing food to one another at iftar, and embracing one another at Eid. Although unofficial mosques are popping up here and there in Italy, where I now live and work, they are all too often lacking space, resources and a welcome for an English convert such as myself.

I either feel like an outsider due to my inability to speak Arabic and Urdu, or I’m made to feel unwelcome for my inclusive interpretation of Islam and my wish to inhabit a space that treats women as equals, not as an after thought.

After several failed attempts to mosque myself, I decided my spiritual well-being would be best catered to at home and among like-minded Muslims online. For most of the year, this is enough. It has to be. When Ramadan announces itself though, the lack of a local Muslim community to call home becomes all the more apparent.

While I’m delighted to see friends enjoying communal iftars, taking on taraweeh prayers or taking selfies surrounded by loved ones celebrating together, it’s hard to keep the jealous thoughts wafting through the back of my mind at bay.

Although I’d love the perfectly instagrammed iftars to come to life in my kitchen, I recognise that focusing on what I lack can be far more harmful than the lack itself. If I just reflect on those unattainable things, I miss the blessings of the Ramadan at my fingertips: My husband’s lovingly made meals, our tranquil suhoors spent nattering together about everything and nothing, and our congratulatory high fives for not having got on each other’s nerves all day while fasting.

I may not have a “real life” Muslim community. But really, as the internet and social media become a fixture of our lives, the relationship we form online can be, and often are, just as meaningful as those off it. I am eternally grateful for the love, concern and support of online friends, which has meant the world to me these last few years.

I have so many people to thank: From the kind Canadian who sent me my first ever Eid card even though she barely knew me to the British student who sent me a kurta because she wanted me to feel part of the community. And, every blogger, writer and editor who has given me a platform to speak as a Muslim – unmosqued and unexperienced as I am. Each of those gifts, however small or insignificant they may have seemed to the giver, was a welcome banner announcing in warm and unequivocal terms that my experience is valid and valued.

Though the miles between us are many, I thank God for the close friendships I have with Muslims around the world, and I pray that this Ramadan I can do my part to make others feel just as unconditionally loved and accepted as my Muslim friends have done for me.



Sarah Ager is an English teacher, expat writer and interfaith activist living in Italy. She describes herself as an “Anglo-Muslim hybrid” after converting to Islam in 2011. She curates Interfaith Ramadan, an inclusive blog project bringing together writers of diverse faiths and none. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.


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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Repair of the World - Lynne Meyer


My quest -- man's quest -- is not for theoretical knowledge about myself ... What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen. IT IS NOT ENOUGH for me to be able to say "I am"; I want to know who I am, and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?

-- Abraham Joshua Heschel


Heschel is one of my great spiritual heroes. This question that he claimed as central to his life has been the lifelong question for me as well. It fueled my spiritual search, even before I was old enough to articulate it as such. From my earliest memory, faith by itself always felt hollow, meaningless. My mother would drag me with her to church on Sundays, and although the people were nice enough and I found value in things that were said there, ultimately they were to me just words. For many years, I assumed that this meant that I was simply not religious. What I didn’t realize until later was that I was indeed quite spiritual, and that those childhood years provided my best lesson in authentic spirituality. The lesson just didn’t happen in church.
“Stories,” says Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, “are the way human beings understand and communicate our deepest values.” Stories have power. The narratives that we tell about ourselves and each other can divide us, or inspire and unite us. They can, as he notes, “build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.”

And so, I’d like to tell you a story.

On July 4, 1976, the 200th birthday of the United States, a Laotian family of Hmong refugees arrived in Chicago, after a grueling 13 months in refugee camps in Thailand. Mr. and Mrs. Xiong and their six young daughters (who ranged in age from 2 to 12) were fleeing a devastating civil war and its even more devastating aftermath, one which would end up claiming the lives of approximately 25% of the Hmong population in Laos. We were introduced to the weary and homeless Xiongs by my mother’s aunt, my Great-Aunt Esther, a Baptist missionary whose work was dedicated to resettling and supporting refugees from around the world. Through her work, I would come to know people from India, from China, and many other parts of the world. But I remember the Xiongs because I met them first, and knew them the best.

“Your church’s parsonage is currently vacant, correct?” Aunt Esther asked my mother in a phone call out of the blue one day. My Congregationalist Christian mother said yes, and soon the Xiongs had a safe, if small and simple, place to stay at the United Church of Christ church that my mother attended. This began a two-year-long relationship between my family, the Xiongs, and my Aunt, during which time my mother moved heaven and earth to help in any way she could as they strove to make a new home for themselves in a land with very different customs, and a very different language. I was just four years old when the saga began, but I remember two things very clearly; my mother never asked why she should help, and she cared not one bit that the Xiongs weren’t Christian. In her view, she and my Baptist aunt were simply doing what human beings are called to do, and that’s to help one another.

To describe the many things that my mother and my aunt did in those years would require far more time. I will simply say that our families became extremely close, and we stayed in touch even after the Xiongs became financially independent and moved to another state. The family prospered and the girls went on, one by one, to graduate from college.

Twelve years after we had first met, one of the Xiong girls got married, and my mother and I were invited to attend the wedding. It was a beautiful, traditional Laotian ceremony, and not the least bit Christian. To my recollection, we were the only non-Laotians present, and we were humbled to have been included. My aunt may not have lived to see that day, but she was there in spirit. The Xiongs remembered my aunt and my mother and their kindness and sacrifices, and honored them as they would a family member. For me, it was a profound experience; my first true interfaith encounter, it represented the culmination of a lengthy collaboration of efforts between two distinct cultures, and multiple spiritual identities.


Credit: Lynne Meyer


Today I identify as a Unitarian Universalist. It’s not a faith that many people seem to know about (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to explain it to people when they ask me the seemingly simple question, “What’s your religion?”), nor is it the tradition in which I or anyone in my family was raised, but it is the one place in which I finally feel that I fit. Of the many reasons why this has become my spiritual home, there are two that stand out. First, being UU allows me to find beauty and truth in the various religions of the world, and to make room for those truths in my theology. Second, UUs have a strong commitment to social justice.

“Love for God,” wrote the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, “only comes to its own identity through its fulfillment in a love for neighbor. Only one who loves his or her neighbor can know who God actually is.” For me, faith cannot exist apart from service and care for others. This is what I learned from my aunt, my mother, and others.

This is also what I learn from my students.

As I write this, I’m in the midst of preparing for one of my favorite campus traditions: Fast-to-Feed, an event I co-host with our Muslim Students Association every Ramadan. At Fast to Feed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike fast for the day, then come together to learn about Ramadan and the practice of Zakat, to break the fast, and to support the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We take freewill financial offerings for the GCFD and donations of non-perishable food items for two of our local partner food pantries, one of which is run by the nearby Catholic church, St. James. It is always well attended, and every year, I come away from the event feeling inspired and spiritually renewed. Our longest running interfaith service program, its importance and impact go far beyond the money we raise and the food we collect.

One of the great reasons I love the work that I do is that it provides me with ample opportunity to help bring young people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds together to accomplish important and wonderful things such as this. Coming together around shared values is a powerful thing, and it has powerful social effects. Scholars Putman and Campbell refer to the ‘Pal Al effect’ – namely, that getting to know someone of a different religious identity positively increases the view a person has of that religion. Importantly, the positive effects of an interfaith relationship extend to other religious identities as well. As Robert Putman said in a lecture at Princeton University in 2010, “when you meet someone of a different religion, when someone from a different religion enters your five-closest-friends network, you become more tolerant toward all religions, not just that one new religion.”

In a world so often divided by religious intolerance, suspicion, and hate, interfaith service and friendship are increasingly vital. It is a holy thing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless; but if we are to truly address the causes of poverty and suffering, we must also look inward, and do the holy work of removing the logs from our own eyes. As Heschel suggests, one of the best ways -- if not the only way -- to get to know oneself is in relationship with others. Many people erroneously believe that interfaith dialogue requires participants to compromise their religious identity; interfaith dialogue done well, however, does just the opposite. It helps everyone involved to better understand, and appreciate the unique beauty of, their own tradition.

Dialogue is important. But words alone are not enough. As the Buddha wisely noted,  “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”

For me, engaging in interfaith service is to choose hope over despair. It’s believing that we as the human race can be enriched by our differences, rather than destroyed by them. It is tikkun olam -- the repair of the world.




Lynne Marie Meyer serves as the Director of Spiritual Life and Diversity at Illinois Institute of Technology, and serves ​on the​ Illinois Campus Compact Advisory Council. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Master of Jewish Studies from Spertus Institute. Lynne is passionate about interfaith work and civic engagement, and works with Illinois Tech’s richly diverse population to make interfaith service a social norm on campus. Twitter: @Lynne_M_Meyer


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

“She’s Just Using You!”: Interfaith Anecdotes - Betsy Markman



I speak with anecdotes. I write with anecdotes. I think with anecdotes. I’m Jewish and have identified as everything from secular to reform to conservative to orthodox at some point in my life, and finally decided to forego labels and just call myself Jewish. I live in a Christian-dominant country and have dozens of friends, even best friends, of other religions. So without further ado, here is a pair of interfaith anecdotes. - Betsy Markman


Credit: www.leoraw.com



“She’s Just Using You!”

I’ve always been more curious than prejudiced, interested in learning about other languages, cultures and religions. I am a bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher by trade and a maker of friends by personality. Several years ago I was sitting on a chaise lounge at my apartment pool, my wheelchair nearby, a month before the life-changing surgery that had forced me to leave a teaching job with only 8 weeks left in the school year. A young man, clearly an English Language Learner, sat nearby working through an ESL workbook and offered to help when my water bottle fell under the chair between us. I commented on the book, asked him where he was from, and told him I was an ESL teacher. He left for a moment and came back with his wife, a woman wearing a hijab. They were both on a 3-5 year educational program from Saudi Arabia that began with a year of intensive English.

Farah and I quickly became friends, much to the shock of our respective friends and families. “A Saudi woman? Are you crazy?” my friends said. “Her husband is probably a terrorist. She is probably a terrorist!” Her friends were convinced that I was a Zionist devil who would steal all her money. (She had very little money. I had very little money. It’s not that kind of apartment complex.) Everyone was certain that we were using each other, and, in a way, we were. I was using her to learn about a new culture and country. And friendship. She was using me for English practice and eventually driving lessons. And friendship. I was Farah’s first Jewish or American friend and she was my second friend who was a practicing Muslim (the first was a colleague). We talked about religion, the role of women, languages, language learning, family, how to override the air conditioner when it turned itself off, the differences between kosher food and halal food, parenting, the men in my life, arranged marriage, whether her husband would seek a second wife when they returned to Saudi Arabia, and a million other things. We became close friends very quickly.

Our families became friendly, though not friends. She gave permission and encouragement for her husband to walk me home from her house or from the bus stop since no one except me thought I was safe to take the bus in the wheelchair and get myself up the big hill from the bus stop to the apartment. Her husband gave permission for my 16-year-old son to walk her home from my apartment to hers after dark.

Then came the surgery. Farah and her husband were both involved with the preparation, and both came to the hospital as soon as their classes finished. Her concern for me was the topic of her oral presentation in class that day while I was under the knife for five hours.

The surgery was much more involved than the doctor had anticipated, and the recovery plan was extended from 6 weeks to 6 months before I even left the hospital. My insurance didn’t cover home health care or extended recovery at the hospital or a nursing home, so I had to scramble. Bandages had to be changed, and I was living with a 16 year old boy, so the first plan was for me to move in with friends and my son to stay at his dad’s house. That lasted for about 4 days, but then it was time to go home. Did I mention that Farah had midwife training in Saudi Arabia? She offered to come by after school every day and cook for me, then come back in the evening to help me shower, change bandages, and fluff-up the pillows. I had to explain to her that the synagogue 6th and 7th grade families were providing meals, and my son now had his driver’s license, but that I would definitely welcome her help at night. (She never did understand why I couldn’t eat the meat from her kitchen, even if she skipped the shrimp.) Once again, my friends (who were not lining up to change bandages or clip toenails) were convinced that she was robbing me while I showered, and hers were convinced that I was using her when I could clearly afford to pay for a nurse. (I couldn’t even afford to be off work and found out in the middle of all this that the district declined to renew my contract.)

And eventually our friends met. A girls’ night party at her house. A crafting night at a restaurant with my friends. (“Really? You say NIT? No K? Why the K? What color is this? Tell? No, Chartoose not a real word. You are making a joke.”) Me teaching her and two of her friends to drive in the same parking lot where I taught my son. Her bringing her newly-arrived children to play at the park with same-age children of one of my other friends.

Farah cheered me on as I learned to walk again after a dozen years and wanted to know what the doctor and physical therapist were saying. I helped her arrange for childcare and learn to buckle in a car seat when she found out her children would be able to join her. She told me more about the school where she studied and helped me get a very part-time job teaching English to adults for the year that I was recovering from surgery. She told her friends what a good tutor I was and I ended up with private tutoring work in our neighborhood. She helped a new mother friend of mine whose baby stopped nursing when she was a week old.

She moved to a different Texas city to start college about a year after we met, and my son started college there the following semester. When he forgot to bring a pillow to summer orientation, she sent her husband to his dorm with three pillows since she had seen my bed post-op and assumed all Americans slept with many pillows. I stayed at her house when I visited him, and her children called me Aunt. However, as is often the case when friends move, start new jobs, and add responsibilities, we became less close on a daily basis, and kept in touch only through Skype and occasional visits. She is now back in Saudi Arabia and we haven’t spoken in a long time.

So, how is this an interfaith story? Or an anecdote for that matter? The point is that learning respectfully about another religion is a way of enhancing our own, and that friendship is of value regardless of those differences.


Credit: Betsy Markman



"The Time We Had Mormons Over For Shabbat Dinner”

As I mentioned above, I am in the habit of befriending neighbors. Right now there’s a little girl in the apartment upstairs whose entire knowledge of English consists of nursery rhymes and songs she learned on youtube. We serenade each other almost daily with “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” That and the words “Hi!” and “Bye!” are our only communication.

Many years ago, in the first year of my divorce, my son and I lived next door to Mormon newlyweds named Heidi and Todd. We learned a lot about their religion, and they learned about ours. Neither family had ever met anyone of the other religion, and once we got past their desire to convert us, all went well. They even introduced us to their friends on condition that the friends not proselytize.

One day, they came to me with an interesting dilemma. They were scheduled to host missionaries for dinner that Friday and had only just discovered that one of the women was vegetarian. My friend had no idea how to cook a vegetarian dinner. We have a kosher home, and were already starting to cook fewer and fewer meat meals, and so I did what came absolutely naturally to me. I invited them all for a vegetarian Shabbat dinner! We set up some ground rules, mostly about proselytizing.  We put the extra leaf in our table, asked Todd to put on a kipa, and began with the Hebrew blessings, plus English translations.  When we finished, my neighbor offered his own beautiful blessing that I would gladly have replied “Amen” too if he hadn’t ended it with “In Jesus’ name”.  My son looked at me to see how I would respond.  I thanked him greatly for his kind sentiment and then we ate and talked about travel, education, vegetarianism, and anything we possibly could that didn’t include much religion.

The evening definitely ranks up there as one of the most interesting Shabbat dinners I’ve ever hosted. It was the first time Todd was asked to wear a kipa and the first time motzi was followed by a blessing aloud “In Jesus’s name.”



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