The Neighborly Thing To Do: Day 8 of Ramadan

 

Last night, for the first time, I broke my fast in community.

I responded to one of the comments on my blog, from a man named Osman, who invited me to iftar (break fast) at the mosque in McKinney, which is only a few miles up the road.

Osman met me at the door of the McKinney Islamic Association with a smile and a handshake. I hadn’t been sure what to wear to this gathering, but Osman was wearing black jeans, a t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. I was wearing jeans, too, so I immediately felt at home.

He said, “Come in. This is a good time for me to introduce you to everyone.” He ushered me into a carpeted room, and I began to meet the different men and boys who were gathering.

The imam, a man named Musa (Moses), was busy putting down a blue tarp on the floor, covered by thin white plastic. Then he began arranging bottles of water and small styrofoam cups of orange juice on the plastic.

I was invited to sit with my legs crossed on the floor, alongside the other men of the community. Someone passed around small bowls of fruit for each person, and then came a plate of dates.

We each took one date, which is the traditional food first eaten by Muslims to break their fast. And at the appointed time, as a young boy prayed, we bit into our dates, lifted our cups and drank.

It was a holy moment.

Holy, because I did feel connected to the others in the room, even though I did not know them.

Holy, because I had been accepted and made welcome, even though I was obviously an outsider.

Holy, because God was there, in the same way that God is present when we take the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

We enjoyed the refreshments for a few leisurely moments, but then Musa announced that it was time for prayer. Men stood up, and then began arranging themselves into rows. The imam’s son-in-law led us in prayers. I asked Osman what was appropriate for me to do, and he said it would be fine if I sat in a chair with some of the older men, who couldn’t kneel and bow.

During the prayers, I was struck by both the foreignness, and the familiarity, of the ritual. The prayers were, of course, in Arabic, and I was unable to understand the words. But at the same time, while the men were kneeling and bowing, a number of children were playing noisily in the back of the room. Toddlers were giggling  and running around, while their fathers and grandfathers were intently praying only a few feet from them.

In many ways, it was just like a typical gathering at my own church! It was a mix of fellowship, worship, and family time.

After prayers, we lined up and filled our plates with chicken, rice, naan bread, hummus, and sweet pastry. As we ate, I began to get to know the members of the mosque.

I learned that their brand-new mosque, only a few blocks away, would be opening in a few weeks. They’d hoped it would be ready for Ramadan, but they’d run into the usual construction delays.

McKinney is an old county seat town in Texas, and has recently exploded in growth. But it’s still regarded as a primarily WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) community. So I asked several men if they’d perceived any resentment or animosity from other citizens about their presence in the community.

“Not at all,” they all said. In fact, the landlord of their current space had gone out of the way to accommodate their growth.

Musa himself has lived in McKinney for 26 years, and runs a thriving auto repair business in town. He told me a story about one particular neighbor.

Some time ago, a woman and her husband, a pastor, had moved in next door to Musa’s family. Over time, the two families began to get to know each other, share meals, and enjoyed each other’s presence.

One day, while out in the yard, the woman saw Musa and called him over. She said, “I have a confession to make.”
Musa raised his eyebrow at her.

“When I first discovered that we would be living next to you, I was terrified. I asked God why He would ask me to live next to a Muslim family. But now, I thank God that I have Muslim neighbors. You are a part of my family now.”

Even though the woman’s husband has since died and she has moved away, she still returns to visit Musa’s family on a regular basis.

That story stuck with me as I left Osman and my new friends, and returned home.

This is the essence of my Ramadan fast. I am, of course, drawing closer to God and enriching my own spiritual life. I am receiving personal, and private, spiritual benefits.

But I am also beginning to make new friendships. And these friendships break down the walls of stereotypes, prejudices, misunderstandings.

It’s corny to say this, but it’s true – this is how peace breaks out in the world. It breaks out when people who were formerly distrustful or wary of each other, sit down and eat together. It breaks out when people from different cultures and religions, come to observe each other’s rituals and prayers.

You can’t launch a war against people with whom you regularly break bread.

I am reminded of the beloved story in my own tradition, the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer had asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responded, “To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer said, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered by telling a story about a man who had been beaten and robbed by thieves, left on the road to die. A priest came by, but instead of helping him, passed by the other side. Then another religious man came by, but passed by as well. Finally, a Samaritan came by. Samaritans were hated and despised by the Jews for cultural and religious reasons. But this Samaritan bent down, cleaned the man’s wounds, and carried him to safety.

Jesus ended the story by saying, “Now, in this story, which one was the neighbor?”

Jesus’ listeners were taken aback. They couldn’t have imagined that a Samaritan would have been able to love a Jew.

I would propose that we Christians need to hear the story of Jesus anew. If he told it today, he might very well tell it as the story of the Good Muslim.

Muslims are our neighbors. They are very good neighbors.

The burden lies on us Christians to get to know them, to open our homes and churches, and welcome them.

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27 comments

  1. hollyboardman

    My custom in teaching confirmation classes in the United Methodist Church has been to take the students to a worship service at a local synagogue. It is always a memorable occasion for these young (11-14 years old) students. Usually the rabbi, or a leader from the congregation is pleased to set aside some time to meet with the confirmands and answer any questions they may have. Your blog makes me wonder whether a similar visit to a mosque might be a good idea. The tensions and misunderstandings between practitioners of Christianity and Islam may diminish as we talk, listen, and share time and meals with each other. As a retired pastor, I no longer have the responsibility and joy of planning a confirmation class, but if I did, I think I would give it a try.

    I’d like to know your thoughts and your reader’s thoughts about this.

    Also, I am wondering about the experience of the women in the community during Ramadan. Are they gathered in a different room as the fast is broken? Do most women fast? I presume that pregnant women do not. Also, what age do Moslem’s begin fasting? I have many questions, and I appreciate learning through your blog.

    • Jafar

      Free mixing of sexes is not allowed in Islam, but the level of implementation depends on household/community. It only matters when guests are present, since there is no problem of mixing between family members. If guests are presents, some places have different sections and some places have them combined. The question “are they gathered…” implies that the men are confining the women somewhere, whereas sometimes it is vice versa. It would be more appropriate to ask “do they gather in separate sections”, which depends on how the event is organized.

      Women fast the same as men. However, if they are undergoing their period, they do not fast on that day but make up for it on another day after Ramadan. Pregnant women fast if they want to. A search on Google for the term “pregnant woman fasting” has some useful information in the top few links.

      The age of maturity in Islam is puberty, and fasting in Ramadan becomes compulsory then. However, children may fast a few days here and there before puberty – it depends on the individual family.

    • Umm Abdullah

      Some of this has already been explained, but… A woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding does not have to fast if it would harm her or her baby. In fact, in Muslim countries, most pregnant women do fast, and it’s considered normal. I fasted while I was pregnant with all four of my children and never had a problem; of course, if it were going to cause some harm I would have broken my fast. You just make sure you have a good pre-dawn meal and drink a lot of liquids during the hours you’re not fasting.

      A woman who is menstruating does not fast. Also, anyone who is traveling or sick does not have to fast. There are different rulings, but in most of these cases, the person has to make up the days later (but it’s much easier to fast when everyone around you is fasting). In some cases (like a chronic illness or the elderly, who might never be able to make up the days), one can pay for meals for the poor.

      As for children, many of them fast before they’re technically required to. I think mine were all fasting completely by the time they were 10, and sometimes much earlier. When the youngest was in 1st grade, I kept sending him to school with a lunch bag full of food, but he wouldn’t eat it. I told him he didn’t have to fast, but he wanted to.

  2. A Muslim Woman

    As’salam Alikum (peace be upon you)
    Women are required to fast same as men in Islam, but they have a break (and are required to make it up) during their menses. If they are pregnant and it is dangerous for their health or the health of their baby in any way or durnign nursing, they can take a break but would also make it up another time.
    For both men and women, if they are sick or travelling, it is recommended by Allah to not fast on those days and make it up when thay are well or back home.
    Both men and women are required to fast when they reach puberty. Most Mosques will have separate areas or a divider between the women eating areas and the men’s. Some, if the space allows, will have a large enough room to have an open space with men on one side and men on the other. In your own home, among your family there is no divisons. It is mainly to keep the focus on GOD and the relationship a muslim is trying to accomplish with HIM during Ramadan and not to be distracted by the opposite sex.

    I am a muslim woman and a memeber of a women’s interfaith group. We visit each other’s place of worship learn about one another, similarities nad differences. We invite people to our mosque all the time and it has been an eye opening expereince to many. I think you should deffinitely visit a mosque, it wll clear a lot of tension if not at least be the neighbourly thing to do to learn about each other.
    God Bless..
    A Muslim Woman

  3. hollyboardman

    Thank you for your response. There are not many Muslims in Orlando, Florida (a very large city). The mosque is about an hour’s drive away from my home. However, I did have the opportunity to get to know a young 11 year old Muslim boy from Bangladesh when he was my student in the public school. But in school we are seldom permitted to discuss religion unless it is part of our assigned curriculum. Once I asked him to tell me how his family adheres to the customs of Bangladesh. He said he learns about these customs in “my church”. I was really quite startled by his response because I did not think he was Christian. I realized later that he is Muslem, and he was translating his religious experience into terms I can understand.

    In the United States religion is almost a taboo subject in the public schools. Teachers are not permitted to lead students in prayer, or to share their faith. Many teachers avoid the topic of religion even as an academic topic. It is too controversial for teachers to risk their job by mentioning it. As a result public school students know little about religion unless they are taught by their parents or their own religious leaders.

    I appreciate the invitation to visit a local mosque. But the truth is, it is not really very local for me. As Wes mentioned, Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbors. I honestly struggle with what that means in this day and age. I don’t know all the people who live on my street, yet I am able to have meaningful conversations with “a Muslim Woman” in cyberspace and a pastor in Texas.

    Understanding who my neighbor is, is a very important spiritual issue for me right now. I am struggling with it.

    • CMom

      I think almost all mosques in Orlando area would love to have you and your students visit them. I’m a former Orlando resident, and a Muslimah (female Muslim). There are in fact many mosques in Orlando, some are tucked away in the business complex, some behind residential area. If you want to, please tell me which area of Orlando you reside in, and I can tell you which mosque is closest to you and name of the imam or admin who can make arrangements for your visit.

      Reverend Wes, I am thoroughly enjoying reading your blog and your perespective. Each post I have read (past and current ones) I sit here nodding in complete agreement. Growing up, my family had close friends from various faiths and traditions. We would be invited for Christmas dinners, for pesach/passover, and our friends would visit us to share Iftar or during 3 days of Eid festivities. Learning about other faiths and taking part in their observances helps us build inclusive and harmonious communities. My husband and I want to teach our kids about our neighbors’ faiths and traditions by visiting them and if invited, visiting their places of worship to observe their prayer services. As much as we like to believe America is a melting pot, it’s more of a tossed salad of various cultures, ethnicities, religions and traditions all meshing together yet distinct. Thank you for your efforts to increase awareness, building love and peace, and of course putting into practice what you preach 🙂

      • CMom

        There is a mosque about 5 miles away from you, however it is under construction at the moment. I re-read your original comment, and even if it’s a little further from you, I would highly recommend for you to contact Jama Masjid in Dr. Philips area. The imam of the mosque is very active in the community, often inviting people of other faiths to observe the prayer services and answering any questions they may have afterward, and even organizing interfaith Iftar/dinner. Just a wonderful and dedicated person, even if he’s frantically busy. Please do contact them.

        Jama Masjid
        11543 Ruby Lake Rd
        Orlando, FL 32836
        Imam Tariq Rashid, (407) 361-6666

    • Dan

      Holyboardman, I am just starting to catch up here on Wes’s Blog. I am learning lots from it, And hopefully i can help you with my answer to the question “Who is my neighbor”? To me, my neighbor is not really the definition of neighbor as seen in the dictionary, My neighbors are those i come in contact with everyday. Friends at work or school, church, or thru scouting. People in my community, including those in my cyber community, Most of the cyber community knows me only thru what i post on facebook or thru emails. These are my neighbors. The people who will know when I’m not around, or have been out sick. Those people I think and have impact on everyday. This may be a simple definition but i think simple is the way to go. Your neighbors are the people you meet each day. (Thank you Mr Rogers.) Now I have a lot of reading to do to catch up with Wes……

      • hollyboardman

        Thank you, Dan. I believe that is the message of Jesus in the parable about the Good Samaritan. Neighbors are those we stumble across on our life’s journey. They may be of a different cultural background than ourselves. However, I do not believe the story limits our neighbor to “our friends”. Jesus wants us to see the strangers we bump into as people worthy of honor, respect, and care also. The story challenges us to widen our understanding of who our neighbor is. In my own spiritual journey, I am beginning to think that I need to make friends with the people who live on my street. I have lived here for 9 years, and I don’t know many of them because we are not friends at work or school or other places.

    • Umm Abdullah

      Since we’re discussing neighbors, I might mention that in Muslim countries, it’s the custom for neighbors to send each other food during Ramadan. One house will send a dish of food to some neighbors, and another day, they’ll send the dish back filled with something they’ve made. It’s not that people need extra food, but just a nice way of sharing and strengthening bonds.

      There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) encouraging people to be good to their neighbors. He once said that the angel Gabriel encouraged him so strongly to be kind to neighbors that he thought he was going to tell him that they should have a share of one’s inheritance!

      • hollyboardman

        What a lovely custom! I am envious.

        Another thought regarding “who is my neighbor?”–In the story Jesus told, the answer to the question is the Samaritan. So we could consider anyone who helps US as our neighbor. This story has many different implications. I think the primary implication is that we should be helpful to people outside of our own culture and community-especially those who are wounded and in need; we should help those wounded people we happen to stumble across on our journey even if they are strangers; and we should appreciate those who help us when we are wounded and hurting.

  4. jami

    I’m so glad you visited the mosque and I hope it was an all-around pleasant experience for you! I’d like to recommend a book to you: Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians by George Dardess. Given your reasons for fasting, I think you would appreciate Dardess’ approach. He is a Deacon in the Catholic Church and a lover of languages. He decided to learn Arabic as a means to learn about Islam. His book gives examples of how he learned about Islam at his local mosque over a 14 year period. it’s written for the Christian and treats both religions with respect. He writes:

    “Passing over means moving beyond the limits of acquantanceship, to an inner encounter taking place in one’s own heart. Passing over goes further than tolerance, further even than friendly dialogue — proposing an actual crossing of the border into Islam. No shortcuts allowed! Passing over doesn’t try to bypass the usual roadblocks of doctrinal differences and historical and present-day grievances. Instead, passing over tries to level the roadblocks or at least to find a path through them. The scary thing about passing over is realizing that what will happen afterward — after the roadblocks are behind us — is a mystery. Passing over involves adventure. We pass over to the other religion in order to be changed by that religion — changed not in the sense of being converted, but in the sense of finding our own faith enhanced when we come back. So by calling ‘passing over’ an adventure, I’m not proposing an escape from our faith but a return home to it. Yet we don’t return with an attitude of superiority, as if the only purpose of passing over were to collect debating points for a more aggressive Christian apologetic. We return strengthened, more capable of ‘being what we are’ (echoing Augustine’s language for the Eucharist).”

  5. Osman

    Thank you for visiting us and spending your precious time in getting to know our community. You’re welcome anytime.

    By the way, “The imam’s son-in-law led us in prayers.” Correction: He is not the imam’s son-in-law, he is a huffaz (a person who has memorized the Quran by heart).

  6. Yan

    Dear Wes, I was thinking about how you mentioned before in your earlier posts blogging about fasting, about how you experienced ‘dryness’. I agree with the others on the importance of drinking a lot of water before starting the fast, especially during ‘Sahur/suhoor’, right before the ‘cut off’ time. But that’s not all. I’d been wondering, what was the difference between your experience, as a Christian, and mine, as a Muslim, when we fast during Ramadhan? Why was it you experienced all that ‘dryness’? Was it really only just because you needed to drink more water? Then it dawned on me. As a Muslim, I pray 5 times a day, and one of the requirements for praying is to begin by doing ablutions. Ablutions, which mean getting in contact with a lot of water to cleanse your skin. Our frequent ablutions throughout the day, in effect, rehydrates our bodies from the outside. That’s why Muslims, don’t generally get to be quite so dry when we fast. I’m not sure how you can integrate ablutions in your fast, since, of course, you don’t do the same things when you pray, but i suppose it’s an idea. I’d also like to say, you’re a good human Wes. Thanks for being so fair and good. We appreciate your effort and respect you mightily for it.

  7. Mohammed Ali Amla

    This is a great example of building bridges between communities, which is much needed in the modern age. Our common ground is an important area which needs exploring in more detail, whilst aknowledging our differences in theology, law and practice. Keep us the excellent work, not long before you will be celebrating Eid.

  8. Pingback: Why a Dallas UM pastor is observing the Muslim fast of Ramadan | NEWYORKUSTAN: American Muslim Series
  9. Paula Kerley

    Rev. Wes,
    After hearing you preach today and also explain about your blog and what you are undertaking to fill yourself with God’s spirit, I have spent the afternoon reading all of your blogs and the wonderful comments that have been posted, and I am filled with joy! If we of all faiths will just spend the time sharing our reflections and our God with one another, what a wonderful world we would have to surround us. Thanks to you Wes and also to all of your commenters for reminding me of God’s goodness and grace.

  10. Farah

    Hi Reverend Wes,

    Stories like yours make me so happy inside and put a smile on my face. I really admire that you’ve been fasting, and respect you a lot for it. With the media misguiding people that Islam is evil or Muslims are terrorists, it’s not easy to do what you’ve done. So thanks a lot for your open heart and mind. If only there were more people like you in the world.

  11. fadhiel

    Dear Mr. Wes..
    I’m Fadhiel, Indonesian moslem..
    I’d like to say thank you very much for your encourage to celebrate our blessed month, Ramadan.

    May Allah bless you..
    (PS: I’m sorry, my english not qiute fluently.. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Why a Dallas UM pastor is observing the Muslim fast of Ramadan | Dallas Local Me.me
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  14. Pingback: UM Pastor Observing Fast in Ramadan – For Neighborly Love | The Muslim Voice
  15. Fatima Abduraouf

    Dear Pastor
    From the shores of beautiful Cape Town, South Africa I salute you. May The Almighty guide you always.You are indeed a man of the cloth, serving The Almighty in all His Glory for if you can partake food with Muslims and observe their fast, eventhough you are a non-Muslim, you are a shining example to all those who think differently about Muslims in general. I am an extremely proud South African Liberated and Committed Muslim woman indeed.

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