Most of us live our lives within tightly controlled comfort zones, whether staying in our air conditioned or well heated homes, or avoiding “the other” in our midst. However, I have learned from and admire those hearty souls who travel to distant lands and interact with locals, whether as missionaries, pilgrims or simply life long learners.
Recently, my wife Chris and I have come to know an Iraqi couple, Zeid and Sundis who came to the U.S. seeking political asylum. They settled in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and were quickly granted asylum because of death threats they experienced in Baghdad. They are Sunni Muslims who formerly lived in a Shia controlled area of Badhdad. Zeid is a successful businessman but, because of religious intolerance and greed, according to Zeid, he was twice kidnapped and held for ransom.
Last spring they hosted us in their home for a sumptuous feast of goat and traditional Iraqi dishes. Sundis is a wonderful cook and baker. We reciprocated and had them over for dinner. Zeid remarked, “This is the first time I have been a guest in an American home.”
On Labor Day my wife and I hosted four other couples, including Zeid and Sundis, for a traditional American cookout. However, in respect of their Muslim customs, we used halal beef to make the hamburgers. We invited friends who had visited Arab countries, including the former Mennonite Central Committee Middle East regional director, to join in the cookout. Zeid enjoyed meeting our friends and had such a good time that he said, “I want to host another party, for everyone who is here, at my home.”
I facilitated that event and five couples gathered in Zeid and Sundis’ home for an Iraqi feast of several fresh fish roasted whole, with the head and tail intact. There were no utensils but rather, we were invited to eat with our hands. The fish was supplemented with Middle Eastern flat breads, served with za’atar and olive oil, as well as dates, and salad. It was obvious that much care, time and love went into preparation of the meal. Sundis, who always wears the hijab, was draped in a particularly colorful garment for this special occasion.
When we had eaten our fill, the guests retired to the living room for a short time while the table was cleared and reset with an array of sumptuous sweets: baklava; Jordanian sweets made with walnuts, pistachios and dates; and fresh fruit skewered on a spit like shish kabob. Of course dessert was accompanied by Arabian coffee and a spiced tea served from decorated pitchers into small but elaborate cups.
After the meal, while still gathered at the table, Zeid asked us what we thought of the Muslim requirement for women to wear the hijab. Each of us answered in turn. Comparisons were made to Mennonite prayer coverings. One young woman, who grew up in China and experienced gender liberation under Chairman Mao and the Communist revolution, brought another distinct perspective to the dialogue. We spoke freely of our faith and love for Jesus even while we listened to the Muslim call to prayer emanating from Zeid’s smart phone. It was a rich time together.
Mennonite are not new to such experiences. Mennonite volunteers, from those who served in a relief program, PAX, during WWII, and those working with Mennonite Central Committee doing development and peace work around the world, embrace love for neighbors from other countries.
I suspect there are Muslims living in your region. MennoMedia produces resources which help equip individuals and the church to interact with their Muslims neighbors. I think specifically of the DVD, Waging Peace, and David W. Shenk’s trilogy of books: Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, Teatime in Mogadishu, and A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. There is also a whole section of Third Way Cafe dedicated Waging Peace and helping people understand the Muslim faith and peaceful interactions.
I recommend these materials to you.
Steve Carpenter, Director of Development