Listening is such an important skill to learn. Some of us were born with a tendency to speak (or scream!) more often than not. Others of us were born as more quiet infants. But all of us have had to learn – and must continue to learn – the art of listening. This is more than just hearing what someone else says, but really trying to understand that person from his or her perspective.
Yesterday afternoon I had one such opportunity, which I’d like to share with you today.
At the United Church of Christ in Midland, four Muslims from our local community were given time and space to tell their stories, to describe the importance of their faith to their lives, and to answer questions about their experiences as Muslim Americans. All four are native-born Americans; all four are well-educated, well-spoken, and devout in their faith. The only man on the panel is an Irishman – white skin, red hair – who is an English teacher and a convert to Islam from his childhood Catholicism. The three women are various ages: one a senior at Dow High, one is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan in biology and neuroscience (if I remember correctly), and one is married to the English teacher – a homemaker, I believe.
The man spoke for a few minutes about the theological and historical basics of Islam, focusing mainly on the five pillars of Islam. The high school senior talked about her experiences as a student, a lifetime citizen of the US, and as a young woman; she is interested in fashion, dating, friends, and so forth. The next young woman spoke about her life as a regular college graduate, living at home, wondering what to do with the rest of her life. The last woman then spoke about the lifestyle choices and opportunities of Muslims in the US, including the importance of her faith to her everyday life. (To be fair, all four spoke about the importance of their faith, as well.)
Then the floor was opened for questions and answers. Most of the questions were very generous in nature; one young boy asked if any of the presenters had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The husband and wife said yes and spoke briefly about that. One question was stated bluntly: “what do you believe about jihad, and who are the infidels?” And this question was handled very graciously and answered wisely by the English teacher. He admitted that Islam is not a pacifist religion, but the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) only allows for war in the case of self-defense or imminent threat of being attacked. He said – and this agrees with the vast majority of Muslim scholars and faith leaders – that today’s militant groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram are not adhering to the intentions of the Muslim religion.
I would guess that about 150 people were in attendance for this event, including a couple dozen members of the local Muslim community. These were everyday people, moms and dads, workers at Dow and other businesses, together with their children of all ages. I met one man who attended the event with his two nephews and his younger brother, all in middle school or early high school.
During the event, I wrestled within myself about the nature of the Muslim religion and what a traditional Christian response might be. I wondered about the notion of salvation in Jesus Christ, something we preach and believe fervently, and what condition these presenters and their families are in regarding their salvation. I thought about the huge contrast in my day: preaching about Jesus in the morning, and listening to people who respect Jesus but don’t believe in him as Savior in the evening.
And then I realized something: listening is so important. Before I jump to conclusions about the Muslims in this area – whether they will go to heaven when they die, or whether they want to take over our country (something which the English teacher rather sarcastically joked about ) – I have to listen. I have to learn to listen.
These are real people, living real lives, making real decisions about jobs and schools and families and careers. These are our neighbors.
We live in a pluralistic time, in a pluralistic community, even here in Midland. The truth of Jesus Christ is just as true as it ever was. Certainly, it may be harder to live as a Christian when you realize that there are faithful non-Christians, even faithful Muslims, living in your zip code. But what does Jesus say? Love your neighbor, love your enemy, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, do not worry, do not judge, hear Jesus’s words, put them into practice. (Read the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.)
How can we love our neighbors if we don’t listen to them?