I walked through the door of my neighborhood mosque with anticipation and curiosity. The room was large and unadorned, an old ranch style house that had been gutted into one big room. The ceiling was low and a half-dozen iron pillars were scattered throughout the room in place of the load bearing walls that were removed. A few book cases with copies of their holy book lined two of the four white walls. Next to one of the book shelves hung a large clock and a television screen displaying the meeting times for prayer. On the far end of the room was a special chair that appeared to be reserved for a teacher.
Other than that the room was empty.
In one corner of the room sat a group of young male students working on math problems led by a teacher who couldn’t have been any older than 18. As I walked through the door all their heads turned. They looked me up and down and started to make gestures to their teacher pointing to their feet. As the teacher approached me to ask my name I looked down at my feet and then glanced at theirs.
The difference? I was wearing shoes and they weren’t. They young man greeted me and politely asked if I would take off my shoes and asked how he could help.
“I have a meeting with the Imam.” I said.
“At what time?” he replied.
Our meeting was scheduled to begin right then at 4:15pm. He excused himself, pulled out his phone and tracked the Imam down.
“He’ll be here in just a minute.” he replied and pulled up a chair for me while I waited.
I couldn’t believe that I was in the mosque. After living around the corner for over six years and having walked past it thousands of times wondering what it was like inside, here I was about to meet with the Imam.
About a week back he initiated the meeting shortly after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris. He was reaching out to assure myself and other folks in the neighborhood that his congregation had no connection with the Islamic group in Paris and were adamantly opposed to their actions.
After waiting no more than two minutes, the Imam came walking through the door.
His thin stature was hidden underneath the layers of his Thobe (the traditional dress of muslim men). His wide expressive eyes scanned the room as he walked in and an ear to ear grin filled the lower part of his face upon seeing the boys at work in the corner. As he pulled his hood down from his head his wiry copper-colored beard emerged beneath his outer layer and rested gently on his torso. Noticing that I was waiting, he made a b-line to greet me. He gently presented his hand and greeted me saying, “As-salamu alaykum” which means “peace be upon you” in Aramaic.
He brought me to the corner of the room opposite the boys doing math problems. We sat knee to knee in two metal folding chairs and exchanged a few pleasantries about our families.
Again, he wanted to reassure me that his congregation had no association with what happened in Paris and asked if I had any questions about it. I believed him and felt safe with him. So instead of having a conversation about current events I took the conversation where I really wanted it to go, to Jesus.
While my knowledge about Islam is next to none, I do know one thing, Muslims have a high regard for Jesus. So I simply asked the Imam, “Tell me about Jesus.”
With a delighted smile he said, “Oh, we love Jesus.”
I asked him why? He said a few things about Jesus being a great prophet who is spoken of highly in the Qur’an.
Then I asked, “But what do you make of his death and resurrection?”
He said, “This is where we differ. We don’t believe that Jesus died or rose again. Right before he was arrested Jesus mysteriously traded places with Judas. It was Judas who died on the cross. At that moment, Jesus ascended and there is no resurrection.”
Then I asked, “Why did Jesus ascend? Why didn’t he simply live out his life on earth?”
Then he said something I didn’t see coming at all. He said with certainty, “Because Jesus is coming back. If he had died he wouldn’t be able to return.”
Wait. What!? You believe Jesus is coming back?
I followed up quickly saying, “And why is he coming back?”
And this is where I almost fell out of my chair.
He replied with equal certainty as before, “Because he is going to make everything right.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was dumbfound and speechless. Never had I ever thought I would hear those words from a Muslim, that Jesus is someday going to come back and make everything right! Months after that conversation I still find those words ringing in my head.
Even though we may find common ground on the return of Christ, there are still many central tenants to our faith on which we disagree – the cross and resurrection being two big ones. Which in turn, says a lot about how they view the problem of sin and how it’s rectified. But that’s a blog post for another day.
But what became evident to me during this conversation is that all too often we let mainstream news media use their tactics of fear and exaggeration to shape our understanding of people who live in our communities. And not just with Muslim, but with people of different races, cultures, sexual orientation, and religion. In turn, we form judgments about them from second-hand sources rather than actually getting to know them.
Instead what if we were to suspend judgment? What if we were to invest the time and effort to sit down knee to knee with listening ears and ask questions with compassion and curiosity? How would that change our communities and our neighborhoods? Perhaps, as the church, we would find that we could actually build bridges in order to have a better chance at reaching people with the gospel rather than building up walls with our judgments and fears.
Our time together flew by quickly. Before I knew it I had to be going and so did he. The Imam gave me a few books as parting gifts and said that he looked forward to when we could talk again. While walking me to the door he taught me their traditional greeting, “As-salamu alaykum.” We shook hands and exchanged a hug. I slipped on my shoes and was on my way.
As I got into my car and pulled away, it dawned on me that I had just made a new friend and realized it is possible to live at peace with those who are different from you.
So the question remains, where might God be leading you to build a relationship with someone who is different from you?
(Photo taken from wikimedia.org)