Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.
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Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.