a REFLECTION ON VISITING nwicc FROM pASTOR jOEL
The Bible is saturated with stories of meals that change lives. Stories where people are able to see each other’s humanity more deeply and God’s presence more clearly because they have shared a meal together. Abraham and Sarah prepare a feast for tired desert travelers who surprise them by announcing God’s promise that that they will bear a child (Genesis 18). Elijah takes a meager portion of flour and oil from a foreign widow and they survive together until God ends the drought covering the land (1 Kings 17).
Jesus told stories about wealthy people being blessed when they invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their feasts (Luke 14). Jesus’ last meal before he died was spent breaking bread with the very one who was to betray him (Matthew 26), and indeed, some of Jesus’ disciples knew that he had risen from the grave only when he shared a meal with them (Luke 24). It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Bible is an expanded record of dinner parties.
Mount Olivet has identified engagement with diversity and a culture of inclusion as one of our strategic priorities this past year. Guided by the wisdom of our identity statement, that we are the “church in the world, listening to God and neighbor,” we trust that God is present when we dare to form relationships with people across lines that often divide us. And so, in the spirit of both the Bible and our mission statement, we decided to celebrate Ramadan with the Northwest Islamic Community Center (NWICC), located in the Plymouth Post Office.
Ramadan, as we learned, is the month in the Islamic calendar that Muslims worldwide set aside to fast, pray, and do good works. From dawn until sunset each day, Muslims do not eat or drink anything (exceptions are made for the old, the young, and the sick). Farhana Ali, our liaison at NWICC, told us that this fasting has a purpose. “When you feel hunger in your body, that makes you remember people who go hungry all the time. And then your heart is moved to generosity.” True to this sentiment, NWICC has been raising money during this month to relieve famine in Somalia and other parts of the world.
Each night during Ramadan, the whole NWICC community gathers together to break the fast as one. As someone chants the call to prayer, everyone eats a single date and drinks a glass of water in their dining hall – the first food and drink they’ve had all day. They then walk to their prayer space, remove their shoes, and stand, kneel, and bow as they pray to God. As prayer ends, there is a rush back to the dining hall to share in the feast set out to nourish their hungry bodies.
On Wednesday, June 21, twenty Mount Olivet members and friends headed over to NWICC to serve this meal. Our church wrote a check to the mosque to help cover the costs of the evening, and we also promised to help set up and serve the food. This was the longest day of the year, and also the 27th night of Ramadan. Farhana told us that this night was especially holy – that God draws near with extra mercy. She was not wrong.
I could not have predicted the level of hospitality we received, and the joy that came with it. When I get hungry, I’m irritable and sluggish. When these Muslims were hungry, there were kind and compassionate.
At every turn of the night, we were greeted and recognized. It was difficult for me to cross the dining hall without being stopped multiple times by people wanting to shake my hand and let us know how grateful they were for our presence with them:
“No one has done this before – what an act of goodwill.”
“You give me hope that we can have a future filled with peace.”
“We are not all that different. You say Abraham, we say Ibrahim. You say Jesus, we say Isa. We pronounce them differently, but they are the same people we revere, and the same God we worship.”
“This is God’s house, and that means everyone is welcome here. I hope you, too, feel welcome.”
I did. And judging by the laughter and conversations I saw the other Mount Olivet folks engaged in, they did, too.
Because Mount Olivet had hosted the dinner, they asked me to say a few words to the community. I spoke honestly, saying “The way your community shows love to each other inspires me to go show love to my community. Your good works toward your neighbors in need inspire me to do more for my neighbors in need. And your prayer inspires me to be more devoted in my own prayer.” This is the hope that any of us can have in interfaith friendships – we see each other’s uniqueness, celebrate it, and turn back to our own faith with a fresh set of eyes.
As the evening wound down, Farhana told me NWICC had a gift for Mount Olivet. She presented me with a poster filled with handwritten thank you notes and a sealed envelope. I thanked her for the evening and headed out to my car, my stomach and heart both full.
Before I drove off, I opened the envelope. Inside was a check from NWICC to Mount Olivet for the exact amount we had paid them.
I wept for several minutes at this act of generosity. The entire time we had been paraded around as hosts of the meal, but in the end we were guests of their lavish hospitality.
What a humbling surprise to go out with the intention of extending hospitality only to receive it in greater form. God is so good that when we show love to our neighbors, God takes that love and enlarges it until it is big enough to reach back to us.
And, days later, I’m still thinking about the love we encountered at NWICC. It was love shown to humans, by humans, but I am convinced that God’s love was present as well. God was there with us all. The God who dined with Abraham had now dined with us.
Jesus, who Muslims call Isa, has commanded us to love God with all our heart, and our neighbors as ourselves. Most of the time we fail at this. But on that Wednesday, thanks to God’s grace shown to us by our Muslim friends, I think we got it right.
- Pastor Joel