If you read my title and have the urge to say, “When pigs fly!” then you don’t know my Baptist people.
In these days when the American president refers to unauthorized immigrants-even gang members- as animals, when Israeli soldiers kill dozens of unarmed protesters, and when a black graduate student gets reported to police for taking a nap in her dorm’s common room, I look for people who take seriously the words that we are all made in God’s image, each deserving of life, respect, peace. I think about this graffiti I saw last year in Bethlehem. And I replay scenes from Tuesday night when the Baptists sat down with the Muslims, and we listened, learned, and laughed– and filled both our stomachs and hearts.
Like Banksy’s “Flower Chucker” the Baptists came with flowers in hand- or at least on our tables. We came with goodwill. With hands open, because that’s how all friendships start, right? The dinner was about welcoming neighbors, not trying to change or convert each other. It was about hospitality- so important to both our faiths. We came ready to listen, ready to understand. And what did we find?
We found common ground. And we found baklava. (Baklava just might be the answer to most everything!)
I have to be honest and say that at first I wasn’t sure about the evening. On week nights, I like staying home. I like walking my dog and then taking a shower. I like changing into my pajamas that have bears toasting marshmallows on them and setting up shop on my bed to read or write or talk with my husband. I’ve spent three kids’ worth of years driving all over creation for soccer games and track meets and other assorted exhausting tomfoolery and I don’t need to do that anymore. Besides, not to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but I don’t generally like going places just to meet new people, as nice as they might be.
But when Atlantic Institute Greenville planned the Iftar Fast-breaking dinners and my Baptist church volunteered to host, I got caught up in a flurry of interfaith warm fuzziness and signed my husband and myself up. But by the time we both got home from work Tuesday night, my lovey-dovey zip was zapped. “It doesn’t start til 8,” Todd and I grumbled at each other, “and that’s probably the time the program starts. Why did we (you!) say yes? We have to go out on a week night PLUS we have to wait til 9 to eat dinner?” But those ladies from the mosque had made the food and we were on the guest list, darn it. It was a done deal. We had to go.
So I left my bear pajamas at home and found at our table a new Muslim friend. It turns out that he lives just down the street from the neighborhood we called home for twenty years. He grew up in Chicago, where Sam goes to college. He’s a physician who works at a psychiatric hospital, as Ben may do after he finishes his last year of medical school and his residency in psychiatry. He works over the border in North Carolina, near the town where Sarah lives. His wife is a dentist, and we have teeth. Haha.
But there were deeper things too. He told us about what fasting means to him, how the discomfort of denying himself food and water sunrise to sunset helps him focus on God. How it makes him face things that come with discomfort- frustration and anger and impatience. And he talked about the joy of breaking the fast, though tiring for an introvert. (Hey, him too? I wonder if he has bear pajamas.) He talked about a month full of celebrations each night around the table with people they love– and sometimes people they hardly know but are making an effort to welcome. He talked about his striving toward generosity, away from envy and greed. He said that his girls are already fasting even though they don’t have to since they’re young, but they love it, and how folks often cry at the end of Ramadan, because it’s such a dear time of revival.
My friend Susan talked about how we all have favorite memories around holy days in our faith and asked him about his. His eyes brightened as he remembered being in the kitchen as a little boy, as his mother and aunts did the cooking for the fast-breaking. I told him about the time last year when we took a busload of children to the home of a large Muslim family whom our church adopted when they moved here twenty years ago, to hear about what it was like to be immigrants. I told him how shocked we were when we realized that they weren’t eating the feast they had prepared for our kids. Without telling us, they had invited us during Ramadan- right at the time they were fasting!
“I was so impressed that they would do that for us,” I said, “prepare all that food, when they knew they wouldn’t be able to eat any of it. It must have made their mouths water!”
My friend shrugged. “We try to be generous,” he said quietly. “It’s a part of our faith.”
In these days when life seems full of strife and hatred and unrest, when even the “fun” news stories (Do you hear Yanni or Laurel?) seem bent on dividing us, I want to try to be a person who chucks flowers- or at least extends an open hand.
And maybe I can be a person who brings baklava, if I can find a friend to teach me how to make it! But if you teach me at night, be prepared. I’m wearing my bear pajamas.