Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
A quick Google search defines the word they as a pronoun “referring to two more people previously mentioned or easily defined.” It’s my experience that no one group of people is easily defined but, oh, we still like to try.
We tuck people away into groups of them and those people, defining those groups as different than us. And these labels reduce people to a stereotype that can house hate, fear, and oppression.
Sometimes that little word triggers such anger in me. I see it in my social media feeds almost daily describing how those people act or believe, words laced with venom—words about how one such group of people we inaccurately mis-categorize is out to destroy our country and world. Words describing people I love—my Muslim brothers and sisters. A huge, diverse group of people comprising one-fourth of the population of the world is reduced to a they that others so easily reject, or vilify.
Most people in my daily life claim Islam as their religion since I live in a country where Muslims make up 80% of the population. To see a group of men wearing white prayer caps and flowing robes walking down the street on the way to the mosque is a normal daily occurrence for me. These are my neighbors. For many people that same image would strike fear of the unknown in their heart.
That’s the key—the unknown. We fear what we don’t take the time to know. We just slap a they label on people and think they are so easily defined.
When others don’t recognize the image of God in my Muslim friends, don’t see them as equal to themselves, as someone who has much wisdom to teach them—I want to rage, I want to scream: how can you not see? I can forget that once I was blind too...
“No one is excused from the conversation. Instead of hate, we choose subversive joy and indefatigable faith. We hope for another way, for new paths forward, for healing truly to come to our land.” – Cara Meredith
For a long while I’ve excused myself from the conversation on racial justice in America. It’s not my place, I said as a white woman. I don’t want to overstep my bounds.
Living in the Middle East and South Asia, I involved myself in learning from my Muslim neighbors. Working in non-profits coming alongside local workers who are leading the way in issues of poverty, slavery, women’s rights, education—these were my chosen conversations. I spent my time immersed in the needs of the majority world, so I excused myself from taking a look in my back yard.
For the last year I have lived outside of the US and watched from afar as old divisions grow wider and discussions grow hotter and more hateful. And this feels like my life as a whole—watching from afar, not truly engaging.
But I have been watching. I’ve quietly widened my social media circles, the books I am reading, and the news sources I am taking in. I’ve written for a couple years for a magazine whose primary demographic is women of color and I have poured over the articles by the other writers, wanting to know. Wanting to listen.
Cara Meredith is one of those voices I’ve been hearing at the periphery of my life for the past few years, nudging me—telling me just silently watching isn’t enough. We met through common online writing circles and I’ve watched her journey and growth as a smart, engaging woman who is leveraging her voice and experience to call us all into new depths.
You see, Cara is married to a man whose father who had a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. She is a white woman who has chosen to walk into the conversation of race, not just out of love for her husband and sons, but because she has seen that it is her journey too. I knew all this when I read her new book The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. I was ready to listen some more, to hear her story. What I didn’t expect was to see that it is my story, too.
I read her book in large gulps, enraptured. I was taken in by her personal story but then I was hooked by the history as well. As Meredith fell in love with her husband, she learned about the legacy of his father. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard the full story of this incredible man, James Meredith. Maybe his life was a blip on the radar of black history month, but his was never a story that I’d truly known before. I was ashamed of this.
“For too long I refused to let myself see history’s one-sided affair, listening to and learning from the stories of my past, stories told from the point of view of the oppressor,” says Meredith. These words echoed in my heart for weeks.
At the same time I was reading in The Very Good Gospel the account of a racial reconciliation pilgrimage Lisa Sharon Harper had taken part in. One of their stops was in Dahlonega, Georgia where the American government began passing laws in 1828 to strip the Cherokee of their land when gold was discovered in the north Georgia mountains. This led the way to the removal of “nearly forty-six thousand Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole men, women and children. The illegal deportation cleared twenty-five million acres of land for white settlement, mining, and ultimately slavery.” I vacationed regularly in these very mountains as a child where some of my ancestors lived (and I know that some of my forefathers were, indeed, slaveholders). This was another story I’d never been told yet this is part of my history, my story.
As I thought about what I would say about The Color of Life, I knew it had to be my story. Another reason I’ve stayed out of the conversation is a common excuse: fear. What if I say something offensive? What if I make everything worse for people who have already been so wounded? But really, it is self-preservation. What if I am embarrassed? What if my own bias and ignorance shows?
Like Cara Meredith bravely told her family’s story and how she has journeyed closer toward reconciliation because she realized her place in the bigger picture, all of us have a place here in this story of our shared humanity. I hope I can find a place next to people like Meredith who say “I cry out against the chains of oppression because although we are equal in our status in human beings, we have not all been found equal in the eyes of society and in the eyes of each other.” All of us need to do what we can to understand our history…and our way forward toward truly seeing the image of God in all people.
If you aren’t sure where you fit in this conversation, if you aren’t sure why all this talk about race right now even matters—read The Color of Life. Meredith weaves theology and history into a compelling story with the humility and compassion of a mother struggling how to understand how racism will impact her own sons. This book is a place to start and especially if you are a white brother or sister, I hope it is a start indeed. We have a long way to go and we can only do it together.
Where do you consider yourself in the conversations happening today around racial justice? Where would you like to be? What obstacles do you need to overcome to get there? What motivates you to dive deeper?
How have stories you have heard shaped your views of racism? Do you feel you need to shift or broaden the narratives you are taking in?
We like programs, events. They have defined timelines and an expected outcome. We like to show up and give money or time to a cause. We want to help but we want boundaries too.
Reading Shawn Smucker’s new memoir Once We Were Strangers, I was reminded of the time my “event” of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan as they resettled in their new home in America. We felt accomplished when we helped set up their apartment. We felt less accomplished when we spent hours sitting with the family of 10 talking and letting the kids play. But we found something we didn’t expect, that this family needed less help and more friendship. "Help" wasn’t definable or simple. It required more than we imagined we could give.
Smucker unfolds the story of his growing relationship with Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, with the same ease and grace of a leisurely afternoon having coffee with a friend. In this beautiful true story, we get to be the witnesses of a life slowing down, a perspective changing, and a conviction to love deepening.
“What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” asks Smucker who met Mohammad with the intention of helping him write the story of his flight from Syria. But the two find something much more than they expected in a friendship that unites their families.
I received an advance copy of this book to read with excitement on so many levels. I believe Shawn Smucker is one of the best storyteller’s of our day (and have highly recommended his novels to you). I have a passion for seeing the stories of refugees elevated and think this couldn’t be a timelier story, as there are more refugees in the world than ever before as my own country is turning it’s back on them. I currently live in a country housing the second largest refugee population in the world after the Syrian refugee community and work for an NGO that seeks to serve this people without a country. My own life has been changed by friendship with people outside my own faith tradition and I think those in the Western Church need constant reminders to get outside our own culture and faith communities. There is so much beauty to gain from cross-cultural friendships.
Smucker delivered on every hope I had for Once We Were Strangers.
It is a vivid and inspiring story of embracing the diversity that challenges our biases:
“Every time I leave Mohammad and his family, I feel I’ve been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom absent from so much of our culture these days. It’s good to have friends who life quiet, peaceful lives. It seems strange to me that of all the families I know, most of whom are Christian, Mohammad’s family lives the most quiet, peaceful life of all.”
It is a gentle battle cry for Americans to wake up to the needs of others (from an author who admits this very friendship was both diagnosis and beginning of the cure of his own prejudices):
“There are days I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find a vaccination from racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves.”
“We have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbors. We can’t afford to isolate people anymore. We can’t afford to push people to the fringes of our society. This world we’ve created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger.”
And it was a surprising challenge to me to open myself up beyond programs and my ideas of what “help” looks like. It is a call to slow down and see others, to love:
“Our desire to help is often an arms length. People actually need a friend.”
Grab a copy of Once We Were Strangers, be inspired, and then get out there and meet someone different than you. Experience the life-changing power of community.