For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...
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...
I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists...
“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.