Recently, I found myself sitting in a place I’d never dreamed I’d be— the middle of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati’s mosque during afternoon prayer.
I sat there with my wife, my two daughters (2-years old and 3 months), and my parents. You may be thinking how odd it is to find a Christian (who works for a church) at this place with his entire family, right? But the story is so much deeper than that—to grasp the full weight of it, you have to understand what took place a decade before.
Let me be embarrassingly candid. In 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, these words actually came out of my mouth:
“We just elected a Muslim. He’s going to open the door to the terrorists. We’re screwed.”
Seriously. Those were my exact words to my roommate. You don’t have to judge me, I’m judging me.
Typing those words, and publically owning up to them, it’s gut-wrenching. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. But as much as I regret what I said, it makes what happened to me this past weekend all the more powerful.
My journey with reconciliation began in 2016 when I first experienced a program called UNDIVIDED (I wrote about previously). UNDIVIDED is a six-week journey through racial reconciliation that is based around learning the stories of people who are different from you. It opened my eyes to injustice and racism in unfathomable ways. It helped me to not only look at my life through a different lens, but it introduced me to the power of intentionally surrounding myself with people who don’t look like, think like, or live like I do.
Fast forward to 2018. A desire to be a kidney donor led me to meet a 19-year old University of Cincinnati student named Mohamed (“Mo”). His health was beginning to fail and he desperately needed a kidney. Ultimately, I ended up not being a donor match for him, but God wasn’t finished with this cross-cultural relationship.
Mo and I quickly became friends. My wife and daughters got to know him and his family. I was in the hospital with him as he recovered from his successful transplant. A few days later, when my second daughter was born, it was Mo who was reaching out to me, sending texts from his recovery room while his mother showered us with gifts.
Everything about my friendship with Mo has been unconventional… and it’s absolutely been one of the greatest blessings I’ve experienced in my entire life. Our time together has been as simple as playing Madden on Xbox and as heart-wrenching as hearing what it’s like for him to grow up in a post-9/11 America. The struggles he has faced, and overcome, are things that, from my privileged white male viewpoint, I’ve never even considered.
(It may shock you to know our different religions aren’t the hardest part for us to overcome. Mo and his family are die-hard Pittsburgh Steeler fans, while my family lives for the Cincinnati Bengals. Seriously, I have a tattoo; and yes, I do regret it some days. But, I’m happy to report that we have set those differences aside.)
The point of our friendship is just that—friendship. We aren’t trying to convert one another, nor is either one of us trying to “save” the other. We are learning from each other, stretching ourselves and getting out of our comfort zones. And I can tell you right now that I am a better person because of Mo and his friendship.
My relationship with God is important to me. So as our friendship continued to blossom, I invited Mo to attend church services with my family. He took me up on it several times. After a similar invitation from his family, we did the same.
Last Saturday, I stood in the middle of a mosque, just a decade after spewing Islamophobia. It was a powerful contrast that wasn’t lost on me. I had no idea what to expect as I walked into that house of worship, yet I wasn’t afraid. Mo and his family have shown me that my presumptions of Muslims from years ago could not have been further from the truth.
For the three hours we were there, my family was showered in so much love, respect, and kindness. All questions were out on the table and fair game to be asked. We had conversations about our beliefs—their similarities and differences. And most importantly, we looked each other in the eye and shared a meal.
I’ll never forget walking out of the building. The photo is above. And in it, my mother, my daughter, and an older Muslim woman walk hand in hand. Bella loved this woman from the moment they met, and it was evident she loved my daughter as well. They didn’t see one another as Christian or Muslim, brown or white. None of that mattered in the least.
For years, because I did not understand Islam, I feared those who practiced it. My perception of the religion didn’t come from personal conversations with Muslims, but rather from fiction and sensationalism, from movies and popular culture. It wasn’t until my family and I made a conscious effort to cultivate true friendships that I was able to experience the peace and kindness of Muslims rather than allow the events of 9/11 to define them forever.
I’m not wavering in my belief in the truth of Jesus. I believe he is the son of God and that is a major difference between myself and my Muslim friends. But it’s precisely that belief in who Jesus is, and the way he lived his life, that is propelling me to befriend people who are different than me. I believe God wants me to learn to listen more, and judge less. Jesus was welcoming to those who were different than him; he touched the untouchable and loved the people society said were unlovable. I’m ashamed that I haven’t always done the same.
I believe God took me to that mosque to learn a hard lesson in his grace. Despite my ignorance and hatred, God loved me enough to spend the last ten years teaching me and guiding my heart to new places. Saturday, he spoke through strangers and people who don’t look like me. Despite living in a country that doesn’t treat them well and has even actively tried to keep Muslims out of it, these kind people found it in their hearts to forgive people like me.
God challenged me to engage with people who aren’t like me because God isn’t like me… and yet he doesn’t hold me at arms’ length. So I’m trying to do the same. Following God can take you some unexpected places, but it is totally worth it.
If you don’t have a friendship with someone who isn’t like you—race, religion, political viewpoint—then your life is not as rich as it could be. Take it from a Christian standing in the middle of a Mosque.