Walking home from my gym last night, admiring the sparkling Christmas lights, I passed two houses. Each was lavishly decorated with red, white and blue lights and flew the American flag against the dark night sky. Later I sat down to the evening news and saw the president speaking on the GOP tax plan, standing before a row of Christmas trees, dotted with red, white and blue globes. So when did the shades of Old Glory become the colors of an older, more powerful mystery?
Strangers are our weakness. Despite our best intentions -- our impulses to be fair, open or compassionate-- despite those impulses, strangers still scare us. Most of us were raised to be wary of them, not to talk to them, not to take candy -- or anything -- from anyone we don’t know.
Then, as we grow older, strangers help define us. However we see ourselves, as Americans or the middle class or Christians or educated or employed or conservative, whatever words we use to describe ourselves, people who are not like us are the other. They are strangers.
And we rarely look to strangers as examples of how we should behave. We look to people we know (or think we know). We look to our leaders, either on the great stage or in smaller circles. When we see and hear our leaders telling us not to trust strangers, to fear them, to cast them out, that advice resonates with what we think we’ve always known. We follow the lead of those who tell us to blame strangers and take action against them.
Once more, Pope Francis is condemning the use of fear to sow distrust of strangers, or as we know them today, of immigrants and refugees. In a statement ahead of January 1, the World Day of Peace, he said, “those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia.”
Read about the pope’s message here. Francis is not naming names, but we know who we are. We need to set aside our old habit of fearing strangers and find ways to listen to them, to learn from them. That’s what I discovered as I wrote “Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians.” I invite you to take a look here or here.
Strangers are our weakness, but we don’t need to let them become a weapon.
Yesterday I stopped by my closest supermarket to pick up a few things I needed. These days, with grown children, I am usually a Thanksgiving guest at someone else’s house. This year, my contribution will be a cheesy potato gratin and a raw brussel sprouts salad. But clearly, the shoppers around me were preparing for entire feasts. Some couples pushed more than one cart. I remember doing the same and smiled at the thought. But I also remember Thanksgivings that seemed to happen almost mysteriously. I don’t remember family negotiations, long shopping lists or the excitement (and stress) of finding new recipes and tracking down old ones.
Those are the Thanksgivings from when I was a child. At 63, I don’t remember any of the days-ahead preparations. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving morning to the smell of coffee perking and the occasional clatter as my mother prepared the stuffing so the thawed bird could roast all day. I’d roll over and snuggle deeper under the covers.
A little later came the slam of car doors, the squeak of the back door opening and the sound of voices as my grandparents arrived, carrying pies -- always at least three kinds and one of them pumpkin -- and freshly baked dinner rolls. My grandmother was a professional cook and no one’s pie crusts were flakier, fillings were sweeter and rolls were crustier on the outside and softer in the center than hers.
That’s when I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and wheedled a slice of pie from my grandmother. Pie is the perfect breakfast, and I’d savor mine with a cup of coffee and a dollop of half and half -- just the way Grandma Hazel drank hers. “Here’s mud in your eye,” she’d say as she joined me at the round oak dining room table.
Our menu never varied much. Turkey, bread stuffing with sage, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce from a can (carefully sliced into rounds), rolls, butter and homemade jam, a red jello salad with fruit cocktail -- my other grandma’s annual contribution. The only difference would be the vegetable -- hot (as in carrots or cauliflower) or cold as in a green salad. My only contribution was the relish tray, which I would prepare as if it were a ritual and the queen were coming to dinner: Carrot and celery sticks, radishes, olives (though only my mom and her mother ate them), green onions (which no one ate) and Grandma Hazel’s home-canned bread and butter pickles. By the time I’d finished the relish tray, my Grandpa Nels, Danish by birth, would be offering the adults a “snort” from his bottle of vodka. I’d watch him slosh it into high ball glasses and top them off with Squirt. Grandma Haught would refuse over and over before she’d agree to a “small one.”
My other job was setting the table. My mom’s good china came from Sears. The good silver (plate, I’m sure) was the reward of hours spent gluing Green and Gold stamps into little books to be redeemed for cutlery we used twice a year. The glasses, always a mishmash, were from second-hand stores where my mother loved to go “junking.” All that went on a white tablecloth that I don’t remember being stained like all the ones in my own linen closet.
Dinner was in the middle of the afternoon. I remember sampling everything but saving room for pie and the turkey sandwich I’d make later that evening. I have no memories at all of the adult conversation going on around me. Needless to say, I didn’t stay at the table longer than I had to. Dessert was always postponed because everyone else at the table was “stuffed.” Grandpa Nels, who’d usually spend the entire day in an overstuffed chair in the dining room, staring out the sliding glass doors as the pine trees swayed in the wind, would resume his position, but not before he’d slipped his false teeth into his back pocket and unbuttoned his pants.
My dad and his mother would retreat to the living room for some quiet conversation. I don’t remember where my siblings disappeared to. I shut myself in my room and opened a book. My mom and her mother sat at the table, surrounded by dirty dishes and leftover food, gossiping about people the rest of us didn’t know. Eventually, I heard the sound of running water and dishwashing and sought deeper refuge in whatever book I was reading. Once the dishes were done, I’d re-emerge and ask if I could make a sandwich. I remember my mother’s exasperated stare. “We just finished the dishes,” she’d say, as if that meant anything to me.
That’s about the time my dad entered the kitchen to make a batch of peanut brittle. That’s the only time I’d see him cook and we kids left him to the hot syrup, gathering only when he poured it out on the cold marble slab so it could cool before he broke it into pieces.
These fleeting childhood memories gave way to those of my own family. Those are far more vivid and likely to live on in my heart and my sons’ memories. But my grandparents and parents are gone now. And my siblings live their own lives far away. And as I unpacked my russet potatoes and brussel sprouts, I decided to write down what I remembered from my childhood Thanksgivings. Just so that it won’t be forever lost -- at least to me.
Yes, it’s likely to be raining in the greater Portland, Oregon, area tomorrow (but chances are if you live here, you’re tough enough to cope and unlikely to dissolve if you get wet).
And, yeah, depending on where you start from, Tigard can be a long drive (but maybe you go to Washington Square on a shopping trip now and then).
Agreed, Nov. 16 is a school night (but I’m told by that Thursday is the new Friday when it comes seeking entertainment).
You do have a point that seeing a docudrama that hasn’t been widely released in mega theater chains can be chancy (but we Portland types love independent movies, right? Especially if it’s won lots of awards, and a producer will be on hand to talk about the project.).
Acknowledging that, with a title like The Sultan and the Saint, this film could be about a Saudi prince playing football in New Orleans (we are smarter than that, right?).
Given all that, please consider braving the weather, the drive, the night, the genre, the title (which I kind of like) and come to the Portland-area screening of a new movie made by a Muslim film company with the help of a Catholic spiritual organization that tells the true story of a fifth-century meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and the Muslim ruler of Egypt.
Yes, it will probably be raining here tomorrow, but if you make the effort and see this movie, you might be inspired to risk something and reach out to a stranger. For more about the movie, click here. To buy tickets online, click here, or pay at the door. Thank you for thinking about it!
I am a firm believer in talking to strangers. It was at the core of my job as a newspaper reporter. If you didn’t talk to strangers, you didn’t get the story. The same has proven true in my private life: Talking to strangers gives me a better understanding of what is going on around me. That’s the basis of my new book, but it’s also the point of this particular piece of writing. Let’s see if I can get the sequence right.
I read this morning that the Catholic Muslim forum met for the fourth time in Berkeley, Calif., this past week. The forum, which I suspect many Catholics don’t know about, was created in 2008 by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and an international group of Muslim scholars who had signed “A Common Word.” (The latter was an open letter to then-Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders, encouraging a dialogue based on values the two faiths hold in common. You can read it here.)
Here’s a quotation from the Catholic Muslim forum’s official report:
“We assert the equal dignity and value of all persons irrespective of their race, gender, religion or social status,” they said, “and we categorically condemn any attempts to stereotype any people or attribute collective guilt to them for the actions of individuals among them.”
So the Catholic Church calls on its members to talk to Muslims. And many other Christian denominations and churches have done the same. It is a first step toward understanding, which is becoming more critical in our world today. I wondered how Americans are feeling about Muslims right now.
A recent Pew study found that only 45 percent of Americans say they know a Muslim today (compared to 38 percent in 2014). So that’s some progress. But those of us who haven’t met a Muslim, let alone had a meaningful conversation, might need some help. Here are a few suggestions:
Look for The Sultan and the Saint, an award-winning film that tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi and Malik Al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, who defied their own religious communities and met, face to face, during the Fifth Crusade. Watch the trailer here. The movie will be screened in Oregon at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Muslim Educational Trust, 10330 SW Scholls Ferry Road in Tigard. Michael Wolf, a producer on the film, will be on hand to talk about the project. Tickets, $10 for adults and $5 for students, are available online and at the door. If you live in the Portland area, come to the movie. There’s a chance you’ll meet a Muslim sitting in the seat beside you. If you don’t live nearby, see if a screening is planned in your town or watch for the film on PBS.
Sponsors for this film screening include The Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding. Our group has been around for 14 years and people are discovering us every day. There’s a chance you may have such an organization that creates opportunities for interfaith interaction where you live. Find them, if you can, and attend an event.
Or do some reading. Jordan Denari Duffner’s new book (to be published next month) is Finding Jesus Among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Duffner has lived in the Middle East and her book promises new insights. She makes the case for all Christians to take up the dialogue already endorsed by the Vatican (and mentioned at the top of this piece).
So, back to where I began. Making the effort to meet and talk to a Muslim in your own community is a small but concrete step that you and I can take to thwart efforts to divide people of faith. If we want to know what’s going on around us, we need to talk to strangers.
I cannot imagine the grief of those who lost loved ones in last weekend’s shooting in a Texas church. And I am alarmed by this quotation from a Religion News Service story on church security.
The pastor of a Dallas Baptist megachurch (and a counselor to the president of the United States) said on television Sunday that “as many as half” the members of his church carry concealed weapons to worship services. A potential shooter in his congregation would be killed soon after he or she started firing, the Rev. Robert Jeffress said. He saw this as a good thing.
While that remark is disturbing on its own, here’s what is preoccupying me this morning: Jeffress went on to say, “This is the world we’re living in. We need to do everything we can to keep our parishioners safe.”
I am a mother and a grandmother with very dear relatives and friends. The idea of being safe appeals to me, and I long for safety to surround those I love. But I know safety is rare in this world. “The Bible tells me so,” to quote an old song.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, God promised the Israelites safety if they followed divine instructions. They tried and failed. Over and over, they were attacked, killed and dispersed. Even the prophets of God, the ones who faithfully told the people what God wanted of them, were not safe. Their counterparts in the Christian Scriptures -- John the Baptist, St. Paul, Jesus, himself -- were not safe. All died violent deaths. I don’t remember Jesus ever talking about physical safety, his or anyone else’s.
So, why do we think that Christians are entitled to safety in a country where many of us argue that food, shelter and medicine are not entitlements, but the right to own a weapon is? It is tragic that people were killed in a church, especially if they expected to be safe inside its walls. But I am not at all sure that safety is something God promises.
There is a difference between hearing and listening. We’ve heard terrorists -- real and imagined -- cry “Allahu Akbar” before they act violently. Now, can we listen to Wajahat Ali talk about why that phrase is so important to him. Here’s a link to the NPR interview -- it’s five minutes long and well worth it.
You see, all the biblical strangers I write about in my book are good listeners. Maybe better listeners than we are. Just sayin' . . . .
Some of the Bible’s strangers have slipped into our common consciousness. The Good Samaritan shows up at mass shootings and hurricanes. Ruth’s vows of love ring out at wedding ceremonies. Wise men trek across our Christmas traditions.
But what do we really know about those wise men? Or the foreign harlot who lived inside the walls of Jericho? Or the enemy general who held out for a handful of dirt? Or the slave who named God when no one used her own? Or the woman who endured the heat of the day to hold up her end of Jesus’ longest recorded conversation? Or the mother who chose her words carefully so that her single sentence reminded Jesus of his own identity?
The Bible is full of strangers, whose examples we often overlook. Our own lives are full of strangers, too: Outsiders that we suspect, ignore or condemn. How might the strangers of the Bible move us past our own fear of outsiders?
Check out my new book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians. See what I’m up to, sample my writing and read what critics think at Liturgical Press or Amazon. And then, consider ordering a copy, organizing a group of friends to read it, too, suggesting it to an existing reading group. Consider reading it even if you don't know the Bible or think of yourself as a religious person. We live in a time when our fear of strangers can make us or break us.