Scooching Over

(Published in the Yemeni American News, November, 2016)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Emma Lazarus

The Preferred Aisle Seat

I have never been known for my punctuality. In fact, I characteristically run late. Often times it’s because I get lost trying to find places, or maybe it’s because I tend to be on Greek time, which means I’m not technically late; it just allows me a half-hour margin for arrival. At my church there are rows of seats for people to choose from as they enter the place of worship. I’m always grateful when people scoot in towards the middle seats, so that us late arrivers can slip into the aisle seats, unnoticed. I prefer to avoid the awkward attention of navigating my way through a maze of knees and handbags after the service has begun to settle into the middle. Sometimes at abundantly populated special events, the pastor up front will ask everyone to scoot in a little to make room for more people to slip into the aisle seats. I know how it feels to be scooted in for.

Lately, though, I have been on a fairly long stretch of timely arrivals, which means I have my pick of seats at church. Admittedly, I tend to choose a preferred aisle seat.  I like having a bit of space on one end between me and other people that I don’t know so well. I like my space, my preferences, and my little comforts.

Joining the Response to New Americans

Last month I attended a free community event sponsored by Sabeel Media at the local library, discussing the response and the responsibility of the media to share the experiences and needs of refugees. One of the special presenters, Shane Lakatos of the Social Services for the Arab Community (SSFAC) in Toledo, challenged everyone at the event to think about the fear in our own hearts. We fear people we don’t know. And in fear, we tend to think the worst of them. Peter Twele, another special presenter and author of the book, Rubbing Shoulders in Yemen, emphasized that refugee families relocating simply need a friend if they are to successfully assimilate in a new culture. Not only have they left homes, families and jobs, they’ve lost neighborhoods, communities and connections. They need to build a new community of relationships.

So as I stood in the back of the Sabeel Media event, having arrived a little late, I started to think of my own response to the refugees joining my community.

sabeel-g-in-backSo as I stood in the back of the Sabeel Media event, having arrived a little late, I started to think of my own response to the refugees joining my community. I can donate to the cause. I can pray for those who suffer. I can speak out for the needs of these new Americans. I can even volunteer for an event of handing out free backpacks to refugee kids starting school in a new country. As I was pondering my action points, I scanned the room of attendees and my eyes fell on a beautiful young woman dressed in a bright pink sweater with a coordinated floral scarf covering her head. I was surprised to realize that I knew her, and not only that, but that I had been thinking about her. I knew her by name. I had given backpacks to her kids at a volunteer event in September.

Scooching Over, My Point of Decision

I greeted her with quiet kisses so not as to disrupt the program, and continued to listen to the needs amidst the crisis. The needs are dire. The search for hope is essential for new Americans coming into our country. The presenters’ words rang in my ears, of our own fears, and of the refugees’ need for friendship and connection with such limited resources… What was I going to do about it? But what about my crazy American schedule? Do I have room in my life for a needy new friend? Not really. There’s work, prior commitments, grad school, kids, family.

This is a crisis we are all facing. It doesn’t just belong to some people and not others.  We all need to scooch over and make room for one more in our lives.

But this is a crisis we are all facing. It doesn’t just belong to some people and not others. We all need to scoot in, scooch over, squeeze closer together, and make room for one more in our lives. My little bit of comfort in my “preferred aisle seat” isn’t a lot to give up, considering the woman I’m inviting to sit next to me really wants to settle her young family after fleeing devastation and living in temporary housing for over a year. She has her dignity. She doesn’t just want to be helped. She wants to go to school, get a job, help her kids learn English and assimilate into her new community. She’s ready to work hard; she just needs some help doing it. She’s one person, one name, one face. She is just one of the tired and the poor in the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. She’s one woman I could call a friend. Who knows, I might end up being the needy one in our relationship and discover that my scooting over to fit one more into my life was actually to my benefit. I’ve had that happen before.

Version 2

When I think about all the potential things we perceive a refugee to be: a foreigner among us, a neighbor, an enemy to fear, a widow or an orphan, or someone lost and needy…I can’t help but think of what Jesus the Messiah has to say about all of them. He says to love them. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy. Look after the widow, the orphan, the lost, the foreigner among you. Jesus the Messiah chose to love me without condition and with a love so compelling that I can’t help but be changed by it. Calling one young woman this week to make time to help her find a preschool for her son, sip some tea, and help her learn English is something I can do. I can be inconvenienced in that way. I can scoot over and make a little room in my world for one more.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.   St. James

Hijacking Radical

I appreciate the Muslims in my community who motivate me to be more courageous about my own expressions of faith through their everyday radical.  As we commemorate the horrendous 9-11 attacks, and as many contemplate Abraham’s tremendous trust in God’s perfect provision during the Eid of Sacrifice, I wonder, what would it look like if we were all a little more radicalized to show extreme love, drastic kindness, and fanatical forgiveness in a hurting world?  Thanks, everyone, for taking a moment out of your lives to consider my thoughts on radicalism.  (As published in the Yemeni American News, September, 2016).

Defining Radical Religious Practices

When I was in college my roommate and I had a hunger to learn more about our faith and live out what we believed, even when other people thought we were a little bit crazy. We wanted to be radical about what we believed. By radical I mean, we wanted to pray publically when others would have thought it awkward or inappropriate. We wanted to stand out in modesty and purity of heart when other girls we knew were choosing to wear smaller shorts and date lots of guys. We wanted to study our Holy Book, talk about what it says, and figure out how to live it out every day, even when others were more interested in talking about the latest drama on their favorite show. We didn’t want to judge others for their choices, we just wanted to stand out as committed, passionate, and sold out for what we believed in. That was my definition of radical. I wanted to study the teachings of Jesus the Messiah and then live them out as best I could in my context. He was radical in his day and I wanted to follow in his radical ways of kindness, love, peace, and purity in my day.

Today, if someone is radicalized, it means they have a religiously based motivation to terrorize others. The word radical has been hijacked! Why does being sold out for what one believes in have to involve hurting others? There are radicalized religious fanatics of every flavor—those who bomb abortion clinics, those who bomb twin towers, those who terrorize innocent village children… All those extreme beliefs are crimes against humanity, and they are so far from the loving heart of God.

Practicing Radical at the Gym
The other day I pushed myself to get to the gym rather than take a nap on the couch. I convinced myself that I would feel better after a good workout. It was hot and sticky and I grumbled in my T-shirt and capris as I anticipated getting even hotter running laps. When I walked into the rec center, I passed a modest Muslim woman working out hard in her hijab, covered from head to toe—and I thought I was hot! Motivated by her prayin gym framedcommitment to religious purity, even on a treadmill, I bounded with greater fervor up the stairs to the track. I was greeted by the sight of a man and his son pausing their workout to stop and pray eastward in the corner.  One of the things that I appreciate about living among Muslims in Dearborn, is that moments like these are “normal” occurrences at the gym.  They are also radical in my mind.  Radical by my first definition. Many devout Muslims in our community seek to live out their faith everyday, even when it seems uncomfortable, inconvenient, or just strange to those around them.

Inspired by these examples of radicalism to stand out at the gym, I decided, why not…I’m devoted to God, regardless of what others think… So, I waited my turn for the secluded prayer corner beside the track, and I knelt down and prayed. I wasn’t trying to show off or prove anything; I just wanted to take a moment out of my workout to connect to God in prayer. It was a demonstration of everyday radical. It was my small moment to take radical back from terrorism and reflect the heart of God.

Waging Peace
wage peace framedWhat would it look like if we were all a little more radicalized to show extreme love, drastic kindness, and fanatical forgiveness in a hurting and confused world?  What if we all paused to pray throughout our day more often?  One of my favorite bumper stickers challenges people to Wage Peace. What if we all practiced just a little of everyday radical by waging peace wherever we are?  Love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness…these are the fruit of the Spirit of God. These are fundamental virtues.  Maybe, then, we should all strive to be a bit more radical—and fundamentalists!

 

 

Where Is Safe?

(As published in the Yemeni American News, August, 2016)

YAN G Is it Safe

My husband Steve and I sat motionless on the floor of our empty upper flat and watched with racing hearts the commotion below. We had just arrived in Dearborn, on a hot, sticky August afternoon in 2001. Waiting for our belongings to be shipped, we camped out in our uncomfortably warm living room for the night. We had just finished assuring family and friends back west that we were safe and settled in our recently rented flat. That’s when we heard the rustling in the backyard, and saw the red and blue flashes of the police cars reflecting on our front window. The chase was on. Numerous police officers followed a perpetrator of a gas station robbery on foot through our yard with shouts and flashlights… Was it safe to live in Dearborn, MI?

 Just 2 years earlier, on April 20, 1999, I sat with a cake decorator in Littleton, Colorado and picked delicate toppings and flavors for my wedding dream cake when we were interrupted by the shocking news of the Columbine High School shooting. Picking frosting flowers no longer seemed so fun… Was it safe to live in Littleton, CO?

What is a Sense of Safety?

Shortly after our furniture had arrived in Dearborn and we had settled in to our flat, I signed up to teach ESL at a local center in town. I was already nervous to meet the 30 beginning-English students from a variety of Arab countries. It was a big class and I was used to teaching kids, not grown women! What would they think of my games and songs? As it turned out, my first day of teaching was September 12, 2001. I was greeted by the intensity that all of us had unglued from our TVs to come to English class. We waited and wondered with the rest of the world how the horrendous 9-11 attacks and rescues would play out. I quickly adapted my lessons to teach my students words to share in collective grief, fear, and loss. Lessons many of them were already familiar with in Arabic as they had fled their home countries to move to a safer land. Playing games and singing songs no longer seemed so relevant.

After 9-11 we got numerous calls from our family and friends still concerned for our safety. Now, every time there is Islamophobic backlash directed at Dearborn after some display of terror, we still get that concerned question…Is it safe?

I don’t fully know what is safe. I feel a little naïve on the topic. I have lived with the luxury of not worrying about my safety up until the gas station robber was apprehended in my backyard. And thanks to the rapid response of the Dearborn police, that ended pretty quickly. Wikipedia says safety has to do with being protected from harm or being able to control recognized hazards. Considering the chaos of our world right now, what is safe? Are we able to control recognized hazards? As a mom, how do I keep my kids safe and control the recognized hazards in their little lives? Unlike some of my ESL students, I have never worried that my kids would hop, skip or jump over a land mine, or that loud thundering sounds after dark were anything more than a bad rainstorm. Is safety a right we have? A luxury? A privilege for some and not others?

Flags at Half-Staff

Haff StaffLast month, as my husband and I and our three children drove homeward after an epic road-trip across miles and miles of United States, we started to notice a pattern. Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois… My kids wanted to know what was wrong with all the American flags. I explained to them the phenomenon of “half-staff”. When something really bad happens in our country, people hang the flags at half-staff on purpose as a way to show their grief and support. My son asked, “Did something bad happen in each of these places?” I assured him that it was to show support, not because every city we passed had something horrendous happen in it. But deep inside, I shuddered at that fearful possibility.

Safety and Fear

If we don’t feel safe, our natural human reaction is fear. Saint John, disciple of Jesus the Messiah, said, Perfect love drives out fear. Fear will always creep in, but love is the best way to combat the fears we face. Carl Medearis, author and specialist in Muslim-Christian relations, poses a relevant and insightful question based on St. John’s quote: “If perfect love drives out fear, is it possible that perfect fear can also drive out love? Fear is the devil’s workshop. Perfect fear drives out love…Only one remains. Fear or love.”

If my safety is compromised, my natural reaction is fear. But fear and love are at odds in my soul. Fear leads to anger and hate. Love leads to freedom, joy and peace. Even though love is risky and sometimes dangerous, I choose that. As far as I am able, I want to combat the tempting momentum of fear by sharing stories of love and peace with the concerned callers checking in on my safety. I choose to teach love to my children. I choose to receive love from those around me…my students, my neighbors, my coworkers. I choose to extend love to someone living in fear. I don’t know if it’s safe to live here or there in our turbulent world, but I do know where I DON’T want to live, and that is in fear.