Defining “Neighbor”

I first met Maude* when my toddlers began to waddle northward towards her house.  She was tall and gaunt with a sensible silvery bowl cut.  Even when she was being friendly, she had a naturally sharp tone behind most of her curt comments.

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We intentionally moved into the neighborhood for the richness of its cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity.  We wanted to take to heart the command of Jesus the Messiah—to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When a wealthy young man challenged Jesus to define neighbor, he responded with a beautiful story of a compassionate Samaritan man who met a Jewish man along his path in a moment of desperate need.  The Samaritan had to cross cultural and religious boundaries, and face the prejudices of the day to help.  It also cost him time, effort, and money to bring comfort, healing and blessing to the wounded man.

Our family has a lot to learn from Jesus’ story and expectation of loving our neighbors.  We have been challenged to cross over boundaries and enjoy the adventure of diverse neighborly relationships.  The challenge and the joy are mutual.  Our kids have grown up alongside our Arab Muslim neighbors and we have shared life together—the ice cream truck, henna, pass-the-plate wars, front yard games, and even the great flood of 2014.

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#lovingmyneighbors

Arab hospitality is a thing.  Kindness expressed through great food is a debt we can never repay.  On our south side there is the Lebanese widow of four grown children.  She makes great hummus and has a very cute puppy.  Next to her is a young Yemeni family, a sweet elderly retired Iraqi educator, and a Palestinian family.

IMG_5346To our north are a few more Yemeni families who throw great girl parties and provide my kids with an endless supply of sweet treats, especially during Ramadan. Next to them is Hussein, the paper airplane guy, and his sister Latifeh, working professionals who live with their elderly parents.

And Maude.

Our kids knew Maude as the one who lived next to paper airplane guy, since he revolutionized our world with his simple craftsmanship of paper pleasure.  They clearly knew to avoid Maude’s house.  She didn’t have patience for noisy flocks of neighborhood kids. Through our outdoor springtime encounters I learned that Maude had a lot of brokenness and sorrow in her life. She had a soft heart protected by a tough exterior.  I tried to listen compassionately while always keeping one eye on the kids, the street, the ball, and the cars going by.

But what came next caught me off guard.

In her quiet quick undertone, she expressed how glad she was, that even though we had noisy toddlers, at least weren’t ARABS.

What??!!!

It slipped out so fast that I did what I tend to do in awkward conversations—I second-guessed what I really heard. It was often in that mommy-distracted place that Maude slipped in a few more of her opinions about our Middle Eastern neighbors.

Always one-liners.

Me always wishing I had a great comeback.

Years passed.  Kids grew. Maude got older and frailer.  I noticed Maude walking alone, a lot.  As a fellow walker, sometimes I joined her. She would uncharacteristically slip her arm into mine and ramble on and on.  She would oscillate from sweet melodic chitchat to swearing up and down. One morning I saw Maude wearing two different shoes.  Another time she had wandered down a street far from her normal route.  She looked lost.

Hussein happened to be home when I dropped Maude off at her house. Her dementia was getting worse.  Hussein, his sister Latifeh, and their parents took it upon themselves to keep a close eye on their aging and lonely next-door neighbor.

It was Hussein that would walk with her in the evenings up and down the block—matching her frail snail’s pace.

It was his parents who would have breakfast with her every morning.  They were the ones who found her after she had fallen, at the bottom of her staircase.

It was Latifeh who left work upon the emergency call from her parents describing Maude’s injuries.

Maude passed away shortly after that accident.

I had moved into the neighborhood to live out what Jesus taught. I thought I understood.  I thought I could be an example of a good neighbor. And we have been richly blessed by generous neighborly relationships.  But we have so much more to learn.

Hussein and his family exemplified day-to-day intentional care for Maude. Being inconvenienced for the welfare of another.  Advocating for the vulnerable.  Even loving someone with a blatant prejudice against “those people.”  Maude wasn’t the easiest person to love.  But Hussein, Latifeh, and their parents took the time to truly care for the needy, the lonely, and the lost along their path of life.

 Maude’s words still trouble me. 

What troubles me is that she is not alone in her racial one-liners.  There will always be more.  They will always feel like unexpected sucker punches.  Now is the time to devise my crafty, yet compassionate, comebacks.  To be ready to give an answer and to stand up for what is good and right and true.  How would Jesus do it?

I am open to suggestions.

And in the meantime, my neighbors have given me a lot to think about as I seek to understand the true definition of neighbor, the way Jesus the Messiah meant it.

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*Maude is a pseudonym.  Latifeh and Hussein are the real names of my neighbors who collaborated with me on this article. Thank you, habibti, for your beautiful stories.

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IMPACT

I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in the mind of a mass shooter. The news is wrought with trying to figure out why the gunman did it. What was in his head? What were his motives?

But today, as I was watching one such report, I began to take notice of impact.

What impact did this one man have?

I don’t know why he chose to make such a horrendous impact, but here are some things I observed:

  • He had a purpose bigger than himself
  • He had a plan
  • He took dangerous risks
  • He invested to succeed
  • He powerfully changed the lives of those around him
  • He was willing to die

I HATE that he had such an impact. I HATE that he was successful.

In times like these, I try to focus on what I know to be true.

Jesus the Messiah gives us insight into the motives of a thief.

A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy.

The impact of this one man was killing, stealing, and destroying life. But we were not designed for such destruction.

We are created for life—to choose life, to be life-giving.

Jesus the Messiah also reminds us of what life is intended to be.

I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

So what will our impact be?

  • We are designed to live out a purpose bigger than ourselves.
  • It is good to create a plan and plot out success.
  • Being an agent of change in the world requires taking risk, prioritizing and investing to succeed, and being willing to lay down our lives for something greater than us.

The difference is hope.

We all face in some way the dullness and pains of life that have us wondering why we get up each morning. But there is hope. There is purpose.

We were designed for impact. Our souls long for immortality, somehow, in this fleeting, broken, hurting world.

Hope anchors our souls and keeps us getting up to try to live each day to the fullest.

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 While one man caused death, many made music.

In the news interview I watched earlier, musicians Big and Rich, who opened the Route 91 Harvest festival in Vegas performing on October 1, 2017, recounted the beauty of song. The music festival opened that evening with a powerful sing-along of God bless America.

Making music is the whole reason people gathered that night in Vegas. Music draws us and compels something inside us. Different kinds of music draw different people. But, music brings us together; it makes our bodies move.

And when we grieve and mourn our losses, there is music for that, too.

Maren Morris released this song to honor the victims of the Vegas shooting. She addresses HATE directly in a letter:

Dear Hate,

You were there in the garden, like a snake in the grass, I see you in the morning staring through the looking glass. You whisper down through history and echo through these halls. 

But I hate to tell you, love’s gonna conquer all

While hate has always been around, love conquers all.

We hold on to that hope because we were designed for impact. That desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves screams of our eternal capacity, our longing to touch immortality and make history. Something inside us dies if we don’t perceive our purpose—and dream, plan, design, and carry out our impact on the world.

Heroes laid down their lives.

I so appreciate the news stories that give voice to the heroes and the rescued amidst the tragedy—those who risked their lives for great impact and greater good.

What I’ve learned from observing a shooter is that it’s not just about making an impact.

What I’ve learned from observing the impact of heroes is that it’s about choosing life.

Heroes sought life-giving opportunities. Being heralds of hope in a despairing world. Taking radical risks of rescue. Laying down their lives to save another. If life can grow out of the death of one little seed, there is value, meaning and purpose in that death.

Choose life.

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(Published in the Yemeni American News, November, 2017)

Fasting and Feasting: Looking in on Ramadan

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (From the Tawrah)

Last month, my husband and I joined our good friends at a beautiful Islamic wedding reception. He went with the men, and I with the women. It was an incredible celebration of dancing, drums, exquisite dresses, and incredible cuisine. It was a time to usher in something new and something beautiful—the union of a husband and wife in their new life together. I admired the abundant display of fruit platters and little cakes and cannolis that donned the back table. They were a vision of sweet, delicious things to IMG_1711come. And though I didn’t understand much of the Arabic conversations going on amongst the ladies at my table, I understood the topic of Ramadan on the lips of many. It seemed as though everyone was anticipating this month of fasting and all that it entails.

Growing up in a Greek Orthodox Christian home, my family practiced 40 days of Lent—a vegan diet, abstaining from meat, dairy and other animal products, in anticipation for the celebration of Easter. Easter is the focal point of the Christian calendar. It is a time to celebrate new life, new hope, redemption, and forgiveness as we 2010 04 04 Easter – Version 2reflect on the path of suffering and victory of Jesus the Messiah. The joy of Easter is intertwined with the fasting that comes before it. As a child, my favorite Easter treats were little chocolate eggs in a colored
candy shell. I remember trying to sneak around the kitchen to curb my chocolate craving during Lent, leading up to a grand resurrection celebration. Then, on the Saturday evening before Easter, we would dress in our best celebratory garb and attend worship services long past midnight. All I could think about was arriving home to feast on all the delicacies and choice foods we had abstained from for forty days. How sweet those treats tasted after waiting so long to eat them!

The guests abstained from celebrating until the bride and groom showed up.

When I lived on my own, away from the community aspect of this Greek Orthodox Lenten practice, I realized quickly that the little chocolate eggs didn’t taste as delectable as they did when I had abstained from them and anticipated them for 40 days. There is a time for fasting and a time for celebrating. Both are important. Jesus the Messiah used the example of a wedding feast when he described fasting to his followers. He explained that when the bridegroom enters the wedding, this is a time for celebrating. How true it was at the wedding we attended last month. We eagerly anticipated the arrival of the bride and groom. We all abstained from celebrating until they showed up.

Fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.  S. Sohaib

Sometimes I fast privately, abstaining from all food and drink, day and night, for a specified amount of time, in order to focus on prayer and listening to God. The growls in my stomach are a reminder to pray. Fasting forces me to depend on God, even before food. After all, Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Fasting teaches me to listen more carefully to the words of God. Fasting is both a spiritual discipline and a physical detox. It is a time to rid our bodies of unhealthy toxins and also expose the dark places in our spirits. According to Qur’an scholar Sohaib Saeed of the Bayyinah Institute, “fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.” This is so true. When we are weak, our true nature comes out.

Version 2I have studied other languages prior to Arabic, and it never occurred to me before to learn the vocabulary to talk about fasting. But in Arabic, and among my Muslim neighbors, fasting is an important topic of conversation. Living in a primarily Muslim community for the last 15 years, I have learned other valuable lessons on fasting. I appreciate the power and joy of fasting in community and breaking fast in community. My family anticipates the month of Ramadan, and not just because we are on the receiving end of the mandate to generously share with one’s neighbors. We, as part of a Muslim community, are impacted greatly by the month of fasting at our kids’ school, at the local places of business, and among friends. During this month, I am grateful to live in a community that pushes me to teach my children about this spiritual discipline at an early age. I love that kids have discussions about fasting on the playground!

Set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate the sweet celebrating that follows.

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Whether fasting is for 30 days, breaking fast each evening, or whether it is for three days and nights straight, or a restricted diet for 40 days, what matters is the spiritual lessons that come from it: to set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate our breaking of fast, and the sweet celebrating that follows—like when the bride and groom show up to the wedding feast!

Published in the Yemeni American News, June 2017

 

An Unintended “We”

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… 

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

I can usually spot negative and hate speech coming from one group against another by the signature word they. “They don’t belong here.” “They do things differently.” “Why do they ________ like that?”

For Spring Break my Greek Immigrant parents came from sunny Colorado to visit my home in soggy Michigan. They did all the fun spoiling that any Yiayia and Papou would do with their grandkids. Amidst all the excitement, I invited my parents to come with me to spend some time with Zuzu, my Kurdish-Syrian New American friend. I had met her last October, at a free community event sponsored by Sabeel Media at the local library, discussing the responsibility of the media to share the experiences and needs of refugees. That event inspired me to scooch over, and make a little room in my life for the refugee crisis that faces us all as human beings.  I am regularly challenged by the command of Jesus the Messiah to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love my neighbors as myself. I have been visiting with Zuzu weekly for the last six months and she has taught me so much about friendship and hardship and Arabic and Kurdish. In turn, I have taught her about American systems, and phone systems, and English words. She calls me her teacher, but I call her my friend. Through it all we have become tied to each other.

There is so much political rhetoric for and against the topic of refugees, but to actually sit and sip tea with a neighbor who happens to be one seemed like a novel idea.

My parents were eager to meet Zuzu and her family. There is so much political rhetoric for and against the topic of refugees, but to actually sit and sip tea with a neighbor who happens to fit that category seemed like an interesting and novel idea. Before our visit, I prepped my parents on who to shake hands with or not shake hands with, where to put shoes, and how to sit on low couches—even with my dad’s recently replaced knees.fullsizeoutput_cc5

Zuzu warmly opened her modest upper flat to my parents and my three kids on a rainy March afternoon. We sipped little cups of rich black tea with as much sugar as my kids wanted. We touched on topics of politics, dictators, and dialects as we observed Kurdish television rattling on in the background. We shared a lot in common. Our little visit brought back some nostalgic memories for my mom, of the way visits used to be for her as a child growing up in a Greek immigrant community, where people shared simple but special moments together in each other’s homes. And the TV rattling in the background was normal for my dad—only his gets all the best Greek news stations.

Version 3There was a pause in our conversation, which gave Zuzu a moment to form a question in English. She asked my father if he left Greece because he was a refugee. He shook his head “No,” but then proceeded to explain in short sentences that his Greek village was ravaged in World War II, and that his parents were killed. Years later, he immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. The look on Zuzu’s face was full of compassion and understanding as she responded to the look of great loss on my dad’s face. Different generations. Different countries. Different wars. Different dictators. But for a moment, Zuzu and my dad were ushered into the same horrible club of loss, tragedy and destruction by war. It’s a large club that no one wants to join, but many are forced into its membership. As I sat and observed this unintended “we” moment between my father and Zuzu, I said a silent prayer for her young children. I am a product of my dad’s hope for a better life in a new land. Maybe our family gives Zuzu perspective on what things might look like for her young children as they grow up to call this new land their home. At least for now. I know deep down, Zuzu really hopes to take her children back to her home country of Syria in better times, Inshallah, God-willing.

As we said our good-byes, I thanked God for this incredible moment to share with my family and my friend. We were blessed. We enjoyed each other’s company. Our human hearts beat the same, and by unintended circumstances, we had more in common than we imagined. We, the people, who long for justice and tranquility in a more perfect Union.

We had more in common than we imagined. We, the people, who long for justice and tranquility in a more perfect Union.

Published in the Yemeni American News, May, 2017

What are You Afraid Of?

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” Eleanor Roosevelt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe best part about cold winter months in Michigan is snuggling under warm blankets, reading and telling stories with my kids. In these moments I often pause just to take it all in, and then thank God for the beauty of such simple yet priceless memories.   Children truly are a treasure and a gift in this life. Recently, I took part in a short, two-question survey on FEAR. The first question was: What is something you are afraid of? A lot of things came to mind…debt, disease, destruction…but if I had to pick just one to write down, I would say that what I fear most regularly is something horrible happening to my children. As a mom, I do all I can to protect my children from harm. I teach them how to be safe, I stay near them in uncertain circumstances, and I try to keep them healthy.

These things were going through my mind as we read the historical account of the birth of Jesus the Messiah together. We got to the dark part of the story where a corrupt leader, King Herod, was feeling threatened by the news of a young Messiah being born. Out of fear, King Herod terrorized the Palestinian town and region he governed, and ordered the mass slaughter of all baby boys under two years old. As we read through the account, my eight-year-old son quickly named our young friend that fit that description. We all agreed that it was horrible to imagine our friends losing their 1½-year-old son to the terror of a corrupt leader.

For days I was troubled by this disturbing account of male infanticide that went on as a result of the Messiah’s birth. The families of those baby boys weren’t celebrating the birth of a promised and foretold anointed one sent from God. Instead, they grieved deep loss around the event that led to mass extermination of baby boys in and around Bethlehem. The story recounts that King Herod was “terrified” at the news of a prophetic Messiah-King entering the world and being revered by foreign Wise Men from the East. He saw this child as a threat to his powerful position of leadership. But the birth of Jesus also stirred a new hope far and wide. The coming of a promised Messiah reminded the world that God Most High is near to His people.

I tried to imagine myself living in a time and place of such need for hope—a world of terror and destruction enacted by powerful people. It didn’t take me long to realize that that is our world. Those are the bleak circumstances facing so many in war-torn Yemen today. According to a recent interview that the Yemeni American News had with the President of the National Association of Yemeni Americans (NAYA), AbdulHakem a. Alsadah, the United Nations estimate 3 million “displaced” Yemeni people.   “There is no international awareness about this crisis,” Alsadah stated. Tears stream down my face when I see pictures of Yemeni children who are near death due to acute malnutrition. My heart breaks as I read stories about Yemeni parents who are forced to make hard decisions about losing their children, either to disease, destruction or starvation. According to a December 2016 article in www.theGuardian.com, one man tells of how he and his other children don’t eat so they can pay for his young daughter’s cancer medication. How does any parent face that kind of fearful reality and not lose hope?

The second question in my survey was:

What do you do when you are afraid?

Fear makes me want to hold my children tighter and never let them out of my sight. It makes me want to turn off the news because I can’t possibly process all the destruction going on in the world—in Yemen, in Syria… But what can I do about it? Fear and ignorance are the easy ways out, at least initially. If I raise my kids in fear, they are set up to react in fear. There’s a reason why the angels who came to announce the birth of the Messiah always started by saying, “Fear Not.” It’s because we do fear. Nevertheless, God Most High sends His chosen ones to a messy world because we need to hear from Him.

“Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” H. Lindsey

It is good to be near God.  His presence brings hope, and hope keeps us alive.  Author Hal Lindsey said that, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.”  In the worst of our despair, hope anchors our souls. It has to. Otherwise we wouldn’t survive the fear, terror and destruction that surrounds us. Education, compassion, prayer, hope. These are the things we must hold on to when we are afraid.

What is something you’re afraid of? What do you do when you are afraid?

 So, as we really stop to look fear in the face, join me in trying a few of these things:

  • Give thanks for the good things God has done.

  • Tell a story to raise awareness of the crisis going on in Yemen.

  • Hug your children a little tighter.

  • Pray for those who suffer.

  • Give of your resources (time, money, or talents) to help another struggling human being.

  • Educate children about how to process fear.

  • Take a moment to grieve sad and disturbing news when you see it or hear it.

  • Love your neighbor.

  • Look for ways to spread love and kindness, especially when it is easier to spread fear or hate.

  • Hold on to hope as an anchor for your soul.

(Published in the Yemeni American News, February, 2017)

A Thrill of Hope: Adventures in Scooching Over

(Adapted from the Yemeni American News, December, 2016 publication)

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people…” ~Angel of God~

When the world around me seemingly swirls with hatred, anger and fear, and my heart is heavy for the hurting, my coping mechanism is to reminisce on stories of hope. In my profession of language teaching, motivation is a key element for success. Motivation in life, as in language learning, contains two essential ingredients: 1. You have to think you can do something: hope 2. You have to think that it matters: need. In November I was reticent to click send on my article, Scooching Over, because I knew that if I made my thoughts public, my own words would move me to action, and I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to scooch over for a new friend in my daily life. The last thing I want to do in this refugee crisis is talk about doing something and then do nothing. The need was clear: I believed wholeheartedly that my small action to make a difference in one refugee’s life mattered; but I wasn’t sure I could actually do something about it on my own. That’s where hope is bigger than me. It requires me to believe that I can be involved in great and impossible things.

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After taking a moment in my hectic day to pause and pray, I called my New American friend that I have endearingly nicknamed Zuzu. Zuzu and I had connected at the Sabeel Media Event in October, where she had expressed that she needed help finding a preschool for her son. I had already called at least eight preschool locations in her zip code before I got on the phone with Zuzu. I offered to come over the next day, take her to visit a preschool, and teach her some English. To my surprise, she told me NOT to come. She said that she had already found a preschool, that her family was moving to a better location, and that she was currently too busy for me to come visit her. As it turned out, there was no room in her week for me.   She didn’t need my charity to survive, which made me even more determined to get to know this highly motivated woman.

When things settled for Zuzu, I came by to see her new place. In her intermediate English she reported that she had signed up for English classes at the local college, she was studying for her driver’s permit, and she was in walking distance from most of the places she needed to get to each week. She has been in the U.S. since April and is determined to settle her family here. Zuzu’s vision is bigger than she is. Her hope is deep. Her potential is great. Her work is humble. She walks her in-laws to the doctor and her son to preschool; she cooks and cleans for her household of six. At night when everything is quiet, she studies English and listens to audio messages I leave for her to practice each week. Zuzu doesn’t want to live indefinitely off of the kindness of others. On the contrary, she wants to be an agent of care and change and assistance to others. She also would like to go home if she could. But she can’t. So her plan is to bloom where she has currently been transplanted—right here in they Detroit Metro Area, MI, USA.

|Her plan is to bloom where she has currently been transplanted|

 From our visits together I have learned that Zuzu is Syrian Kurdish. Her hope is seen in the languages she wants her kids to know: English of course, so they can thrive in their new community. Kurdish of course, because that is the language of heart and home. Arabic of course, because you can’t live in Syria and not know Arabic. She is preparing her son and daughter to function in this new world, but also to be ready to return to her beloved home country…someday, Inshallah, God-willing.

Sitting on the floor of her upper flat on soft blankets against big couch pillows, sipping warm, sweet instant coffee with milk, my first step in our mini English lessons, was to identify her goals for learning English: 1. Help her mother and father-in-law with their medical prescriptions and paperwork 2. Help her kids learn English. 3. Go to college 4. Talk about travel and places to visit 5. Tell her personal history. Zuzu believes that learning English matters. She also clearly believes she can do it. Unless you’ve ever worked with someone that motivated to learn something, it’s difficult to describe how exhilarating it is. Her need is clear. Her desire is clear. She has hope for her future that is bigger than she is. And I have the privilege of joining her venture.

|Together our hearts break for the displaced people of her country.|

 As a writer, I want to carefully handle the stories entrusted to me. This past week, sipping our coffee, I pulled out the Yemeni American Newspaper and explained to Zuzu that she fullsizeoutput_9e0
had inspired the article I wrote last month. I told her that I follow the teachings of Jesus the Messiah who says we are to love one another. His heart is for the orphans, the widows, and all those in need. As His follower, I offer what little I have with big hope. After all, the good news of great joy this Christmas season is for all people.

Zuzu shared with me another goal statement she had crafted late one night: I want to help refugees and orphans. I hope to be one assistant for all.  And be successful in my life and my children the best education. That my goals. Clearly, Zuzu and I share a vision of helping those in need. Together our hearts break for the displaced people of her country. I asked Zuzu if I could publically share her beautifully articulated goals because they inspired me, and I think they would inspire others. She agreed.

As Zuzu and I both scooch over each week to make room for each other, we hold on to the thrill of hope. My prayer is that all of us would experience a little of the impossible in our daily lives; that we would together find a hope that is bigger than the determination of any one human being—a collective and contagious courage. My prayer is for many more to get out of harm’s way and be welcomed into a safer place where hope can be nurtured, and that they can experience the good news of great joy that is for all people.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 

Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.

The thrill of hope, The weary world rejoices…

~O Holy Night~

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.

Generous Neighbors

I have had the joy of living in a predominantly Arab Muslim neighborhood for 15 years.  Here is an article I wrote that was published in the Yemeni American News–it is a reflection of the virtue of Generosity I have learned from my Middle Eastern neighbors, especially during the month of Ramadan.  My Arab neighbors make me a better Greek!

I opened the screen door and gave a hearty shout for my kids to come in for the night and get ready for bed. I love the ebb and flow of our neighborhood in east Dearborn that we have called home for the past 15 years. In the winter all the kids stay indoors and just grow inches taller, and then each spring there is a grand neighborhood reunion where kids pop out of houses like flowers popping out on the little Magnolia tree in our front yard.

And then there’s Ramadan

As is customary in our neighborhood during Ramadan, the time just before sunset gets eerily quiet and we can smell the savory treats being prepared in the houses around us. At dark, my kids come in to get ready for bed and that is just about the same time when we hear a faint knock on the door. This time it was the youngest daughter of one of our Yemeni neighbors with a plate full of piping hot meat and potato sambusas—YUM!

Suddenly my three kids start remembering what they love about Ramadan, being raised to follow Jesus the Messiah in a predominantly Muslim community. It’s not just the warm sambusas, syrupy yellow cake, Lebanese knafeh, or our all-time family favorite—layered, buttery sabayah sprinkled with black sesame seeds. It’s about the blessing of generosity, Ramadan Kareem. The Messiah Jesus teaches us to value generosity and hospitality. Our Muslim neighbors regularly model what that looks like in our community.

To my kids, Ramadan is a time of sharing and abundance. The first Eid al-Fitr etched in their memories is marked with girls in fancy dresses and boys donning daunting swords on their belts. Then there’s the candy, the henna, and even gifts of cash! Being handed dollar bills from neighborhood dads was mind-blowing for my little ones. Our neighbors set the standard high for generosity.

The Plate War continues

Being from a Greek immigrant home, I know how to battle in a plate war. When a dish comes to you full of flavorful favorites, you prepare to give it back fully loaded with more mouth-watering goodness. Bottom line: The plate never gets passed anywhere empty. Last summer during the Islamic month of fasting we got caught in a furious neighborhood plate war. We were preparing to leave on an epic summer road trip to visit family in my home state of Colorado. I was not on top of my game. I got swept under by the generosity of Ramadan. A plate came in from neighbors to the north of us and a second plate got handed to my kids from neighbors to the south. Then, foil-wrapped sabayah came from across the street! My kids and I scrambled to bake our favorite poppy-seed muffins and banana breads to return the plates amidst packing for our trip.   When it was all said and done, we still had one leftover blue floral-trimmed plate. Since then, we have spent the past year passing this plate to various neighbors on all sides, thinking we were returning it. Everyone keeps filling it and passing it back. We finally concluded that we don’t actually know who the mysterious plate belongs to. It is still our goal to return this plate—full, of course—to someone. We have yet to win that battle!

I know that Ramadan isn’t just about late-night feasting. It’s about cultivating both the personal and collective spiritual discipline of fasting in submission to God’s will. Though our own faith calls us to this discipline as well, I must say, that I appreciate a neighborhood where fasting is a topic of conversation among ten-year-olds, and breaking fast is something to share with loved ones and neighbors.DSC_0242

So to all my Muslim friends and neighbors, thank you, for your generosity. Thank you for showing us, plate by plate, the essence of kareem. And if anyone happens to recognize this plate, let me know and I can fill it full of warm, homemade banana bread or Greek-style spinach pie.

Ramadan Kareem!