Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vive la Difference! Reflections on Ramadan

This is my twelfth year observing the fast during Ramadan. I began after September 11th, 2001, because I wanted to reach out to my Muslim neighbors and because fasting seemed like a valuable spiritual practice—one that would help me deepen my connection with God. It isn't easy to refrain from food and water during day light for a month each year—in fact, it gets harder each year because Muslims use a lunar calendar and Ramadan begins ten days earlier each year, and as a result, the days become longer—yet despite or perhaps because of the se challenges, I have had many signs that this fast is exactly what God wants me to do.

One of the biggest challenges of the Ramadan fast is integrating it into my life as a Quaker and Christian, and as a newly married man. Muslims give each other lots of mutual support during the fast by having special family meals and going to iftars at mosques. It is a bit harder for a non-Muslim. But Jill and I are making it work. Even though this practice seems a bit strange to her as a Evangelical Christian, she understands that my reason for doing this springs from my deep commitment to fulfill Jesus’ injunction to “love one’s enemies” (Matt 5:44). I personally don’t regard Muslims, or anyone else, as an enemy, but many misinformed people do and I therefore feel called to do whatever I can to show love and respect for my Muslim neighbors.

Rick Warren set a powerful example for Evangelical Christians when he came to the annual gathering of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Long Beach in December, 2008, just after the election of President Obama. A leader in the Evangelical community, Rick Warren had the courage to walk past self-styled Christians holding hateful signs that read: “Islam is of the devil” and “Muslims are going to hell.” Warren began his keynote speech with heart-felt words I will never forget:

“I love Muslims, and I love Jews,” he said, his voice ringing out over the auditorium crowded with nearly 2,000 Muslims and their friends. “I love gays, and I love straights. I love Democrats, and I love Republicans.” He paused dramatically. “I love because Jesus Christ commanded me to love.”

Wow! Warren has it exactly right. Jesus not only commanded us to love (John 13:34), God also created us to love since God is love (1 John 4:8) and we are made in God's image (Genesis 1:17). The 17th century Quaker anti-slavery activist John Woolman often used the phrase “ Love is the first motion” to describe the inward impulses that led him to undertake his various ministries, such as visiting Indians (to share his faith, and to experience theirs) or “laboring with” slaveholders (to persuade them to free their slaves). Like Woolman, I feel that love is the inspiration for my peacemaking work, including my fast during Ramadan.

One of the ways to express love is to dispel hateful stereotypes that dehumanize others who, like us, are made in God's image. During the first night of Ramadan, my wife and I invited friends to our home for a fast-breaking meal and a screening of “Valentino’s Ghost,” Michael Singh's brilliant documentary about the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs by Hollywood and the media. Two of those who came to the screening were Muslim friends who very much appreciated what we were trying to do. As the documentary revealed various ways that Hollywood and the media have distorted Arabs and Muslims, and explained why, we came to appreciate more keenly how important it is to know Muslims, not as the media depicts them—often as religious fanatics and terrorists--but as people just like ourselves, with hopes and fears, and dreams for a better world.

I’d like t share one of the highlights of an iftar I attended at the International Institute of Tolerance in Torrance (, started by Imam Ashraf Carim and his wife Athia, who are friends of mine I came to know through the South Coast Interfaith Council. The Carims came to the United States from Australia after 9/11 to serve a mosque that needed an imam. They are highly educated, articulate and thoughtful people, and soon became deeply involved in interfaith work and valued members of SCIC. It came as a shock when the INS decided to deport them for a minor technical violation of their Green Card status. The SCIC rallied round them, assuring the INS that the Carims were assets to the community and should not be deported. To no avail. The INS was obstinate, I am tempted to say, pig-headed; the Carims were deported, and we grieved over their loss.

Happily, they returned a couple of years later and now run this Institute that serves the community in countless ways: feeding the homeless, partnering with Children and Family Services, raising money for mission projects (like helping flood victims in Pakistan) and organizing interfaith events like the one I attended. Local politicians as well as civic and religious leaders attended this iftar and gave short speeches. One of them, a black pastor, spoke of his fasting experiences. A Muslim woman spoke of her work to end human trafficking. I was grateful to God that the Carims did not let the stupidity of the INS keep them away from the United States: they are clearly doing God's work and benefitting the community.

The Carims are amazing people, but they are not unique. Muslims are involved in humanitarian work like this all over the country, but this is ignored by the media, which tends to focus on wars and other acts of terrorism.

When I think of the Carims, I think of what Jesus said in Matthew 25, that God will divide the nations into the sheep and the goats based on how they treat the poor, the sick, the incarcerated. “As you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matt 25:40). Based on these criteria, the Carims are practicing a way of life consistent with what Jesus taught..

The Best Believer is the One Who is Kindest to His Wife....

When I began my fast three weeks ago, I told Jill that my intention during this fast was to grow closer to her as well as to God. I quoted the words of the Prophet Mohammad, which I have heard Muslim husbands quote: “The best believer is the one who is kindest to his wife.”

Last year my fast during Ramadan was difficult for Jill, and understandably so. We had just met and hardly knew each other, even though we were engaged. As an Evangelical Christian, she found this practice challenging. She had trouble relating to me when I became tired or distant because of lack of food and water.

This year I was determined to be especially loving and to consider her needs during this time of fasting Jill values fasting as a spiritual practice consistent with biblical teachings—Jesus, after all, fasted for forty days in the desert. She sees that my fast is an expression of my love for God and for my neighbors, particularly my Muslim neighbors. But fasting is nonetheless difficult. It totally disrupts the rhythm of our life as a couple. I have to get up before dawn for prayers and breakfast, and that means we no longer have shared meals during breakfast and lunch. Dinner has to be postponed till 8 PM, and it becomes harder to schedule lunches with friends and family since it can be awkward when I am abstaining from food. Finally, I need to go to bed an hour or so earlier so that I can get up at 4:30 am for prayers and breakfast. All of this requires big emotional adjustment for Jill (as well as for me).

Realizing how much Jill and I enjoy socializing, we decided to enjoy this Ramadan as an opportunity for special social occasions at our home and elsewhere.. As mentioned above, on the first night of Ramadan, we scheduled a film party for several friends.. We also had a delightful party for when Jill's mom visited us. Additionally, last week we invited some of Jill's pastor friends and neighbors to watch Robert Greenwold's scathing inditement of Walmart called “The High Cost of Low Prices” (since Jill and I have been active in the anti-Walmart campaign in nearby Altadena). These social occasions have helped bring us closer to each other and to our friends and family.

A highpoint of our social life during Ramadan was meeting Jamila Ezzani, a young progressive Muslim woman, and going to a fundraising iftar at the home of my friend Ani Zonneveld, co-founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). Ani is a Malaysian-American singer, songwriter, activist based in LA. She has released albums of her own, including "Ummah Wake-Up," and participated in the writing of Grammy winning songs. Ani is also the editor, along with Vanessa Karam and Olivia Samad, of "Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada," a 2011 anthology that features a diverse groups of Progressive Muslims, which had a foreword by Aasif Mandvi. (I am grateful to Wiki for these details of Ani's remarkable life.)

I came to know Ani through the South Coast Interfaith Council, where she took part in some of our events. I love her music and her courageous spirit. Her organization welcomes every Muslim, regardless of sexual orientation, and holds worship services in which men and women participate as equals. Women even lead the prayers, which she believes is consistent with the teachings of the Quran but has caused consternation among some moderate (not to mention conservative) Muslims. Despite criticism, Ani is unswerving in her commitment to what she regards as the core teaching of Islam: egalitarianism.

We went to this iftar at Ani's home because it was a fund-raiser for Family Promise, an interfaith organization that helps homeless families move out of homelessness. Family Promise has been an important part of Jill's recent ministry. She has been recruiting churches to host homeless familes, which is the core of the Family Promise model...

It's a joy to watch how God works when we set our intention and it becomes in harmony with Divine Will. I had set my intention to grow closer to Jill during Ramadan, and this intention was fulfilled in part because of a Muslim angel named Jamila, mentioned above.

I met Jamila through a young Quaker named Cody who had been active with a Quaker youth group I led fifteen years ago. Cody invited me to a work party to create an organic garden owned by Muslim woman. It was there that I met Jamila as we gathered under a grape arbor to talk and sing peace songs. Sensing a kindred spirit, I told her of my dream to organize an Interfaith Cafe in Pasadena. When Jamila heard about this, she became very enthusiastic and offered to help. Cody, Jamila and I formed a team to plan this cafe under the co-sponsorship of MPV and the local chapter of the Parliament of the World's Religions (SCCPWR).

Meanwhile, I learned that Jill had already knew Jamila due to her prior interest in Family Promise. (Coincidences such as these happen so often in our lives I can't help seeing God's hand at work.) As a result of my meeting Jamila, her interest in Family Promise was rekindled and she suggested organzing the fundraiser iftar for which was hosted at Ani’s lovely home in Hollywood.

So it came to pass (I think the biblical language is appropriate) that Jamila worked with Jill on the Family Promise fundraiser while she worked with me on an Interfaith Cafe. It was like two golden threads interweaving to create a more durable bond, a joint ministry bringing us all closer to each other and to God.

The fund-raiser was a success, attended by key people from Family Promise, . An extra bonus: Jill got to know Ani, and appreciates her courage and faith, and also her music. When Jill and I arrived home that evening, we put on Ani’s “Ummah, Wake Up”! and shared a special moment of our own version of middle easten dance moves.

The following day, the Interfaith Cafe took place at the Orange Grove Meetinghouse in Pasadena. Around 30 people showed up, half of them from SCCPWR, the rest from MPV and the community. We showed an 8-minute video, “Seeds of Peace Contemplation Conference” that SCCPWR organized in April and then broke into small groups to discuss questions such as: What religion are you, and why? What is the most misunderstood aspect of your religion? What does your religion say about peace? How does your religion help you to resolve conflict in your personal life, your community, and the world? Lively discussion took place and everyone agreed afterwards that we should have more such cafes.

Our joy was tempered by the news that a crazed white supremacist had opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six people. As the shock of this tragedy hit us, we realized how important it was for people of faith to come together and show support for the each other.

As an Evangelical, Jill had mixed feelings about our Interfaith Cafe. She appreciates the need for people of faith to get together, share their spiritual journeys and get to know each other better. This is very much in keeping with the teachings and example of Jesus, who reached out beyond his Jewish community to Samaritans and gentiles, and sometimes found them to be more faithful to God than his fellow Jews. But Jill insists (and rightly so) that all religions are not the same. As a Christian, she feels (as I do) that Jesus is unique and we should not water down or compromise his teachings.

Members of the interfaith movement sometimes speak as if all religions are the same, or as if differences don't matter. But differences do matter and should be respected. We all come to the table to share who we truly are, how we truly feel, and what we truly believe. If we disagree—and we often do—we agree to disagree agreeably. Our disagreements and conflicts can be seen as opportunities for spiritual growth, as my Jewish friend Ruth Sharone makes clear in her compellingly, honest and insightful book, Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk.

As I have learned in my wonderful but at times challenging marriage to Jill, you don't have to agree to love someone. Even though Jill and I have theological differences, we share core values—a deep love for God, for Jesus, for the Bible—and a commitment to live our lives consistent with the Great Commandments: “Love God and love your neighbor.” Despite our differences (and maybe because of them), we love each other because we have been commanded to and created to love the One who lovingly created us with infinite variety. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned during this Ramadan is the old French phrase: Vive la difference!