As part of my Global Ministries placement this summer, I am to share my reflections. So every couple of weeks, I will also send a “Palermo Perspective” to Old First, sort of a report since you all are making my summer service possible.
Back home, it’s just Floyd. He’s one of the 4 or 5 people I work out with regularly, mornings at City Fitness. He’s the person I’m closest to at the gym. In part because we both get through hard workouts complaining and cracking jokes. I consider it a sign of our trust that we even cover racial commentary in our complaints and humor (Floyd’s black and, in case you didn’t notice, I’m white. But one of our stupid jokes is that we are brothers, the unloved sons our African-American trainer, fathered mistakenly with our Ma, a short, heavyset Eastern European peasant woman.)
When I say, ‘back home, it’s just Floyd,’ I mean that in Philly currently, he’s the only Muslim I’m close to. That’s kind of weird in our world today isn’t it, when you think about it?
And in Philly, one certainly sees the presence of Muslim neighbors, both those whose families come from the Middle East, Africa, the subcontinent, Indonesia, the Philippines… Or, like Floyd, they are African-American Muslims. (Philadelphia seems to have a much larger African-American Muslim population than New York did.)
There are other Muslim folk that come into my life on a daily basis: the grocery owners in my neighborhood market with whom I’m friendly. Cabbies. Those African guys who sell perfume on Market Street near 8th Street. One of the receptionists at one of my doctor’s offices.
And Muslim folk have always been a part of my life. I went to school with Amir, the son of a Pakistani-immigrant doctor. When I first moved to NYC and worked in an ESL School, I became friends with Chaim from Senegal. My former neighbor in Brooklyn, Chiste and his family, were Bangladeshi Muslims who used to often invite us over during Ramadan for the big supper to break the fast. (But he was always more interested in how I knew how to eat correctly with my right hand, than our religious differences! …the answer is ‘my Indian friends.’) Waleed Shaheed is one of the best community organizers I have run into lately.
I can use the phrases Insha’Allah, Hamdullah, Merhaba, Habibi, Salam Ou Aleikoum more or less meaningfully! I have even given gifts for Eid-al Fitr.
Still, it was Floyd, before I left Philly, who reminded me how difficult Ramadan is in the summer months: the weather is hotter and the days of fasting longer. Incredibly long for neither food nor anything to drink.
Floyd was telling me about his plans for breakfast at 4 am and working out earlier, at 6 am, before he starts to get hungry and tired. But no “water breaks” (a ritual we celebrate together most morning at the gym) during working out for Floyd in the month of Ramadan.
Floyd was the only Muslim I’m was close enough to informally talk about religious practices (and the rest of our lives) with.
Until I arrived in Palermo. Where all the unaccompanied minor West Africans and the Syrian families resettling are Muslims, keeping Ramadan, fasting each day from breakfast at 4 am until dinner at 8:30 pm.
One of the Italian trainers at the gym here, once he realized where I lived and what I am doing, he asked me (in Italian), “What about those Muslims?”
Since I needed help translating, it ended up I gave a mini-lecture at the gym, and a bunch of people gathered around.
“My Muslim neighbors here have been lovely, welcoming. Good people, they are worried about me, because I’m a ‘newer-comer’ even than them. And I speak less Italian too. They come from different nations, cultures and languages. But they share one faith. That should make sense to Christians, no?
They have noticed I’m not really cooking. (Actually I’m living off the fruit and vegetable stands and trying to lose some weight!) And too often they leave me food. Really good food. Home-cooked meals. I try and reciprocate by sharing fresh fruit! (Sharing food is a really gracious way to communicate when words can be hard! Isn’t that some insight for communion?)
All this during Ramadan when, because it falls in June, they already have really long, difficult days!
We so often hear frightened and frightening things about Islam. Maybe even more so in America, these days, I think.
But my neighbors are simply faithful people doing what they understand God has asked of them. “Islam” means “surrender” as in “to the will of God.” How different is that than Jesus teaching from the Garden of Gethsemane “not my will, but thine will be done”?
There are five pillars to Islamic faith:
- Shahadah, the most basic profession of faith, that Allah is One and Muhamad is his prophet.
- Salat, performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
- Zakat, paying of alms or charity to benefit the poor and the needy.
- Sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan.
- Hajj, at least once in your lifetime making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
(A confession here: I only remember the Arabic names of the five pillars because we took the Confirmation Class to visit a mosque right before I left Philly and the Imam was a great teacher!)
Christianity has parallel commitments to each pillar:
- We confess knowing God through Jesus Christ.
- We strengthen our relationship with God through prayer.
- We are to give of ourselves, particularly to those in need.
- We build our faith as we keep the Christian holidays.
- While we aren’t required to pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome, Wittenberg or any of the other “shrines” of our faith, we understand when people do and find it profound and moving.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest there are no differences between Islam and Christianity. They are different faiths! But the structure of our faith is not that different …even if we aren’t maybe as observant keeping it in a in a more secularized West…”
I finished my impromptu sermonette by reminding the group gathered around me how Jesus answered the cynical question ‘Who is my Neighbor?’ with the story of the Good Samaritan. In so doing..
“Jesus placed two distinct and important commitments at the heart of our Christian faith and practice:
- We must be open to the possibility that those of a different faith are actually adhering closer to God’s will than we are, that we might learn to practice our faith better through their example, and
- No matter the danger or cost, we must be good neighbors.
Maybe those are crucial lessons we Christians need for faithfulness in our world today?”
Hamdullah for my Muslim neighbors who in their practice of Ramadan are reminding me how I might better practice my Christianity…