the sermon I delivered at the Midcoast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Damariscotta, Maine
When my mother was a senior in high school in Reading, Massachusetts, in the mid-Seventies, her family hosted an exchange student for a year: a young Afghan woman named Fakhria. One day, they went into Boston. Fakhria looked left and right everywhere they went, and got increasingly agitated. Finally, she said, “Where are the beggars?”
She had filled her pockets with nickels and dimes, as she had always done in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her parents had taught her that as a Muslima, as the daughter of a family with privilege, she had an obligation to give to the less fortunate. She wanted to know where the homeless were in Boston so she could contribute. I think of Fakhria most days, whenever I pass a homeless person on the New York City subway.
At the end of the year, Fakhria thanked my grandparents for a wonderful experience and said, “but I won’t be coming back. My people in Afghanistan need me too much.”
Back in Afghanistan, she became an ER doctor until the Russians invaded and tried to conscript her boyfriend, another ER doctor. Though her family did not entirely approve the match, they were quickly married and her father walked them over the Hindu Kush Mountains into Pakistan.
They volunteered their medical expertise in the Afghan refugee camps while they waded through the long, laborious process of refugee resettlement. By the time they arrived in Northern Virginia in the late Eighties, they had two lovely school-aged daughters.
They wanted to work as doctors here, but like so many immigrants, their advanced degrees and experience did not count here in the States and they had to repeat more than half their medical educations, first Fakhria, then her husband. Once they were both certified here in the United States, and with a third child now a toddler, they opened an urgent care clinic in Washington, DC, specializing in treating patients without insurance. They intended to serve the Afghan community in DC, but have found that most of their patients are actually Hispanic immigrants.
Not long after the clinic opened, during Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ home up here in Bridgton, Maine, Fakhria turned to my father and said,
“You’re a small business owner. What’s your secret?”
“The only thing I know about running a business,” my father said, “is that you’re supposed to bring in more money than you spend.”
Fakhria and her husband looked at each other, then back at my father. “Oh, we’re in trouble…!”
I was impressed by that, I think, because it implied to me that the service they were providing was as much or more important than their profits.
In the Qur’an [5:32] it says that if someone kills just one person, it is as if they have killed all of mankind, and if a person saves one other, it is as if they have saved all of mankind. The Qur’an doesn’t specify “save a Muslim” – save any person, and you save us all. That’s a life I want to live for myself.
And so Fakhria and her family were my first Muslim heroes. I grew up in rural Amish country Pennsylvania hearing stories of Fakhria’s American experience, and the experience of my neighbor’s father who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in a majority-Muslim community in India in the Seventies. I was inspired by the Muslim sense of service and generosity in these stories.
When my family became Unitarian Universalists, I was in middle school, and my first Religious Education curriculum was “Neighboring Faiths,” in which we study a religious tradition for three Sundays, and on the fourth weekend, we visit a service in that tradition. I have since taught parts of that curriculum at three different Unitarian Universalist churches, to youth and adults, because I think one of the greatest strengths of our faith is our religious literacy—our understanding and respect for the inherent worth and dignity of other faiths as well as our own.
In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says,
“Stories matter…. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. …when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
That’s why, in this climate of suspicion, mistrust and fear about Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, Sikhs, refugees….. In this climate of misinformation and Islamophobia, I have been telling stories about Muslims I’ve known to anyone who will listen, and I am so privileged to have the opportunity to stand in your pulpit and do so.
So let me take you back to 2003. The United States is occupying Afghanistan, I’m preparing for my last semester of college, and now the United States is preparing to invade Iraq. It seemed obvious to me that the need to learn about the Muslim world had never been more urgent, and in that spirit, I applied for the Peace Corps, and eventually they offered me a spot in Jordan, that little resource-barren strip of desert and mountains wedged between Israel/Palestine and Iraq, between Syria and Saudi Arabia.
After 10 weeks of training in Jordan, I was assigned to a small all-Muslim village to teach English as a Foreign Language for two years. When I had been in my village for two weeks, I already knew that Miss Ismahan the Islam teacher did not want me there. It was not personal. She just did not think that a 22-year-old American with a literature degree and broken Arabic had more to offer their school than a local teacher that could have been hired in my place. She was not wrong.
Then, in my third week on the job, the national newspaper Al-Ghad published a full-color 2-page spread of the pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib Prison. That morning in the teachers’ lounge, Miss Ismahan held the pages up in front of me.
“You have to look at this,” she said.
“I saw it yesterday on the Internet,” I said. “It’s terrible. Just awful. I don’t have to see it again.”
“No,” she insisted, holding the newsprint closer to me. “You have to look again. These are our brothers and sisters.”
Perhaps she meant these were her Muslim brothers and sisters, or her Arab brothers and sisters. Or perhaps she was referring more literally to the close tribal ties between Jordan, Iraq and Syria. My mother says that here in Maine you don’t have 6 degrees of separation — there is only one! It is like that in Jordan and Iraq.
“These are our brothers and sisters,” Sid Ismahan repeated. What she did not say but I felt very keenly was, “and those are your American brothers and sisters in uniform.”
Where I grew up in southern Pennsylvania, many in my graduating class joined the military in 1998 or 1999 and were in uniform on September 11, 2001. Lindy England, the only person ever tried or punished for the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison, could have been one of my classmates. She was my age, had my hair, graduated from a West Virginia high school very similar to mine.
I struggled to reconcile that with my new life in Jordan.
I felt the interdependent web of existence tighten around me in those weeks. I felt more keenly my connections to people around me and around the world. I had been loudly against invading Iraq, but now I found myself in the position of simultaneously hating the war while defending the warriors. I found myself both empathizing with the Iraqis suffering for the abuses of a president they never elected, and empathizing, too, with the soldiers who joined up to afford college, not for this. I struggled to reconcile my interdependence with the Islam teacher Miss Ismahan and my interdependence with the soldier Lindy England.
A couple months later, I was visiting a neighbor’s uncle in the next village. He had a daughter running around: 5 years old, pudgy, talkative, with big black curls. Once, as she ran past, her father reached out and grabbed her, pushing up the sleeve on her right arm. She had a big lumpy scar, maybe 3 inches long, on the inside of her forearm.
“You see this scar?” he said.
When I nodded, he let her run off again to play and held up his right index finger.
“She was born without this muscle,” he said, indicating the fleshy bottom third of the finger. “American doctors took some muscle from her arm and put it there. For free. And now, she can write. Now, she can go to school, go to university, she can get get a good job and a better husband. Now, she will have a good life. And that is why there is nothing that Bush can do that will ever make me not love Americans.”
This, too, is the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part. As an American in Jordan, I am connected to President Bush, but I am also connected to that doctor who saved a little girl’s future.
Near the end of my Peace Corps service in Jordan in 2006, I was asked to volunteer with Operation Smile, a nonprofit that provides free surgery for poor children around the world with cleft lips and cleft palates. They asked some Peace Corps Volunteers to stay at a Jordanian hotel with about 40 Iraqi families, helping with translation, logistics and entertaining the children.
The war in Iraq was the daily reality back home for these families, and a frequent topic of conversation. They talked a lot about the “Hummers,” a new word in Iraqi Arabic that referred to a patrol of Coalition soldiers in an armored vehicle — a Humvee.
“The Hummer saw my son’s harelip when we were on the way to the market,” one mother said. Her son was standing beside her, a slight boy, about seven, with hesitant eyes. “We always wave and smile at the Hummers,” she said, “and say thank you for helping us. Usually, we thank them from a distance. We don’t get too close to the Hummers. It makes them nervous. But one soldier waved at us to come closer, me and my son.”
“The soldier smiled at me and my son and said hello,” she continued. “He asked my son his name, but my son is shy and wouldn’t answer. Then the soldier leaned down from his Hummer and gave me the flier about Operation Smile. That’s how we got here.”
Other mothers jumped into the conversation with their own stories about how the Hummers had won their hearts and minds. I and the other Peace Corps Volunteers were also drawn into this interdependent web.
Like the little girl in my neighboring village, these children who were born with facial disfigurations would now, thanks to the soldiers and doctors and other volunteers, be able to go to school, to marry well, to be fully included in society. The doctors kept telling me that they were performing a very simple surgery, but for the parents, they were saving lives.
But perhaps you’re asking yourself, “What does this have to do with Unitarian Universalism?” For me, everything. As a fourteen-year-old joining this faith, I was not told what to believe. I was told what to do.
I was told that we affirm and promote — not believe! but affirm and promote! — the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I was taught that Unitarian Universalism draws, among its many sources, on the wisdom of all ancient prophets and world religions. And in Sunday school, I learned that all faith traditions have value — have inherent worth and dignity, if you will.
Which brings me back to the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
“Stories matter…. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
I believe that it is my responsibility as a Unitarian Universalist and as a human being to tell the other story, the one that repairs and exalts. So I seize every opportunity to talk about the lessons I have learned from Muslims around the world to tell a different story about the Muslim communities that give me hope and inspiration for the inherent good and compassion of humanity. If you want to know where to find more positive stories of Muslim cultures and social justice that you can share, I have made a list of some of my sources.
Stories matter, and they spread through the interdependent web of which we are all a part. In the words of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing:
“I am a living member of the great family of all souls; and I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere.”
As it says in the Qur’an, save one of us and you save us all.
May yours be an ever-enlarging sphere of dignity, justice, equity and compassion.
Amen, blessed be, and as-salaamu 3alaikum — Peace be with you.
Our readings were:
In the face of fear, a meditation by Randolph Becker
Beyond Borders, a poem by Rick Hoyt
Want to learn more stories about Muslims? Check out
REAL, COMPASSIONATE AND INSPIRING STORIES OF MUSLIMS:
my resources for stories you can share