Please Don't Blame My Friends For Boston

As the tragedy unfolded in Boston, many prayers welled up in me but one kept surfacing. I hoped and prayed that the terrorists would not be Muslim.   I'm not sure that would have been my prayer a year ago or even entered my consciousness as a concern. But as the news broke that the suspects were Muslim, my heart sank and I became worried for my Muslim friends in San Jose and others around the country that they would be become the targets by association of people's rage and distrust. Why would that be my concern now when it wasn't much of a concern before?

The simple answer is that now I have friends who are Muslims. It is amazing how things change when people who are known to you only as a category become friends and you learn that there is far more that you share in common than that which separates you. For me this happened over the course of the last year when I participated in two retreats that included a small groups of Christians and Muslims who came to spend the weekend together at our Maryknoll place in the San Francisco Bay Area.

These retreats were patterned after a historic encounter almost 800 years ago between the Christian, Francis of Assisi, and Malik-al-Kamil, an Egyptian sultan during the Crusades. There was only one ground rule for the retreat; there would be no expectation that anyone would be converted from one side to the other. And, only one goal or hope, to see if we could live together, eat together and pray together for a weekend. Before we gathered the first time, there was much anxiety whether this goal could be met. By the time we gathered again a year later, the only concern was whether the amazing success of the first time could possibly be repeated. By the grace of God, the second gathering which happened a couple weeks ago, was even deeper and more gratifying.

The first time we gathered as strangers, but left as friends. Most of that transformation happened around the dining room table. Because of the Muslim dietary requirements, our Muslim friends graciously provided the meals and with most of them being from Turkey, we were treated to delicious Turkish cuisine. Stories and experiences were shared over tea and coffee. Awkward silences at the first meals quickly changed to laughter and sharing and by Sunday we found it hard to leave the warm sharing around the table.  

Our sessions together likewise produced much fruit. At first we observed each other praying with great curiosity and through many questions and sharing learned from each other how we approach the same God through prayer. And, at some point we seemed to have crossed a line where it wasn't merely observation but that we were somehow praying together despite coming from different religious traditions. I think in some ways it happened not out of some formal theological accommodation but rather a simple recognition that it was the same God who viewed us as his children and our growing awareness that we are brothers and sisters of that one God But I must admit, as one who through ordination took on a goal of praying Christian Prayer in the morning and evening that I was humbled by their discipline of praying five times a day and how it seemed to mark and define for them, and for us in their company, the very flow of time into the rhythm of God. In other words, we never went too long without that reminder to bring ourselves back into the awareness of God through prayer as we stopped and moved the furniture to the side so that they could spread out the prayer rugs.

Our sessions of trying to ground ourselves in the story of Francis and the Sultan and our attempts to share our own understandings of faith with each other had two effects. It not only deepened our own sense of our own faith but expanded our horizons in understanding each other's faith experience. I struggled, in a good way, to articulate who Jesus was to me to my Muslim partner and I listened intently and with growing curiosity as he described who Muhammad was to him. Unable to rely on churchy language with assumed meaning it was a dialogue of the heart and personal experience.  

As we gently probed each other with questions of genuine interest, I began to realize who Jesus really is to me in a different and deeper way as I began to see it through the eyes of my new friend. And, as he told me about Muhammad and what Islam meant to him, I realized how ignorant I was about Islam and some of my preconceptions began to fall away with new realizations. I was deeply impressed by his spirituality that was rooted in a deep trust and submission to the will of God, an issue that touched my own struggles of trying to trust God more at a radical level.

Perhaps in many ways, what touched my heart the most were the stories they shared of what it meant for them to be new immigrants. As a third generation immigrant, I can only imagine the challenges and opportunities that my grandparents faced as children when they came from Italy and Poland. However as I listened to my friends I was struck not only by the challenges they faced as new citizens trying to navigate a different language and culture, but the pain they've encountered as being seen as the "other" because of their religion, and moreover, sometimes being viewed the "enemy" particularly since 9/11.

As I listened to their stories at first I felt outrage for them that they were treated with prejudice. How could they be painted with the same brush? Would not I too be upset if I were lumped in with extremist Christians who resorted to violence, like the KKK? However, as I reflected further, I realized the roots of the disease of prejudice within myself and how easy it is to so quickly paint the other as not only a stranger, but as a threat, and even as the enemy.

I recently saw the film, "Argo" about the crisis in the early 1980s when the Americans were taken hostages in Iran. It was a painful reminder for me of my reaction as a college student then and the horrible sign we made and put in our window blaming the Iranian students who were in our own community and telling them to go home. I faced the painful reality of looking within myself to see my own tendencies to judge and to hate.

So, the recent news of the terrorism in Boston took on another level of concern for me. Not only immediate pain of the victims and their families, not only the growing fear of violence that violates everyone’s sense of security, but now also a concern for how the actions of a couple fanatics might create further prejudice and animosity against my new friends who happened to also be Muslims. And, once again it caused me take that painful look inside myself to nip the tendency to want to direct my fear and anger at others who have nothing to do what happened in a futile hope that it will somehow make me feel more secure and less unsettled. However, thankfully I'm drawn to the example of deep faith from my Muslim friends and reminded in my own Christian tradition that the answer to confronting that fear is not to lash out, particularly in hate or violence, but rather to trust deeper in God and follow the path of peace.

Matt Dulka is a deacon of the Oakland Diocese in full time ministry with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.

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