Review of “Our Muslim Neighbors”

By Joe LaGuardia

I recently had an engagement with Muslim interfaith advocate, Victor Begg, at a restaurant attached to a local, municipal airport. When it came time for evening prayer, Victor and his family sought a quiet place to pray. I recommended that they walk next door to the small one-room terminal at the airport, where there is plenty of room for prayer rugs. At the time, no one would be in the terminal save one clerk at a reservation desk.

Victor and his family reminded me of the optics. If he and his family gathered in the terminal no matter how vacant, with prayer rugs and shawls, what kind of message would that send to airport staff? I apologized, and soon they found a corner of the lobby large enough to accommodate their needs.

Victor Begg, community activist and author of Our Muslim Neighbors, has been an American citizen for over 50 years. He is from India–far from the Middle East–so his “look” doesn’t raise any red flags; and yet, he is mindful of how suspicious his neighbors are of having a Muslim do business and recreation in the area.

This brief experience at the local airport is precisely why Begg authored Our Muslim Neighbors in the first place: to help readers in the United States and beyond realize that Muslims make up some 1.8 billion people on earth, and that a large majority of them–over 97%–are upright citizens that defy combative, radicalized stereotypes and caricatures portrayed on the news.

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Our Muslim Neighbors is a memoir of Begg’s sojourn from India to Detroit, Michigan. It follows his travails and triumphs in learning a new language, attending college, and getting his businesses established. It outlines the joys of meeting his beloved wife and raising a family.

His rise to community organization is accessible and easy to read. The narrative flows in a conversational tone that lets us get into the front door of the Begg household, and might be a good primer for anyone interested in becoming a public activist.

Begg has plenty of experience to share with readers. He is a published columnist, community organizer, successful entrepreneur, and (…and I have personal experience with this!) a good friend. We meet him as he defies family in order to seek life in the States, struggles to secure a loan to start a furniture franchise, and brokers relationships on behalf of religious freedom from the Mid-West to South Florida. If there is anything weak about this book, its too detailed and drowns us under the weight of so many accomplishments.

The beauty of the story is not in the religious sense of his writing, but in the folksy way he makes his story anyone’s story. He is not preachy or pushy. It is, simply, one American immigrant’s tale of earning and living the American Dream.

We need a resuscitation of that dream today, a dream lost in the midst of our political and religious milieu of late. I have personally been involved in Baptist and Muslim interfaith work for nearly 15 years now, and it seems that Begg’s goals of seeking understanding and educating others on the American experience is close to mine and so many others. It is a part of a dream as American as apple pie and Corvettes.

The only way to go beyond toxic divisiveness is to dream again, and to take hold of the promises our privileged nation continues to offer those who work hard and love others as themselves.

Mark Hicks, writing for the Detroit News, states, “The book . . . extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.”

I may not have the same troubles Begg has, since I am squarely at home in a majority-Christian culture, but I relate to his immigrant-related issues. I am an Italian American in the Christ-haunted South, and I remind people, as has Begg, that it is not one particular religion that breeds violence or despair, but a growing radicalism in all corners of the world in which we separate “us from them”. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicals slaughter Muslims; in the Middle East, Muslims persecute and execute Christians; in Europe, Christians bomb synagogues. In China, communist officials in Xinjiang province are oppressing, torturing, and incarcerating in forced labor camps nearly 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people.* In our own nation, secularists limit freedom of speech on college campuses in the name of (ironically) “tolerance.”

Right now, we need Begg’s voice–and we need it badly. But we also need mine, and yours, and ours.

The greatest way to understand someone is to stand in his shoes. Our Muslim Neighbors helps us achieve that goal. Its dual role of being an immigrant memoir and exposition of American Islamic activist plays effectively to those of us who, above all else, believe that the American Dream can still work in an environment of justice, inclusivity, and diversity. Its not enough to say, “I tolerate you.” Who wants to be tolerated? That kind of marriage can’t last. Instead, we must say, “I understand you, and I have walked with you–and now I see differently because of it!”

*The House of Representatives has passed legislation identifying Chinese officials at the heart of Uighur oppression and freezing financial assets and visas is currently awaiting a vote in the U. S. Senate.

Do Pastors Need Monologues?

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By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, I’ve been addicted to a new channel on XM Radio devoted to old Tonight show episodes with Johnny Carson.  I get a kick out of his monologues.

What is most intriguing is the humor and relevance that make monologues so timeless.  The talkshow host infuses current events with satire and comedy.  This lightens the mood of the weightiest news, but it also keeps people informed with what is going on in the world.

And no one is exempt from the monologue.  Politicians and pundits alike get in the cross hairs of hosts, who are equal-opportunity offenders.  Levity is good for the soul, and it is good for the nation.

Churches often shy away from current events and news.  Since most news is divisive, this avoidance gives the illusion that churches are safe spaces where people of diverse backgrounds and political leanings can worship God without having  to confront various opinions.  We get enough biased media on cable television, we don’t need to be bombarded with more on Sunday morning–Give us an hour without political commentary, please, along with some peace and quiet!

Yet, because we avoid politics, our churches come off as irrelevant or, worse, silent concerning the most pressing issues of the day.   Should we Christians, especially in the church, not frame current events and issues from a biblical point of view so as to help our congregations understand them differently?  Should we not create a safe space for dialogue and collaborative–dare I say, “critical thinking”– and meaningful,  conversations that inquire about topics and how they might relate to issues of justice and relevance to the Bible?

Silence is the easy way out, and woe to the pastor who, on the opposite end of the spectrum, creates dissent and divisive speech from the pulpit.  Talk about an issue like that, and she is sure to marginalize at least half her congregation!

Perhaps we need monologues in the church for this very reason.  Think about it: Before the invocation and right after the welcome, we clergy can stand–without hiding behind a pulpit or altar–before our people and provide a different, humorous view of the events of our time.  If we add enough levity, then over time we will build enough trust to touch on sensitive issues too.

Take Jimmy Kimmel Live, for instance.  His monologues are funny and relevant, but after the mass shooting in Las Vegas some time ago, he got deadly serious.  His tears carried our nation’s grief, and his words cut to the heart of our nation’s longing for sensible gun legislation.

I have a feeling that we’re afraid because, if we pastors start monologues, we may fail at times.  These late-night guys have professional writers that write jokes every day; we don’t.  We are not that smart, and writing a sermon is hard enough.  Yet, I think we should consider it.

Our congregations need a good word not always framed in a formal sermon.

We need to speak from the heart and expose Christ’s tears for the world.  We need to push back against instigators who mock tears and we need to expose grief that we hide behind entertainment and celebrity culture.  And, if we don’t do anything else, we at least need to show people that,  sometimes even in church, laughing is still good medicine for the soul.

Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

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By Joe LaGuardia

Watching Rocky was a family affair growing up in the LaGuardia household. Not only did we watch every Rocky movie as a family, we literally saw our family in the series reflected back to us.

There was Rocky, a metaphoric character for my father. He, like Rocky, lacked certain social graces and came from a middle class neighborhood not too different from Philadelphia (he was from Brooklyn).

He came from a family of boxers, and he managed to woo my mother with the gift of gab: Legend has it that he walked up to my mother in a club and said, “See this place? I own this place! Wanna’ dance?”

Adrian is very much like my mother. Shy and mild-mannered, my mother worked hard to get beyond my father’s big personality and shadow.

Micky is my grandfather. I don’t say, “Like my grandfather,” because he practically is my grandfather. Micky (Burgess Meredith) and my grandfather talk the same, sound the same, have the same mannerisms, share the same punch-drunk broken-flat nose, and echo similar “boxer” colloquials: Grandpa’s favorite line of advice was (in Burgess Meredith brough), “Hit ’em low! Sweet and low!”

My grandfather taught self-defense and boxing in the Navy in World War 2, and he went on to train boxers in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived all his life. He was a part of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and helped keep kids off the streets by focusing on family and fitness (sound familiar?).

I would say that Paulie resembles one of my sisters (Gina), but that wouldn’t be fair. Or nice, although she and Paulie do share a certain restless energy. (And I think both my sisters would make intimidating and frightening loan sharks, or assassins like Alicia Keys and Tereji Hensen in Smokin’ Aces.)

Where am I in all this? I’m Butkiss the dog, merely observing all the action swirling around me…

I write all of this for the fact that I am not quite sure how the Rocky franchise has shaped my faith. It’s like trying to ask whether my faith is a product of nature or nurture–it just is so intertwined in my life as a cult film that I have no doubt it contributed to my upbringing in a major, albeit subtle way.

Perhaps the greatest contribution comes from the first Rocky installment. There, Rocky has a coming of age journey in which he meets Adrian, realizes he is not cut out for life in the mob, and gains prestige not by winning the “big fight”, but by staying on his feet.

That is a mirror of my life in so many ways! I’ve never been a winner in big things: I never held a job that made lots of money, and I was never the popular kid in school. I’ve never gone against big shots, but I like to think that I have been able to stay on my feet to the fifteenth round. I believe that dedication, determination, and faithfulness—not some flashy pitch or manipulative marketing–is what gets you through the next round.

I have come of age facing a fork in the road: One road, the wide road was that of living into an Italian stereotype of being a tough guy, muscling my way to destruction. The second road was the narrow way of giving up my familial identity and surrendering everything to the non-violent Christ, including the tough guy vibe.

I must admit that my wife was a little upset when I turned in the sleeveless shirt and Camaro for Oxford shirts and a Honda, something she reminds me of every wedding anniversary (“You remember, when I met you, you were…”).

Thanks to Netflix streaming service, my son and I began to watch the Rocky series–his first time through it. I wondered what things he might pick up from the series. My father passed away when my son was young, but my son wears my father’s boxing trousers and glittering boxing shirt around the house sometimes in his honor.

My son never knew his great-grandfather, so Micky doesn’t hold the same hypnotic sway over him, and he wasn’t raised to be a tough guy, so that is not one of the “coming of age” conflicts that confronts him.

He left me half-way through the first film because he was bored.

Tonight we started watching Rocky II, and my son is giving another go at it. As we sat together, however, I felt myself falling into some of the attitudes I haven’t faced in a long time, including that dastardly fork.

I am finding it hard to stop the film and move into the real world of my life now. Nostalgia works that way sometimes, threatening to hold us down to the point of drowning us in the past.

That is the difficulty of the thing. Dad and Grandpa are gone. Mom has found her voice in a second marriage upon living independently (and doing an amazing job of it) in the last six years. I can’t afford a Camaro because I have big-boy bills to pay. And my wife complains more of my eating habits than the shirts I wear (or don’t wear, rather). The last time I went to Brooklyn was for my grandpa’s funeral over a decade ago. When I preach, I keep the tough-guy, New York lingo to a minimum–only when I’m cracking a joke (a “wise crack!”) now and then.

Rocky presents for me a conundrum whereby I am introducing my son to a life he’ll never know and saying goodbye once and for all to a life that has slipped out of my fingers and no longer exists. Perhaps the movie moves me to grief more than anything else. It is a letting go…and a letting God.