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.

Image result for our muslim neighbor victor begg

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.

Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined”

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedJust hot off the press, the latest book by Religion News Service senior writer, Jonathon Merritt, entitled Jesus is Better than You Imagined is worth a read because it is a profound take on one young person’s journey through the trials and triumphs that make for a vibrant Christian life.

Unlike what the title implies, the book is not so much about Jesus as it is about Merritt’s personal, spiritual experiences as it pertains to his relationship with Jesus.

All of the chapters contain the subtitle of “encountering Jesus” in some aspect of Merritt’s spiritual life.

He encounters Jesus, for instance, in the solitude of a monastery. He encounters Jesus in creation. He encounters Jesus in the midst of the grace and forgiveness after confessing to having an illicit sexual encounter with another author.

He encounters Jesus outside of the church.  The son of a one-time Southern Baptist Convention president, Merritt admits that he had become, in his words, “tired of the mundane business of professional Christianity.”

So Merritt grasps for what faith means to him after facing the hardships of breaking away from the fishbowl that was his church life, sexual identity crises, and depression.

Jesus, he claims, is to be found in Haiti, the streets of New York, and bars.

Ultimately, he finds Jesus in a renewed faith that carries him through the hardship of uncertainty:

“Faith calls me to welcome the mysterious to rest in the uncomfortable tension of a God who is both known and unknown. This kind of faith doesn’t require an explanation for why I’m wandering in the wilderness; rather, it trusts in the God of the wilderness despite the absence of answers.”

Merritt’s book adds to the tapestry of a booming Christian memoir publishing industry in an information age that prizes the self and the discovery of how that self relates to a God whom one no longer finds in the womb of the church.

It makes for profound, honest, and moving reading although it threatens to let the self–the “I”–distract readers from the very Jesus we are supposed to imagine in a new way.

Another author, the late Henri Nouwen, may have advice here. Often confronted with the wrestling match between being a popular author and simply telling others where God is at work in the world, Nouwen surmised that all of us must be aware of how our own stories have the potential of getting in the way of God’s story.

Our very personhood threatens to hinder or, at worst, tarnish, our experience of Jesus because Jesus ends up looking more like we do rather than the first-century Jew who called all people to God’s reign on earth, a reign that is both beyond our experiences of it as well as personally intimate in our relationship to it.

Merritt’s personal story is no different.

If a memoir is to be anything, however, it is to liberate us from the preconceived notion that we have everything figured out, that we have all of the answers.

Merritt is on the right track most of the time, and I consider him to be one of the leading spokespersons for my generation. But he still walks that fine line between being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son who speaks the familiar language of evangelical conservatism, while searching for a pseudo-progressive theology that seeks to let the marginalized “Other” define God in new ways.

Merritt’s balancing act places him squarely in that classic Christian “identity crisis”, what St. John the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” We may not be in the same place as Merritt, but we will go along with him for the ride.

Original or not, Jesus is Better than You Imagined inspires growth by giving us the opportunity to live vicariously through the trials and triumphs of the author.

And, in some strange way, we read because we hope to find that transformative, life-giving Word that all of us long for, that all of us hope will help us experience–and imagine–God anew.