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.

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.

Community Reconciliation and the art of truthtelling

fountainBy Joe LaGuardia and Karen Woods

When I was in seminary, a professor once opined that it takes three years for a church to trust a new pastor.  I politely told him that his information was out of date.  It takes about six years nowadays.

This was in the early years of the new millennium and, since then, I have experienced a growing deficit of trust in many sectors of society.  We no longer trust church, government, neighbors, and, in some cases, first responders.

We tell people that trust must be earned, but then we continue to label people according to stereotypes.  Distrust multiplies exponentially as a result.

In the last six months, we have seen how distrust can have a detrimental–even fatal–effect in community.  Protests, violence, and the killing of innocent citizens and police officers bear horrific testimony to the lack of trust, trust that people once took for granted.

In honor of Black History Month, this and next week’s column explores creative ways to enact reconciliation and collaboration in our own neck of the woods.  To do so, I have asked our Associate Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Karen Woods, to help write these columns.

Our question is a simple one: How might we be the “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in a time when distrust breeds disharmony and violence in community?

We believe that Rockdale County is effective at building harmonious communities, so we are already at an advantage.

We’ve seen collaboration among churches, nonprofits, and governmental agencies come together. Family Promise of Newrock, for instance, is a non-profit ministry that effectively bridges various divides by combating homelessness in our neighborhood.

We also had many conversations with clergy and lay leaders who value peacemaking over and against fear-mongering and exclusion, like the one on race relations hosted by Discover Point Church last month.

Even in the midst of this hard work of bridging racial, religious, and economic divides, however, there is more work to be done.

Ambassadors of reconciliation are in the business of “truth-telling” and “truth-listening”: The events surrounding Ferguson, Staten Island, and Minister Woods’ birthplace, Cleveland, demonstrate that more effort is needed in our communities to foster mutual conversation that encourages understanding and level-headed dialogue.

Trust cannot become a community’s most cherished value when people insist on keeping one another at arms length and talking over each other.  For far too long, neighbors have stereotyped one another and formed opinions based on those caricatures.   Truth-telling based on reality, not vitriol, breaks down barriers.

Listening sows seeds of understanding and respect.

Dialogue deals with how we describe changes in our community; which, when done so negatively, perpetuates division between neighbors who are more alike than they think.

For instance, we have heard it said, quite negatively, that Rockdale County is becoming like Dekalb County.  These comments have racist undercurrents that unfairly connects a growing minority-majority population in our community with random crime and controversy we read about in the newspaper.

The assumption is that the more African Americans move into the county, the higher the crime rate.  This assumption is unfounded; in fact, crime is lower now than in years past.

A false perception is based on stereotypes that damage people of color and cast a shadow of fear and distrust on hard-working families who are buying new homes, opening creative businesses, and participating in a wonderful school system.

It increases fear among the entire populace and sows seeds of discord even in the midst of valuable relationships.  We simply fear what we do not know, and the fewer relationships with have with our neighbors, the more violently we will react based on stereotypes rather than facts.

An effort to enact biblical reconciliation, however, overcomes this temptation and provides truthful ways of deepening–not widening–relationships in a local community.

Trust, therefore, begins when we tell the truth about evil actions that include: (1) stereotyping people who are different, (2) spreading vitriolic beliefs that have racial undertones, and (3) perpetuating fear by promoting falsehoods that do not honor all people who are made in God’s image.

Karen Woods is associate pastor of missions and outreach at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.