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.

A Reading Life (prt. 18): Ditching Books

Image result for used book store

I wish this was my library, but it is not. It is a generic picture of a used book store. I love books–but ditching them is sometimes the only necessary thing to do…

By Joe LaGuardia

This is the final article of an 18-part series exploring the life of reading, writing, and vocational ministry.

We Christians just finished the season of Lent. Although Lent means different things to different people, it boils down to practicing the spirituality of subtraction. We remove something from our life — either by abstaining or fasting — in order to free entanglements or idolatries that ensnare us.

I gave up sweets, but just before Lent I considered giving up reading (I hear that gasp!). Since I read all of the time (when I’m not with my family, that is), I thought, surely, this is an entanglement I could go without.

Thing is, I can’t go without it–its an important catalyst in my relationship with God, and it helps with sermon preparation. The only way I can give up reading for a time is to give up preaching for a time. The two “events” go hand in hand.

Instead, I decided to go through my library and clean out books that I no longer wanted…or, rather, no longer needed (I can’t say, “no longer wanted” because I want all of my books…).

This was harder than I thought because when I looked at individual books rather than the whole library, I realized that each book has meaning. It is difficult to let go, especially when books are, according to Groucho Marx, “man’s best friend” (…outside of a dog).

I read two articles pertaining to the hardships of getting rid of books this past winter. One, by Christian Century editor Peter Marty, had been lost to me since (can’t find it), but the other was by Martin Copenhaver when he was downsizing offices. In the article, entitled “Time to cull my library,” he wrote:

Deciding which books to keep and which to give away is not a simple task. It is not like giving away clothes that no longer fit or sports equipment you are sure you will never use again. My relationship with books is considerably more complex than with other objects, and so is the process of deciding which books will remain with me and which will be cut loose…every [book] you pick up requires a decision.”

When I went through my library ready to donate as many as possible to the used book store, I quickly resonated with Copenhaver’s words. I picked books off the shelves easy enough, but once I had to go through them to make sure I removed any personal notes, I found that getting rid of them resulted in a sort of grieving process.

I grieved that my time on this earth is running short, and therefore do not have all the time I need to read said books–even the good ones I want to re-read (I just had a birthday in March, so don’t blame me!). I grieved that the books would no longer equip me for the ministry in which I currently reside. I grieved that some of the books–gifts along the way–needed to go even when the person who gave me the book means a great deal to me.

But that’s how these things go sometimes, and my journey of sorting books was a microcosm of the spirituality of subtraction after all. We cannot replace books for the relationships they may conjure. They are mere tokens, not the experience and relationship itself. When Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, he refused to turn stones into bread because he knew that the bread was an object of desire, not the Subject who created or gifted us with the object in the first place.

A part of the reason I started the “Reading Life” series was because I hoped that other people were as intimately bound with their books as I. We have a story to tell for all our paper treasures, but sometimes we have to let some of those stories go free.

By donating books, we gift someone else who may need those stories now more than ever. And letting go–and grieving–is part of the way that God takes our loss and weaves together something meaningful for the sake of others.

I will continue to weed out books I can give away as this year unfolds. It gets easier over time and contemplation; but, the reading life is like that–it is a journey of words for the sake of words. When you love words, it turns out that parting is that much harder, filled with sweet sorrow. But, as they say, better to love and have lost…

A Reading Life (prt. 17): Old Words with New Hope

Related image

By Joe LaGuardia

I started collecting vintage religious books some time ago. These books, primarily on preaching or prayer, have become treasures and sources of encouragement. They have also become a way to go “treasure hunting” in used book and thrift stores. (Its exciting to have a niche collection.)

There is something about the artistry of language and the writing in books of yore we don’t get today. Contemporary writing comes to us by concise, brief sentences. When I was writing my book on the Old Testament, I tried to mimic this style of writing–people claim its Hemingwayesque– and, besides, people want fast reads.

People don’t spend time on books anymore, they say, so if an author can’t move readers through the page fast enough, they will likely put the book down. If the language is too lofty or esoteric, you threaten to leave people behind. Few people remember their SAT words from high school, so its not wise to use words with too many syllables.

Concise writing is, I think, collateral damage created by our short-form world in which we publish 140-character Tweets or social media “posts”. Even blogs have to be short, sweet, and to the point. Yet I am reminded that good writing will always be good writing, regardless of the style, and I am deeply aware of that. However, venture into most Christian books stores–or peruse the Christian section of your local book store–and you will find that concise writing has translated into shallow content.

It’s regretful just how cliche our writing sounds these days, and even facts are scrutinized by readers. We teeter on the edge of becoming an idiocracy our comedians envisioned for us so long ago.

I went into a Lifeway book store three times in the past year–and I could not find anything that spoke to me. The books have captivating covers and catchy titles; but, get into the writing, and it comes off as grade-school reading. Even the “scholarly books” sound like amateur-hour Sunday school lessons.

Pick up a book from the mid to early 20th century, however–say, those by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Scherer, or Glenn Clark– and they sparkle with jewels of writing and content. My friend, who gained the same sentiment over a year ago, reads Leslie Weatherhead and Norval Pease, writers of several devotionals from that era. I have read Old Testament textbooks from the 1960s, including one by Rabbi Solomon Freehof. Last week I finished a memoir from Somerset Maugham on his travels through southeast Asia published around 1935. It wasn’t religious, but it certainly didn’t insult the intelligence!

Commentaries, though dated, also contain writing that is rich and moving. I regularly refer to the original Interpreter’s Bible set for sermon prep, especially if I lack inspiration on any given week. The Broadman Bible Commentary still stands as a Baptist classic. I have used F. B. Meyer’s Our Daily Homily, published in 1966, as my devotional of choice on a daily basis and occasional reference for sermons.

Just this morning, I read this moving insight by Meyer:

“When Jesus subjects us to a trial, it is only because, amid all our dross, his keen eye detects the precious gold which cost Him Calvary, and is capable of becoming his ornament of beauty forever.”

Books on prayer also ring true with warmth and majesty. Although not the most theologically acute of religious authors, Glenn Clark has been a writer I’ve read recently, thanks to a trove of Clark books bequeathed to us from one of our beloved “church mothers”.

Check out this whopper of a paragraph by Glenn Clark on prayer:

“As all the seven seas are stirred to fill the little well that the child has dug in the seashore sand, so all heaven is stirred from its heights to its depths to fill the heart that truly hungers after God. Christ, whose great heart seeks and hungers for us, even more than our hearts hunger for Him, permits neither principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, to separate us from the most tender, the most virile, the most irresistible expression of the love of God, that man has ever known” (I Will lift Up Mine Eyes).

Who writes like that anymore?

I can only think of a handful of writers who can get close, and I’m sure you have your contemporary favorites as well. But I don’t think its solely the strength of the content that moves us. It is the writing, and in our sound-byte world in which children no longer learn penmanship and long-hand, and where we don’t have the patience or persistence to demand better writing, something has been lost along the way.