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.

Rohingya Muslims: Among the most persecuted groups

Source: NPR.  Click on the picture for original link and photo.

Source: NPR. Click on the picture for original link and photo.

By Joe LaGuardia

For all of its bad ratings, the movie Waterworld with Kevin Costner had a creative premise.

Costner plays the Mariner who fights for survival within a (literal) sea of villains and mercenaries.  The story takes place in the near future, when melting polar ice caps result in all of earth’s existing land being covered by water.

What might life be like at sea for that length of time?  Just ask one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The Rohingya represents an ethnic minority group who migrated to Myanmar around the eighth century.  Through a history of infighting, war, and eventual persecution, this small group found itself without any place to settle within a nation made up of 90% Buddhists.

The Myanmar government denied them citizenship in the 1990s, and conflicts came to a head in 2012 when ethnic violence erupted between Muslim and Buddhist gangs in the Rakhine province.

Since then, Buddhist nationalists have incited further violence against the Rohingya, forcing the group to live in ghettos or refugee camps.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the country on makeshift boats, while others sought refuge with human smugglers.

Nearly 25,000 people made it safely to other countries; an undocumented number of people have been kidnapped into human trafficking rings (139 graves containing refugees were found, believed to be the result of smugglers killing people that families could not afford to ransom).

Nearly 1,000 refugees have settled in the United States since 2006, according to NPR.

Recent voyages from Myanmar’s coast have not been so fortunate.  Many countries, including those that are majority Muslim in the region, want nothing to do with the refugees.  A reported 3000 – 6000 people are currently stranded at sea with no place to go.

Some reports claim that United Nations humanitarian aid is on its way; but, like a scene right out of Waterworld, many refugees are running out of food and water.   The U. S. State Department is encouraging Myanmar to grant citizenship and access to food, shelter, and water to remaining Rohingya people groups.

The migration to surrounding nations is only the beginning of a threat they fear will worsen:  Government officials in New Dehli surmise that the combination of persecution and poverty make the Rohingya people prime candidates for radical terrorist recruitment.

As Baptist minister without a political science degree, I do not have answers, but I do agree with this assessment.

Earlier this year, Trinity Baptist Church hosted an interfaith dialogue with a Muslim activist, Kemal Korucu, who stated that terrorists, no matter the religion, are not born but bred.  The poor, uneducated, and displaced are susceptible to aggressive recruitment strategies perpetuated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist organizations.

The Rohingya fit this caricature.  As people without citizenship, Rohingya children have been denied formal education.

Poverty is an every-day reality that many U. S. citizens cannot comprehend.  And lack of “place”– no more pronounced than ever as some are abandoned at sea — will only lead to people trying to find belonging.

If countries cannot band together to save these people now, I fear that young Rohingya men in particular will find belonging with our nation’s fiercest enemies rather than with friends.

For a people so far removed from this conflict, we cannot do much in turning the political tides of this crisis, but we can pray that governments and agencies will aid these lost people.  Pray that humanitarian relief efforts will meet those in need.

We can also pray for our missionaries who are laying deep roots in changing hearts for Christ, that many will not become susceptible to terrorism but, rather, bear witness to the Gospel that has the power to change all our lives for the better.

Ministers, like parishioners, often face depression

In my last post, I wrote of my mini-sabbatical from church and the importance of taking a sabbatical as part of a minister’s spiritual journey.  Sabbaticals are important because they give ministers the space and time to tend to their own personal issues, many of which originate from family, spiritual, marital, and mental strain.  Without the type of release a sabbatical offers, a minister’s work can get the best of him.

Two days before my article printed, Major N. M. Hasan, a military psychiatrist, murdered thirteen individuals at Ft. Hood.  There are several theories why Hasan killed others, but what is most peculiar to me is that Hasan was a psychiatrist.  He belongs to a profession committed to heal people not hurt them.

Hasan’s situation was unique; it is rare that a healthcare provider murders another in cold blood.  It is not uncommon, however, that many healthcare providers face overwhelming job stress and pressure that leads to unhappy endings.  In 2008 the American Medical Association reported that suicide rates among doctors were higher than the national average.  That’s roughly 400 doctors a year.

The reason that healthcare providers commit suicide is because they neglect dealing with distress, depression, and mental illness for the sake of their career.    Ours is a society that expects doctors to be stable and healthy; any sign to the contrary compromises the doctor’s reputation.  Instead of dealing with their issues, healthcare providers suppress their suffering.  Eventually, the stress becomes too much to bear.

As healthcare providers of a different type, ministers also face extreme stress and depression.  Ministers are spiritual pillars of a community, and, like doctors, they find it hard to reach out for help when help is most needed.  Greg Warner, writing for the “Biblical Recorder,” noted that a quarter of all pastors struggle with depression at any given time, many of whom fail to seek treatment with a licensed counselor.

In several other studies on depression among clergy, ministers have cited various reasons for experiencing distress.  Some reasons include job loss, pressure to grow a church, trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and failing to make deep relational connections with trusted support systems.

If ministers do not attend to their spiritual, mental or emotional health over time, their issues can build up and lead to symptoms that we have seen in the public sphere: Pastors get caught committing adultery, engaging in pornography, disengaging from a church, or preaching macabre sermons that lack hope.  Any one of these can be a sign that a minister is not taking steps in dealing with his inner demons.

Talking candidly about ministerial depression or mental illness remains taboo, but churches must take steps to help their clergy face the realities of stress.  Some churches do so by building into the minister’s salary a stipend for professional development or therapy.  In turn, ministers are more open about struggles in which prayer is needed regarding areas of family, finances, marriage, sin, or grief.

Another way churches can help is by encouraging staff regularly.  Writing cards, sending emails of encouragement, providing constructive feedback on sermons, and praying for a pastor can make a world of difference.  Pastors are better prepared to serve churches when they feel their congregations treat them as normal human beings.

In a tech-savvy and therapeutic-centered society, many resources are now available to ministers and doctors who need help with distress.  Retreat houses, therapists, spiritual directors, and pastoral counselors stand ready to help our ministers, but ministers need for us to let them know that seeking help is okay.  Ministers are a part of the Body of Christ and need edification and intervention just   like the rest of us.