If California’s palette is made of Mexicans, Eastern Asians, and African Americans (think, I guess, bright happy colors, sharp flavors and angled syllables, and music with a clean, hard beat), then Derby, surprisingly enough, is colored Central and West Asian, Caribbean, African, Eastern European, and more. Rich jewel tones, hot, smoky spices and scents, curves everywhere – the language, the dresses, the music. It’s a palette of a completely different range than the one I’m used to.
The more I pay attention to it, the more I’m entranced by it. There’s so much potential in Derby; I can’t get over it. I love walking down the street and seeing a Caribbean hair salon right next to an Eastern European corner market with a Pakistani couple entering into it, or hearing an unmistakably Asian accent break through carefully modulated British tones.
The Hispanic accents are probably my favorite, though. There aren’t as many of them, but they remind me so much of home. “Hasta luego,” a short, beaming Ecuadorian told me at ESOL class a couple weeks ago, and I smiled for two days. “Plesed to met yu!” labored another, shaking my hand firmly, and for a short while I was back in California amid its sun-faded boxy buildings.
Differently from California, though, my being here has a more missional focus. I’m in England to serve the local church community as well as to share the gospel through friendship evangelism (which I’m a big fan of.)
It does, however, lead to a lot of reflection on differentiating religions from cultures. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a responsibility of every human being and it’s one that Americans and American Christians tend to fail at.
It’s so untouched. We’re afraid that admitting that a head scarf is beautiful means we’re becoming Muslim, or we’re so alarmed by the reputation of Islam that we daren’t talk to one. Worse, we don’t dare to open ourselves to friendships with them, perhaps because we’re afraid of being tainted by association.
Load of nonsense, people. If we truly desire to reach out to Muslims, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by refusing to get to know and care for them. Through friendship we earn the right and credibility to push back gently against their beliefs—because they know we take them and their beliefs seriously enough to engage thoughtfully. When we can recognize the truths in their belief systems, we have discerned the thread that will lead to the Bible. We can’t force them to it, mind, but at the very least we have forged meaningful connections that aren’t intrusive and rude. In fact, they’re fruitful for both sides.
I experienced this with my Sudanese friend Nioal, who is Muslim. At English class some months ago I saw her write that she’s from Sudan. I asked her if she spoke Arabic. It was pretty much a total guess, but it worked (looking back, it looks like providence 😉
I saw her a month or so later, at a recipe book launch the ESOL centre hosted. After finally working up the courage, I approached her and the two other Muslim ladies with her. “It’s so nice to hear Arabic again!”
Not, perhaps, the most intelligent thing to say but it did get me three excited women talking at me in Arabic faster than I could process! No matter; the conversation quickly turned maternal as they cooed at my limited Arabic and my baby face. Nioal invited me to her home, so some weeks later, I visited her.
Walking through the door, I got my first inkling that this would be different. It was so dark that I almost didn’t realize there was someone in front of me until I saw the gleam of white teeth and doe eyes in a velvety dark face and was duly introduced to her youngest child, an 8-year-old girl (with a British accent!). It was also hazy inside, the scent of pungent spices and herbs lingering in the air. She ushered me into the sitting room and brought sweets and drinks. It was sumptuously decorated – again, dark, with dark fabrics that soaked up the light that seeped through the curtains and gigantic pieces of dark wood furniture that housed the requisite television and gold Islamic urns and artwork. We soon left for a more familiar scene: the dining room and kitchen.
Here the spicy smell was decidedly stronger, but the rooms were much more lived in so I felt more comfortable. Shortly after, Salwa, another Muslim Sudanese lady from the centre, showed up and I quickly realized that Nioal is very much a shy woman.
Then Nioal brought out the food (and kept bringing it out.).
“Do you like lamb?” she asked me.
Well, not exactly. “Oh, I’ll eat anything,” I answered.
So she brought out great big hunks of roast lamb still on the bone dripping with fat, a tub full of roast eggplant salad, bread, fresh salad, and a platter full of, well…
Ohhh dear. Oh no! Eww. What do I do? She’ll be so disappointed if I don’t like it. I have to at least try it. Yuck. Well, buck up, Mary Sue. She’s probably not trying to poison you. Just hang on; it’ll be over soon.
To my surprise, it was actually not bad. NOT something I’d cook for myself, but I didn’t dislike it. The food was amazing in general—so very different. Two hours later, I literally ached from all the food that she kept ladling on to my plate. “Nioal, stop! I’m gonna—”
Oh dear. How to explain? She wouldn’t understand “explode,” and I don’t know how to explain that in Arabic, so she took my hand gestures to mean “Get fat.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she said, putting another piece of roast lamb, dripping with grease, on my plate. “It’s meat, it doesn’t make you fat.”
Blink. “Ohh right, haha! Thanks!” Lord have mercy!
Salwa provided the commentary while we ate (after, that is, after kindly explaining all the food to me. In detail.) “Do you have boyfriend?”
I froze. “Umm, no, I don’t!”
“What?!? You don’t have boyfriend? Why not??” Surprise and consternation from both of them.
“Well I—I just, umm, I, God hasn’t given me one yet.”
“Don’t you know any men?”
“Well yes, but…” But I believe in marrying for love, but do I dare try to explain that to you? “I do, but they’re just not the right ones. I’m waiting until God sends me the right one.”
“Yes, yes. How old are you?!”
Salwa’s eyes positively gleamed. “You know Sudanese men make good husbands?”
“Yeah, they provide for them and they don’t abuse them and they love their families.”
“Oh, that’s so nice!”
“Yeah! Are you Muslim or Christian?”
“Christian,” I replied, thinking that’ll squash the conversation.
“Oh you can convert!” Salwa replied enthusiastically. “Muslim men can marry whatever religion they want, but if Muslim women convert to another religion they can be put to death. And you know, half-caste children are beautiful, with a white and a black parent. They are so beautiful. Beeeeyootiful!!”
Torn between amusement and panic, I almost asked her if she had someone in mind but then decided, better not. “Oh yeah, we know a mixed-race family like that and their children are incredibly attractive.”
After that the conversation moved on, thank heaven, and we had tea, coffee, and baklava and basbousa, an Arabic cake. It was all fascinatingly foreign, the tea cardamom spiced with star anise, the coffee thick and syrupy sweet enough to set my jaw on edge. She also lit incense. She lit charcoal on the stove, set it in a brazier, and sprinkled herbs and dried flowers on it (hence the haze and the spicy smell.) The smoke rising high above the little brazier was mesmerizing.
We walked Salwa out soon after. Before she left, both women were praying to God that my wedding will come soon. Every time I’ve seen Nioal after that she affirms, dear heart, that she will come to America to help me prepare for my wedding. It’s so humbling to have a woman wish for me the height of what she knows as happiness so sincerely and so often.
It was such a privilege to spend time with her and get to know her. She’s such a gentle, hardworking soul. Her husband is still in Sudan, helping support his brothers’ families (after his brothers were killed in war), leaving her to raise her six children and navigate immigrating to a new country and learning the language and customs on her own. So she’s taking classes in English and in driving and involved in volunteering for charities and refugees and trying to start up her own business doing henna and feminine products.
On the second visit, it was all about perfumes. After a couple hours over English, unbelievable amounts of food, and visiting, she brought out her oils and handmade scrubs and perfumes to show me.
They are so different from the perfumes and scents we’re used to in the western world! Much less sweet and so much more exotic. I opened and smelled all of them (being rather wary about the non-handmade soap labeled “Virginity Soap”), oohed, and handed them back to her.
Of course, she wouldn’t take the virginity soap back. “It’s for you,” she said enthusiastically.
My confusion must have been apparent on my face (what on earth does that mean? Do I look a bit…not virginal? Was that an insult?) because she continued, “Do you know what this is? It’s to clean down there,” she said, gesturing vaguely down!
“Umm, wow, gosh, thank you! That’s so kind of you! I really appreciate it!” I said, and prayed God would keep me from breaking down into helpless laughter then and there.
Then she grabbed my hand and poured sandalwood oil into our palms. Hunh? Umm, what’s this for? Then, she stands up, reaches her hand down her sleeve, and just starts patting it into her armpits.
So of course I do the same. Two newly acquainted women, one from Sudan and one from America, in a sitting room in England, casually patting their armpits with sandalwood oil. Nbd. And it stays. If I smell different next time you see me, you know why!
My poor English friends are terrific sports, because when I convinced her to come visit us on our Wednesday hangout, she came back the second time with roast lamb, baklava, basbousa, and – you guessed it – sheep stomach. Poor dear, while walking back to her house together afterwards she confided in me, “I think the stomach is too spicy for your friends.”
Yes, that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, hahaha. “Yeah, you know, English tastes,” I told her. “They aren’t used to strong flavors like that. It’s just too different for them.”
“Ok,” she said. “I won’t make it for them anymore—”
Whew, that was—
“I’ll just make it for you when you come.”
That I know her brings an urgency to my desire to share the gospel with her. That is, I think, the true power of the gospel: that we are afforded, indeed urged to seize, the luxury of loving the person as Jesus loves them, or rather, as He loves us. In the painful vulnerability it requires, we have the opportunity to grow in our humanity and our love for each other. If true friendship means wanting the best for a person, then the man or woman who knows and loves the Lord will want nothing less for her friend. Nothing less will suffice. I want her to know the One I love and I really want her to love Him as well.
I was grumpy when I woke up the day I was going to visit her the second time. Lord, I prayed. Put me in a better mood, please. Help me get over myself. Please, Lord, use me to speak to her. You are the one who put her into my life—please let her get to know You through me.
It was electrifying to hear her ask me later that day, “How can we know that God loves us?”
Did you—did you really just ask me that? God, did you just do that? Did you answer my prayer just like that? Once I picked my jaw up the floor, I told her about Jesus. Between my limping Arabic and her limping English I am not sure she understood that I disagreed with her Islam rather comprehensively, but I’m content to hold on to God’s promise that His Word won’t return to Him void.
After a painfully awkward situation wherein a waiter flirted with me so outrageously that it never even crossed my mind he was hitting on me – until he asked me for my number – things got even more awkward. Shocked stupid, I gave it to him when Nioal suggested it (I know, I know. He stopped texting me when I asked him to, thankfully.)
“I can’t give him my number! I’m—he’s Muslim, isn’t he? I’m a Christian—I can’t, uhh, I don’t, uhhh…”
“You won’t have a Muslim boyfriend? Why?”
AAHH GOD HELP! I was NOT expecting to have to answer this today, whatamigonnasay? How do I explain the whole unequally yoked thing without insulting anybody?
So I stuttered my way through explaining that as best I could (again, I don’t know if it clicked). We left soon after and then, again providentially, I think, we met a relative of hers on the street, a Ukrainian woman who’d converted and married into the family—and then converted back to “Christianity” after separating from her husband.
Thank heaven for a bone! “If I convert to Islam, Nioal, I want it to be because it’s serious to me, not because I want to marry a guy or anything like that.”
She immediately agreed with me. “Yes, religion is serious, good, you’re right.”
After that she looked at me a bit differently – I think it clicked with her that I take being a Christian very seriously. And the elements that Christianity and Islam share have provided fodder for lots of conversations, which is amazing. We haven’t progressed quite to what we disagree on yet, but I have a feeling God will provide opportunities for that as her English improves.
But it’s set the stage so beautifully. She’s coming to hangout with my English church after I agreed with her that western society’s ideas of family are sadly lacking, especially compared to the beautiful Arabic/Muslim ideas. But I told her how my parents in California would never leave their church because the church has become their family, and I’ve told her again and again how much Urban Life has welcomed me as one of their own and that I consider them another family. And now when she comes to hangout she always thinks everyone must be related; she can’t quite comprehend “friends” that are quite that loving and comfortable with each other. She’s noticing that we are different, too; that we live life according to different standards than other people do. I’m so relieved and grateful that she intends to keep coming to hangout after I leave because that kind of steady, loving witness will speak directly to her heart.
And I’m so grateful for the privilege of knowing her and having her so close to my heart. Not only have I had a ton of fun experiencing her culture, but also it was a great way to live life as a Christian, both to appreciate and to stand apart.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of hard work to be done in distinguishing between the wrong and the merely different. But it’s not as black and white as we think. Religion isn’t just a book—it’s the people that live it, and in the case of Islam they’re so much more diverse than we might think (and we should know this; it’s true of Christians as well).
So we can say definitely that the Quran’s picture of Jesus is wrong and misleading and not the way to Heaven—but surely we may appreciate the gentleness and generosity and family-oriented spirit of the Muslim without compromising our stances on the person of Jesus and the importance of the Cross. Surely we may evaluate their statements in the light of the Gospel; we can glean and value the truths and insights without becoming hell-bent radical insurgents, and we can in fact maintain the integrity of the Gospel throughout and be the proverbial lights in the darkness. Surely we may value them as fellow human beings made in the image of God and loved by Him. LOVED. He will use that to speak to their hearts. And you’ll enjoy the experience too.
Christian, be active in appreciating difference. God uses it to reveal so much about who He is and why He loves us.