An indelible memory from last Thursday night: a short Muslim neurosurgeon with a white beard hands me a plate of dates and insists I take one first. Last Thursday night was unusual.
I am white and Protestant. Approximately 95% of my friends fit that same description. So when I walked into the Ramadan Iftar last Thursday night, I was so far out of my comfort zone, I might have been in Wonderland.
My name is John Barber I’m on staff at a medium-sized church in Knoxville, TN. I serve as a minister on staff and as the Technical Director – that means I oversee all of the sound, lights, and video. I handle social media too, so in many ways I end up being a major face of the church. I grew up in Orlando, Florida. I lived there until college. And last Sunday, during our church service, I was running the lights in the booth. Halfway through first service, I pulled out my phone to check twitter, and I saw that there had been a tragic shooting in my hometown. For the rest of the morning, I was a wreck. I was refreshing CNN constantly and checking twitter for the most up to date news. It’s a gay nightclub… It’s twenty dead… Now it’s fifty dead… He was a Muslim… It was an act of terrorism… On and on and on. My mind was all over the place — all while keeping my game face on to make sure service went off properly. If it weren’t for my tech team volunteers, something important might have been overlooked.
Sure, shootings like this had happened before, but this time it was in my hometown. I found myself constantly checking in on friends to make sure they were ok. I was worried about actual people I knew. This time I had a personal connection.
And as the week went on, I mourned. I mourned for the loss of lives. I mourned for my city – The City Beautiful. I thought about getting in my car and going down there. To what end? I have no idea. I posted on social media about it. I watched with sorrow as the event turned into a national conversation about gun control and the upcoming election. I wondered what my response as a believer in Jesus Christ should be. And I kept going back to Romans 12:14-15, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
Of course, I knew I wasn’t the only one mourning. I knew that gay and lesbian communities were in mourning, and likely filled with fear. I knew that Muslims were mourning yet another blow to their community. And at a time when I felt like I had to do something, I gathered up all my courage and… sent an email.
On Thursday morning, I wrote to the Muslim Community Center here in Knoxville. It basically said, “I’d love an opportunity to sit down and talk to someone there. I’m not sure what I want to accomplish, I just know that I want to be a good neighbor.” Here’s the crazy part – just an hour or so later, I got a response. Saimah invited me to their Ramadan Iftar ceremony, which was happening that night. An Iftar is the meal eaten after sundown that breaks the Ramadan fast. This event was a major one for Knoxville, held at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, this Iftar was attended by an ecumenical who’s who of Knoxville, and Mayor Madeline Rogero was the keynote speaker. After thinking of about fifty reasons why I couldn’t attend that night, my wife Janna put me in my place. She said, “You’re the one that sent the email. They invited you. Go.”
So I put on a suit and tie and went down to the gardens. I walked into a room in which I knew no one. I sat down at an empty table, hoping it wouldn’t stay empty, and soon, two gentlemen sat down next to me. Both men were Muslim, and they introduced themselves to me. Turns out, they were both named Mohammed. One is a neurosurgeon in a nearby town, and one is an electrical engineer. After the speeches, right at sundown, a Muslim man walked up to the microphone, turned toward Mecca, and prayed. That was the moment the good doctor handed me a plate of dates — the traditional snack for breaking the Ramadan fast.
After that, they left the table for their prayer service, while those of us who were guests went to the food line. I ate in silence while the Muslims finished praying outside. When Mohammed and Mohammed sat back down with their food, our conversation began in earnest. Both men were extraordinarily generous with their time. They answered all my questions with grace and humility, and I’m grateful to them. I told them how my heart was hurting for my hometown, and they told me how their hearts hurt too. They spent time with me that could have been spent speaking to their friends and family. I was so uncomfortable when I walked into the room, but I walked out with new friends, and promises for further conversation.
The walk back to my car was dark and quiet, and I had a few moments to process what had just happened, but it takes longer than that to get back from Wonderland. I spent the first part of last week mourning my old hometown, but since Thursday night, I’ve been celebrating the neighbors in my new hometown. And I’m learning that, sometimes, you have to leave your neighborhood to meet your neighbors. You’d think a grown man would be smart enough to know that already, but sometimes it takes an act of terror to get me to move.
Last Thursday night may have been unusual, and I expected to mourn with those who mourned. What I found instead was a Muslim community that mourned with me. They saw my need and ministered to it. They welcomed me, fed me, and loved me. And I’m in their debt. They were good, good neighbors.