I took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.
In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.
“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.
He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?
Shoeless in Seattle
I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.
The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.
Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?
Artificial and Forced
In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.
How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?
Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?
Alternatives to Mosque Hopping
In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.
Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.
Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?