Where No One is Different

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Mark 9:37

My friend invited me for dinner. A prayer would be said before the meal and guests like me were reassured we wouldn’t have to join, but were welcome to gather with our hosts in praising . . . Allah.

A few years back, I was a non-Muslim invited to gather at Fresno’s Islamic Cultural Center to enjoy a meal and share with neighbors during Ramadan.

Ramadan represents the holiest time of year for Muslims. Among the Ramadan obligations is daily fasting. From sunrise to sunset, a person does nothing (including eating or drinking) that represents pleasure. The day’s final meal takes on significance. On every day the devout Muslim prays on five separate occasions. But during this time of celebration and sacrifice, the prayer before the dinner (the Maghrib or sunset prayer) is likely more keenly felt . . . if only because of a growling stomach!

I don’t understand much of this. Raised in a 1950s American suburb, I wasn’t aware of any Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. The oddest religious expressions came from Roman Catholic classmates or the very few Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew. Along with other elementary school students, I remember being jealous of a kid who didn’t stand or say the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Why?” we asked.

The whispered response, in the playground or from teachers, was, “He’s a Jehovah’s Witness.” If more detailed reasons were given, they zoomed over my ten-year old head with its youthful crewcut. Those Jehovah Witnesses were different. Strange. The other.

There were Catholic kids that attended Mass on Sunday. (Why not call it church like “normal” people?) They had lists of movies the Pope allowed them to watch . . . or not watch. (Didn’t the Pope’s film reviewers realize they created a must-see cheat sheet?) Wasn’t serving communion once in a while—instead of every darn week and/or worship service—sufficient? At my Baptist church, communion was done a few times a year. Those Catholics were different. Strange. The other.

Nowadays, I can’t help but think of faiths like Islam and Judaism and the numerous Christian “tribes” (there are well over 600 Christian-based denominations in the United States), when I read Jesus’ concern that his disciples argued over “who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:34.)

When I was a kid, the who’s-the-greatest answer was easy-peasy: Me. My experiences. I may have been fleetingly envious of my seated, silent classmate during the Pledge, but when only one person sat and the other thirty were “just like me,” I did the social math.

More numbers = the right way. Right?

At the Ramadan prayer, just before breaking the fast with my Muslim neighbors, I observed a way of faith different than mine. As an adult, the who’s-the-greatest answer in any form is meaningless. On my best days I only have interest in strengthening my faith, of becoming more Christ-like. I often fail at my efforts, but through it all the who’s-the-greatest seems, well, childish.

What will we teach our children?

I watched my neighbors bow. I heard the Arabic language, guttural and with unexpected pauses, and couldn’t identify a single word. And yet, as the Quran was recited, I understood at least three things.

I was welcome. I had been told, “Come and join.” Being there was a prayer born of invitation.

There was food in my future. Religious or not, everyone fasts. Where do you think we get the word for the day’s first meal? Break the fast. Breakfast. Some eat too much; too many have too little. But every human anticipates a meal to give our bodies energy. Jesus, accused of being a glutton and drunkard, knew the joy of the meal. And even more, and I thought of this during Ramadan prayers, of the joy of sharing table with others. Break the fast. Break the bread. Break into conversation with the one next to you and across from you.

Lastly, as I witnessed men bowing low—a few in business suits and others arriving from a day of sweaty labor—I noticed a boy. My friend, the one who invited me to break Ramadan’s fast, has several children. Back then, one was still an elementary-aged kid. As my friend prayed, his child mimicked him. Words were shared, bodies moved in harmony. And there was this boy who joined his dad. Who, like me as a kid, saw this simply as what you do because this is what his family does.

Who is the greatest? My friend’s son was born after September 11, 2001. That horrific pain will always be history to him, a “long-ago” event. But, for all children born since then, I humbly hope and pray for a world of compassion, where no one is different. Strange. The other.

What a silly question Jesus’ disciples debated.

In Mark’s Gospel, to reveal his follower’s pettiness, Jesus embraced a child. I imagine Jesus—perhaps before the meal began, before a fast was broken—inviting that child to come forward and to remind others, then and now, of the power of welcoming.

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