I became an Episcopalian because of Islamophobia. Yes, you read that correctly. I became an Episcopalian because of Islamophobia.
In the days and weeks after the September 11th attacks, we saw example after example of Muslim individuals violated and their places of worship desecrated. Remember? As our nation closed its eyes in grief, misguided people fueled by ignorance and hatred lashed out against strangers because they were afraid.
In the aftermath of one such act of violence against a mosque in Southern Maryland, a community leader who I knew – an elderly Episcopal priest – asked me to drive him up to the site of the vandalism to greet members of that faith community as they gathered for worship. He believed that it was critical to let them know that they were not alone and that all Christians did not act with such bigotry in their hearts. As my respect for and connection with a people who were different than me increased, so too did my clarity about who I was and what I believe emerge more fully. That day as we were warmly welcomed by members of the mosque and invited in to worship, I realized that I wanted to be an Episcopalian.
It was only a short time later that a relationship began to form between that mosque and the Episcopal Church that I started attending, as a young adult just out of college. Opportunities for dialogue, fellowship and service occurred, as did a joint worship experience that would further change my life. In it, I watched real hospitality lived out between two peoples. I watched two peoples who barely knew one another reach out to each other in pain and providence. The liturgy began with a call to prayer that was sung in Arabic, and we were carried into a mutual sharing of two rich faith traditions. The preacher for the occasion was a bishop and she preached about a radical love that I could hardly imagine in the face of fear that was so palatable in that fall of 2001. There in St. Mary’s City – the birthplace of religious toleration – she prophetically called us beyond mere toleration to understanding, acceptance, and love. Beneath her words and cadence, I heard another voice whisper and it was that night that I believe I first wondered (weirdly) whether I could be called to be a priest. So Islamophobia not only led me to become an Episcopalian, it also pushed me toward the priesthood. And I will have you know that insidious fear did not stop there.
Today I met a physician while I was visiting with someone, as she began yet another round of chemotherapy. This doctor was Muslim. I witnessed him speak freely about God, and as he did love just radiated from him. He looked into the pain of this woman and invited her courage and spirit to come out. In his touch, she felt comfort and found hope. In his presence, she discovered reason to rise up and experience healing. As he looked through the darkness of the world around us, and into the darkness of her suffering, light shone from his eyes. His brief words about the state of the world and little worry about persecution for his beliefs, gave me courage. While most of the people I spend time with are Christian, he spoke with greater conviction about Jesus’ second coming than anyone I’ve encountered so far this season of Advent (maybe ever). In short, this Muslim man convicted me, inspired me, and drew me closer to Jesus.
In these times we live in now, I am disgusted by the hate-filled rhetoric that assaults our humanity and drives us away from the Great Commandment of Jesus to love God and to love our neighbor. Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful to live in a country that privileges us with the right of free speech. But as thankful as I may be, I am even more ashamed when words of hate like those directed to my Muslim sisters and brothers are tolerated: when they are not drowned out with cries of outrage, and met with an overwhelming wall of love and solidarity by those of us who witness this bigotry.
I am an Episcopalian, a priest, and a follower of Jesus, and I will not allow such a warped perspective to monopolize the public square. Islamophobia is a sin. Xenophobia is a sin. Both draw us away from the task of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If I am serious about Advent and the task of preparing the way of the Lord, then I cannot – I will not – tolerate ignorance and hatred. I will cast out that fear with the love that dwells deeply within me, and you, and every other child of God.