The Holy Welcome of Stories:
Cultivating Humility, Curiosity, and Delight through Our Shared Stories
BY RACHEL JONES
I dreaded Tuesday nights. A group of church folks would gather in our apartment for a few minutes of prayer. Then they paired up, usually in coed groups of two, discussed which floors or buildings hadn’t yet been approached, and headed out to evangelize our Somali neighbors. After two hours, they returned and reported. It was always the same, and it always felt like a competition.
Christian vs. Christian: who would have the best story? Hypothetical points awarded based on boldness and success but also on persecution and effort, so even failure could be spun into a meaningful narrative.
Christian vs. Muslim: Who would be proved right? Who could speak the longest without getting interrupted, quote the most scripture, raise one’s voice, gather a crowd?
Inevitably, the reports contained things like:
“They slammed the door in my face.”
“They let me in but only wanted to argue about the Trinity.” Or that the Bible was corrupted, or Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or Prophet Mohammed was the seal of the prophets.
“They pretended to be interested but only wanted to convert us to Islam.”
I hosted the group but rarely went along. The whole thing made me queasy, though since I was pregnant with twins, the queasiness was constant. The pregnancy was one excuse, and I had plenty of others. I was tired from a long workday. I was painfully shy. Someone needed to remain in the apartment in case stragglers arrived. Someone needed to stay back, devoted to prayer. Except I didn’t pray while they went to work for Jesus. I did laundry and dishes and finished my undergraduate thesis on linguistics. I tried to squelch guilt over my laziness, cowardice, and weak faith. What I did not do was interrogate why I felt uncomfortable about this endeavor.
The church people were wonderful, intelligent, compassionate, funny, and deeply in love with Jesus. Now, I look back and understand they (we) were also myopic. They couldn’t see the irony in complaining that a Muslim feigned interest only to turn around and try to convert that person, when that was exactly what they were doing. They couldn’t see that they, too, wanted to argue so they could prove themselves, could win those spiritual points. They couldn’t understand why a non-English-speaking refugee wouldn’t want to invite nosy strangers into their private home at dinnertime, or prayer time.
This was, I was taught, the best way to love my neighbors, and it must be done, whether they wanted this love or not—whether they experienced it as love or not.
Preach, argue, convince, invade.
My husband and I had moved into this particular apartment complex because it was near the University of Minnesota where I finished my bachelor’s degree and he finished a master’s and because it was affordable. Known as “the Crack Stacks” or “Ghetto in the Sky,” the complex filled with refugees from whichever corner of the world currently experienced violence or crises. When we lived there in 1999–2000, our neighbors were Somali Muslims.
To me, a white, blond-haired, suburban-raised American Baptist, Somali Muslims were an enigma. I knew little about Islam except that, unbeknownst to themselves, Muslims were simply waiting for me, or my church group, to knock on their door at inconvenient times and explain the way of salvation. But the Somalis in the elevator, the community center, on the playground, and bringing me platters of goat meat and colorful rice, didn’t seem discontent. They weren’t interested in the Bible and were happy being Muslim.
I wasn’t sure what to do about that but wasn’t yet brave enough to voice or address my questions. I wasn’t yet brave enough to consider another way.
When our twins were born, these neighbors brought food and washed dishes. They held the babies so I could shower or sleep. They cleaned the apartment, provided adult company, and bought us matching baby bouncy seats. They let me watch them pray. The women pulled prayer rugs out from behind doors and unfurled them on the floor while their children watched cartoons. They explained the Ramadan fast regulations. They showed me their Qurans, wrapped in cloth and placed in wooden stands on the highest shelf in the home.
"I SAW HOW RESILIENT SOMALIS ARE AND HOW THEY ARE SO MUCH MORE COMPLEX, HILARIOUS, CREATIVE, AND GENEROUS THAN ANY STORY OF VIOLENCE PRESENTED IN THE WESTERN MEDIA COULD REVEAL "
In other words, they neighbored me with warmth and relationship. They didn’t hand me Islamic tracts and didn’t preach at me. I did not feel threatened by our religious differences; I felt curious about them. Why did they face Mecca when they prayed? What did Islam teach about the role of women in the home and the mosque? How did Muslims think about religion? Was it relational, transactional, pragmatic, delightful? What core beliefs or behaviors marked a person as a Muslim? How many years did it take to earn a zabiba, the bruise in the middle of the forehead from bowing in prayer?
The curiosity wasn’t because I wanted to become Muslim but because I wanted to understand how my friends viewed God and how their faith impacted their behavior. Our differences also sparked questions about my own Christian faith, by way of contrast. What is prayer? Why do I fast the way I fast and give the way I give? What is the Christian concept of pilgrimage? How do I explain the Trinity to someone who has never heard of it or has heard it consists of God, Jesus, and Mary? Why do I love Jesus? What do I believe about God’s character?
And then, the big one for me, how do I hold my own faith convictions while also respecting the faith of others? I didn’t have time to address all these questions in Minnesota. Through friends in the apartment complex, my husband was offered a position as a professor at a university in Somaliland (northern Somalia), in a town called Borama. We were young, full of faith, eager to see the world, and ready for a grand adventure, so we said yes, packed up our toddler twins, and moved to the other side of the planet in 2003.
Did I mention this was Somalia? Most people assumed we were afraid. We probably should have been, at least more than we were. I’m not sure if we were brave or foolish. I think we were a little of both. We probably still are. What I am sure of is that being neighbored by Somalis in the US, in Somaliland, and eventually in Djibouti changed me. Over the next twenty years in the Horn of Africa, my Christian faith deepened because of my Muslim community.
In Somalia and Djibouti, I would encounter the stories of Islam and the stories of my Somali friends. I studied language and theology, history and anthropology, but it was the stories that captured my attention because they surprised me. I started an ongoing shift from enduring faith as competition to delighting in faith as holy welcome.
"IT IS LESS RISKY TO IMPOSE A JUDGEMENT THAN TO DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP. IT CAN FEEL SAFER TO HUNKER DOWN WITH PEOPLE "LIKE ME" THAN TO VENTURE INTO THE UNKNOWN TERRITORY OF DISAGREEMENT AND CHALLENGE."
Somalis have a rich oral heritage. Poetry, epic music, and folktales enshrine and teach their value system, religion, and family histories. Storytelling and poetry recitations are not static. Both the speakers and the hearers are involved with their whole bodies and their voices, calling back and repeating what they hear. Stories are passed orally from generation to generation: tales of Araweelo, the queen who castrates all the men of the kingdom; Dheg Dheer, the mythical cannibal woman who captures and devours disobedient children; and Igal Shidaad, who uses cowardice to outwit his enemies; and real-life heroes like Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, aka the “Mad Mullah,” who used poetry to imbibe his warriors with the courage they needed to fight British colonizers.
Part of my language learning in Somaliland involved watching Somalis tell stories. I learned hand gestures, cadence, and how to listen—making the inhaled gasp at appropriate times or repeating certain phrases back to the speaker. I began to understand cultural aspects that hovered below consciousness, like the value of cleverness, their view of the extended family and clan network, and how people relate to God, nature, and each other. I saw how resilient Somalis are and how they are so much more complex, hilarious, creative, and generous than any story of violence presented in the Western media could reveal.
Stories are formative. They describe “who we are, why we are here, and what will become of us.” Shared stories bond communities with a common narrative that communicates ethics, priorities, and perspectives. Being able to finish a line or make a play on words, like calling someone Igal Shidaad when that person exhibits fear, are part of creating connection and communicate, “I belong here.”
From the minute I stepped off the airplane in Somaliland, I was the strange foreigner, the outsider who dressed wrong and rolled her ankles on stones and spoke like a child and couldn’t tell camel meat from beef and didn’t know how to avoid walking toward a gun battle. I was ridiculous, lonely, and ached for that sense of “I belong here.”
I did not feel afraid; I felt welcomed and eager to grow into belonging. Until violence knocked down the door and fear barged in.
Our time in Somaliland abruptly ended in October 2003. Three foreigners were assassinated, one only a few blocks from our home. The university would no longer guarantee our protection; and our organization, along with every other foreign organization in the country, announced they were pulling out. Our director ordered us to the airport. Our flight would leave in two hours. The airport was a two-hour drive away. I took thirty minutes to pack a bag while Tom shut down the house, and we ran away.
I looked back. My husband sped over the bumpy road. The twins bounced around in loose seatbelts in the backseat. I looked back over the aluminum rooftops of our neighbors’ homes, the minarets, the goats, and the market, and I cried.
When I conjure memories of the evacuation now, from the distance of almost two decades, I picture myself looking back through the dusty windows of our Landcruiser, and I think about another woman who looked back as she and her family fled their home. She is nameless, and I thought I knew her story:
God gave a command; she disobeyed; God killed her. The end.
Lot’s wife appears in the Old Testament, in Genesis 19:26, but the curiosity I had cultivated back in Minnesota about Islam extended to Quranic stories, and I learned she is also mentioned multiple times in the Quran. She is one of roughly thirteen women who appear or are referenced in both the Bible and the Quran.
C. S. Lewis writes, “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….We demand windows….My eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others.” I wanted to see this woman through other eyes. I felt, in a strange and unwelcome way, connected to her flight. I wanted to understand why she looked back, why she suffered such a bizarre fate.
I could have read Christian commentaries and relied on exclusively Christian scholars, but that is not my world. Christians are an extreme minority in the Horn of Africa, and I wanted to be able to place her story, my story, in my cultural context, to see if this allowed me a fresh perspective.
I also knew so many Somali women who have fled their towns and wondered if they made the right decision; who have watched smoke rise from their homes and wondered if their loved ones made it out alive; who knew the horror of mob violence and sexual assault; who wondered if God saw, if God cared. Lot’s wife knew terror, devastation, and death.
Could the story of Waliha, as she became known in Islamic tradition, offer any hope, perspective, or warning in times of suffering, loss, or temptation? Could Christians and Muslims find common ground and points of contact in this shared story and as we relate it to our personal experiences?
"THIS IS NOT UNIVERSALISM BUT HUMILITY IN DISTINCTIVES. IT IS NOT COMPETITION BUT MUTUALITY. IT IS NOT DEBATE BUT DISCOVERY. IT IS NOT INVASION BUT WELCOME."
She Looked Back In the Bible
In Genesis, Waliha’s husband Lot welcomes angelic guests into their home and feeds them dinner. Where is Waliha when these mysterious men arrive? Does she have a sense of foreboding? Genesis says Lot prepares bread without yeast. Is it Waliha who gathers the flour and kneads the bread?
When the men of Sodom learn the angels are there, they surround the house and demand the angels come out so they can rape them. Lot offers two of his own daughters, both virgins, instead. Where is Waliha when Lot decides to pacify a crazed mob by handing over her daughters? Has she thrown herself at his feet, wailing? Is she barring his way so he can’t snatch one of them to toss outside? Is she silent, frozen with fear? Is she hiding beneath the bed with her daughters, trembling with rage?
The mob continues to assault the home, nearly breaking down the door, until the angels strike every man present with sudden blindness. Where are the other women of the city, and what do they think when their husbands, sons, and brothers return that night, fumbling through the streets, newly blinded? Do they have a sense of dread? We notice these women by their absence and their silence.
The angels order Lot to get himself and his family out of the city; it is about to be destroyed because of the sinfulness of the inhabitants. Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law to escape, but they think he is joking and refuse. This means possibly at least two other daughters are left in Sodom.
At dawn, the family flees, forced out by the angels who grab their hands and drag them out when Lot hesitates. They command Lot to flee and not look back. All the words in Genesis 19:17 are masculine and singular, directed exclusively at Lot. Where is Waliha? Does she hear the command? The text isn’t clear on whether she personally hears the command to not turn back.
Waliha is behind her husband, her daughters, and the angels.
Maybe she is thinking about her other daughters. Maybe she hopes they will change their minds or defy their husbands and escape. Maybe she is thinking about her neighbors. The women who sing songs as they grind grain, who dream of tiny hands and feet as they sew baby clothing, who gather at the well in the cool mornings. Maybe she is thinking about her house, the dishes in the sink and the clothes on the line, the cooking utensils, the chickens and kittens, the baby goats tied to a post.
Waliha looks back.
She is turned into a pillar of salt.
In her poem, “Of Course She Looked Back,” Naomi Diaz writes,
You would have, too.
From that distance the shivering city
fit in the palm of her hand
like she owned it.
She could’ve blown the whole thing—
markets, dancehalls, hookah bars—
sent the city and its hundred harems
tumbling across the desert
like a kiss. She had to look back.
I looked back that day in Somaliland. No angelic visitors ordered me not to, so it wasn’t disobedient. But when I read Waliha’s story, I understand why she did it. My husband drove away from Borama, and I looked back with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I left dishes in the sink, bananas on the counter, clothes on the line, the dollhouse Tom built, pictures the kids had colored, all our furniture, and most of our possessions. I left my language tutor, a woman with buckteeth who wore a face veil and taught me to recognize her in the market by her shoes. I left my neighbor who snuck three-year-old Henry into her aqal to smoke shisha while Maggie chased goats in the yard. I left people who patiently endured my convoluted Somali sentences.
I felt grief. I know why Waliha looked back.
We didn’t know if we were the next target. There were not many foreigners in the town or the country. We were one of three American families and had young kids, making us high profile and slow moving. I left certainty, security, and the naivete that no one wanted to hurt us. Would we face danger on the two-hour drive to the airport? Where were we going? What would we do next? Our dream and well-laid plans were shattered.
I felt fear. I know why Waliha looked back. There had been no condemnation of wickedness in Borama, no divine threat of utter destruction. Our house was not burning; there was no rain of sulfur or stones. But there were three dead bodies. Two teachers and one medical worker, Annalena Tonelli, the “Mother Teresa” of Somalia. There would be more, but we didn’t know that yet. There were students who begged Tom, their professor, not to leave, and tuberculosis patients with no more Annalena to cool their fever.
I felt anger. I know why Waliha looked back.
Was her glance over her shoulder intentional, or the instinctual response to an irresistible urge to bear witness? Was she unable to ignore the screams of horror and pain? Did it come from fear that the devastation might reach her family as they fled? Was it morbid curiosity? Was her glance defiant? In that act, was Waliha choosing to identify with those destroyed in the city, not knowing what her own punishment would be?
In the Quran
In the Quran, the story takes place in several different chapters. The basic details are similar: The men of the city are habitually wicked and intend to molest Lot’s angelic visitors. He offers his daughters; the mob refuses. The angels strike the mob with blindness, and each man returns to his home to plot Lot’s ruin for the next day. Lot is told to flee the coming destruction along with his family. Two verses state Waliha is destined to stay behind, and in Surah 37, an old woman, presumably Waliha, is left behind or lagged behind as Lot and the family escape.
Building on Islamic tradition and the Quran, Waliha is guilty of siding with the unbelievers. She knows the men of Sodom would want to have sex with the beautiful, young, male angels. She signals the presence of the angels to the Sodomites by grinding wheat during the day and kindling a fire at night, inviting the would-be attackers. Does she have any idea her actions will result in her own daughters being offered in place of these men? Her unbelief has dire ramifications on those closest to her.
During the night, Lot and the family escape. Waliha does not survive. Her escape attempt appears half-hearted; she lags and looks back at the city. Maybe she doesn’t believe God will really destroy it. Maybe she thinks she can escape unscathed. Maybe she is overcome with regret. Maybe she is unable to believe that God, whose very name is Most Merciful, might still have mercy on her, a sinner.
As Lot and the daughters run, Waliha is caught up in the destruction of Sodom. Fire rains down, and the angel Gabriel uses his wing to rip up the entire city. He raises it to the heavens and sends it crashing down to earth, and few survive. Those who do survive are crushed by stones God hurls from the sky, each labeled with the name of its intended target. Which punishment falls upon Waliha? A hadith by Ibn Kathir says she turns into a black stone for twenty years, then the earth swallows her.
Surah 66:10 goes further and addresses her eternal fate. She is destined for the fire because of her disobedience and failure to recognize the message of God sent through her husband. She is set as an example to the believers of what not to do.
Do not be complicit with evildoers; do not ignore the message of God or God’s messengers; do not give up on God’s mercy.
In this story, we see a woman who experienced a night of terror at the hands of all the men in the city, including her own husband who offered up her virgin daughters. The justification given for the utter destruction of Sodom is the depravity of the inhabitants, known to God because of a great outcry that rose from the city.
From whom does the outcry that reaches God come, if not from the absent women and children? Sodom’s sins in the Old Testament include oppression (Isaiah 1); adultery and strengthening evildoers (Jer 23:14); arrogance, gluttony, failure to care for the poor; and doing detestable things (Ezra 16:49–50). The New Testament includes sexual immorality (Jude 7). In the Quran, the sins include lewd acts, sexual perversion, drunkenness, wickedness, and crime.
To oppress, there must be an oppressed. Indifference toward the poor and needy requires the existence of the poor and needy. Criminal acts are committed against victims. There are surely infants, children, and women in the city, and their outcry is great.
After her night of terror, Waliha finds herself abandoning her home and community, fleeing while the city burns. The Quran says Lot is told not to look back but that his wife alone is destined to look back. She has no choice, whether she hears the prohibition or not.
She looks. With that glance of disobedience, longing, remembrance, grief, curiosity, or horror, she chooses to see, to witness. When every living thing one knows and loves is burned, is it not appropriate or at least natural to look back, to witness, and to lament? In the Quran, she is destroyed by fire and stones, and in the Bible, Waliha’s body is transformed immediately into a pillar of salt.
Why a pillar of salt? The image is striking in its specificity and strangeness. Salt is a sign of covenant. Three times the Old Testament refers to the covenant between God and Israel as a covenant of salt, and sacrifices are to be flavored with salt. Salt is a preservative, protecting food from spoiling and making it last longer. Jesus uses salt as a marker of table fellowship, of friendship and peace. In the same passage, Jesus uses salt as a warning; everyone will be salted with fire.
Waliha’s story is usually told only with salt as a sign of punishment. While valid and important for our spiritual lives, it is possible to glean more from this story. Salt as a reminder that God will keep God’s covenant promises, both for destruction and for preservation. Salt as a call to peace, not violence, and fellowship, not enmity and sin.
And, as we consider the great outcry that rose to God from the mouths of the vulnerable and oppressed in Sodom, the horrific loss of life in Sodom’s destruction, and as I remember my tears when I looked back at Borama, salt becomes the salty tears of grief. Waliha becomes not only a pillar of judgment but a pillar of preservation, of remembrance.
It is possible to read her story as one of solidarity. Her body becomes a monument. She embodies lament, weeping such quantities of salty tears over the outcry of innocents destroyed because of the wickedness of the powerful that she becomes salt. The Bible never declares her a sinner or explicitly states that her transformation is punishment. Of course, no one wants to be turned into a pillar of salt, and her end is tragic! It is also a pillar, a marker. There is a cost to standing on the side of the oppressed, to taking up one’s cross. In the New Testament, Jesus often tells people he heals to be quiet, to tell no one. They immediately disobey—compelled by the miraculous healing, this encounter with power—and simply have to spread the news. Disobedience in Scripture is still disobedience, but there is nuance that shouldn’t be ignored.
In the Quran, Waliha is explicitly an unbeliever. She participates in the sins of the mob, rejects God’s message and messenger, and suffers the consequences. Her own daughters are nearly the victims of a violent, lustful assault because of her sin, and her actions contribute to the destruction of the entire city, from the humans to the animals to the buildings.
What can we take from the stories? The words of Jesus in the New Testament are important. In Luke 17:32, he says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” When you seek to preserve your own life, you might lose it instead. But if you lose your life while following the path of God, you will preserve it. Salt as preservative. Lament and weep over the suffering of innocent people in a broken world. Identify with them in solidarity but know that doing so will cause you pain. When you intentionally disobey God, there are severe temporal and eternal consequences. Your personal sin might cause or contribute to the suffering and pain of others, even people you love.
Imagining Waliha’s fear and grief and what may have tempted her to lure in the men of the city allows Muslims and Christians to talk about sexual assault, violence, why innocent people suffer, and the consequences of disobedience and unbelief. We can collectively lament the oppression in our midst, cry out against injustice, and choose obedience to God. Our salty tears are pillars of preservation, memorializing the unseen and ignored pain of those recognizable only by their absence. God takes abuses of power seriously. And, as in the fiery eternal destination spoken of in the Quran for Waliha, we also hear a warning. Do not reject God’s message. God takes faithlessness seriously.
Willfully disobedient, unaware of the command, or simply caught up in the terror, Waliha stands as a pillar of remembrance. She is salt, preserving the stories of the hurting, the grieving, the hidden, the silent. She is salt, preserving the stories of the wicked and their fate.
For people of the book, people who choose the obedience and submission of faith, we need not fear the fire. Remember Lot’s wife! We can stand in solidary with the suffering knowing there may be severe consequences. Remember Lot’s wife!
We Look Forward
I stopped calling myself a Christian the day my Djiboutian friend called me a prostitute. She was joking, but an idea persisted around Djibouti that Christians had questionable sexual ethics and probably slept around. Students at the University of Djibouti told my husband they thought Easter was the day Christian men went to bars and visited brothels. The uncircumcised bodies of foreign women contributed to this idea, as did the globalization of Hollywood films, the clothing non-Muslim women wore, and that we rode bicycles. I started to use the term “Jesus follower” instead.
In Minnesota, one summer, at a church picnic, a Christian man said to me, “I don’t know how you can live around all those Muslims. Don’t you know they are trying to kill you all the time?” Another Christian commented that she was afraid to shop at the Target in her town because there were so many Muslim employees. Other Christians sent me emails about the encroachment of sharia law and their fear the US government would allow men to marry multiple wives and keep girls out of school.
In both countries, among both Christians and Muslims, there is a clear misunderstanding of the other religion’s terms like sharia law or Easter. But on a more human level, I see these characterizations as stemming from fear, self-protectionism, and simple laziness. It is easier to call Muslims terrorists and/or Christians prostitutes than to learn what they believe. It is less risky to impose a judgment than to develop a relationship. It can feel safer to hunker down with people “like me” than to venture into the unknown territory of disagreement and challenge.
Many of these judgments and misunderstandings relate to sexuality, or gender. Headscarves, circumcision, brothels, prostitutes, polygamy. Both religions address these topics in our texts. Yes, we disagree on fundamentals about our faiths, but we agree on fundamentals about our humanity, our bodies, and our dignity, and the stories in our texts provide a way forward. How we tell these stories matters, that we tell these stories matters, and telling them in multi-religious community can contribute to productive dialogue and help dispel misunderstanding and negative judgment.
Lot’s wife is not among the most familiar biblical or Quranic characters. We share stories of more well-known people as well, from Abraham and Moses to Jesus, each with ample room for dialogue. Other than Mary, the only named woman in the Quran, the stories of our shared women remain obscure—the Queen of Sheba, Potiphar’s wife, Noah’s wife, Hagar.
It is this very near-silence that makes their stories intriguing as a connection point for Muslims and Christians. Their presence in both texts piques curiosity. Why these women? Their hiddenness also means there is less contention in exploring together. Few Christians would say their faith is set upon how one understands Lot’s wife. Few Muslims would argue the same. This is not to argue that interpretation is unimportant, simply to say there are ways to read the Bible and the Quran in conversation that do not immediately devolve into arguments about whether Jesus died and rose from the dead or which son Abraham nearly sacrificed.
Not every Christian or Muslim knows these scripture stories or feels confidently conversant in them. But every culture has folktales, myths, legends, heroes, and heroines. Every person has a story. Each story, tale, myth, and legend is a window into another perspective. They let us name suffering and celebrating. They give us new questions and unique angles. They form us into communities and create connection. Daniel Taylor writes, “A community, a family, is a group of people who share common stories.”
Reading these stories in the Quran was an exercise in the spiritual practice of curiosity for me as a Christian. Reading them in conversation with the biblical version was an exercise in spiritual playfulness. Reading them in conversation with the lived experiences of Christians and Muslims is an exercise in spiritual relationships.
This is not universalism but humility in distinctives. It is not competition but mutuality. It is not debate but discovery. It is not invasion but welcome.
Faith as Holy Welcome
Twenty years after I lived in the Minneapolis apartment complex, I think back to my pregnant self, conflicted about door-to-door evangelism targeting Muslims. I have different words now for relating with Muslims, and they are not the aggressive verbs of preach, argue, convince, and invade. They are about posture and character. They turn me toward stories.
Humility, curiosity, delight, welcome. Humility in approaching the stories of another religious system allows us to listen to their perspective and not insist on our interpretation of their texts. This doesn’t require agreement; it is the posture of a learner. Curiosity moves us to ask good questions, to explore, to wonder. This takes the focus off us and is a way of valuing the other. Delight is the spiritual practice of playfulness. Enjoy the imagination and creativity of the other. Enter their celebrations; rejoice at the work of God they experience.
These words offer holy welcome to Muslim friends to come into my sacred space and consider what I love about Christianity and the stories of my faith. They are open to the holy welcomes Muslim friends offer me, to come into their sacred space and consider what they love about being Muslim and the stories of their faith. They make room for bigger questions, deep learning, and a more expansive God.
“What do you love about being Muslim?” I asked my friend. Habone sat across from me at a Djiboutian café and looked startled by the question.
“What do I love about it?” she asked.
“What brings you joy?” I said.
She grinned and settled back into her white plastic chair. “That isn’t what I thought you would ask.”
I had an assignment for seminary to interview two Muslim women and write a paper based on our conversations. Habone had braced herself for questions about terrorism or the oppression of women or clothing. She was ready to defend her faith. I wanted to know what delighted her.
“I love the value of modesty,” Habone said. She flicked the fringe of her headscarf. “I don’t mean dressing modestly, though that’s one aspect of it. I mean living modestly in all of life.” She meant not being ostentatious with wealth, or boastful about possessions, and being financially generous and humble. “I love paying zakat but feel especially close to God when I give sadaqat,” spontaneous giving.
A year earlier, the day before Eid al-Fitr, Habone gave ten thousand franc (fifty-six dollars) to a stranger who was begging near her home. The woman was so shocked (usually people give one hundred franc, fifty cents, if anything) she started to cry and whispered that now her children would be able to celebrate the holiday with food and new clothes. The next day, Habone had a horrible car accident. She hit a pole and the car flipped up on its side. Bystanders pulled her and her toddler from the shattered and smoking car. Everyone who saw the accident, including myself, said it was a miracle they survived. They didn’t even have scratches or bruises.
“God saved me,” Habone said, “because of that sadaqat. Every time I give, I receive blessing. I love this about my faith.”
What do you love about your faith? This has become my favorite question to ask Muslim friends. It is an invitation for them to tell a story about how they experience God in daily life, a story from the Quran, a story about a spiritual hero they admire. The question never fails to surprise them, and it never fails to spark conversations rich with joy, miracles, and the presence of God. By asking what they love, and sharing what I love, we offer one another holy welcomes.
Cultivating the spiritual practices of humility, curiosity, and delight toward a religious other also deepens these practices in our own religious life. Be a learner, ask good questions, anticipate joy.
Come into the sacred space of our stories and let’s experience God together.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer and speaker who focuses on exploring the intersection of faith and culture. Author of several books, including Pillars and Stronger than Death, Jones has also contributed to a wide range of publications, such as The New York Times, Runners World, and Christianity Today. Her work is influenced by her experiences of living in the Horn of Africa, and she encourages her readers and audiences to engage deeply with others, bravely live outside their comfort zone, and live passionately.