One of the joys in my work is learning from the diversity of our students, as well as our faculty, staff, and trustees. A little over 40% of Hartford Seminary students identify as Muslim, followed by about 40% Christian, with the remaining identifying as Jewish and other.
Though I do not share their faith, serving Muslim students as president and professor over the years has taught me much. As the month of Ramadan comes to a close, and the festival of Eid al-Fitr arrives, I too feel like I have come through a period of renewal, even while I have not fasted or participated in Ramadan religiously. But for one month each year our organization adjusts and does things a little differently. We journey alongside our Muslim students and colleagues as they devote themselves to prayer, fasting, reflection, and community. We try to be sensitive to meeting times and all things related to food. It is not a burden. In fact, I find myself blessed by it all, as if by osmosis.
From sunup until sundown each day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims who are in good health do not eat or drink, something done in conjunction with spiritual practices of prayer, almsgiving, and reciting the Quran.
Having a busy schedule, I sometimes rise before the sun, and when I look out the window of our home during Ramadan, to the apartment of our Muslim student neighbors, I see their lights on. I presume they are up to pray and take in food and beverage to get through the day. It reminds me of their devotion as I start my own day. I often find myself compelled to pray in that moment, something I confess I don’t do enough of when I wake. All too often my cell phone beckons me, with its many emails, notifications, texts, and news pieces to check.
If you’ve ever been invited to a breaking of the fast meal during Ramadan, something called an Iftar, you’ll have witnessed how this special event each night brings community and family together. It is a deeply communal moment, especially when that first bite of food is taken – often a date – and water finally reaches one’s parched mouth. The connectedness of those who have waited for sunset, denying oneself for another day to draw closer to God and give to neighbor, is powerful. Joy and fellowship fill the air. It is hard to describe.
As a committed Christian, from an evangelical upbringing, I used to think that joining an Iftar meal like this, with Muslims – whom I grew up not knowing – could harm my faith, probably threaten it, or maybe somehow make me less Christian. I now view things in an opposite way. In my study of the life of Jesus, I see a man regularly accused of not eating with or hanging around with the “right” people. He was accused of being like them. He was said to eat and drink with people called sinners, tax collectors, and other outcasts. This worried his fellow religious leaders and friends.
I would not – by any means – want to call my Muslim friends any of those terms but I do think that Muslims in America are often perceived similarly in society today. I have come to know many Muslims well, and too many of them, most in fact, have stories about how they have been treated as outcasts, with suspicion, or with disdain. I have to think that if Jesus were with us, he would be intentional about hanging out with them too. In fact, I’ve now come to the conclusion that if I’m never accused of hanging around with the “wrong” people, like some might view my Muslim friends, I’m not doing Christianity right.
Paul Knitter wrote a book a few years ago called Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian. It was a provocative book, and its larger premise resonates with me. A good friend of mine wrote a similar book about his experience with Judaism as a Christian, a story closer to mine. That book is called Near Christianity: How Journeys Along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God, by Anthony Le Donne. My own journey of engagement with Jewish friends and scholars, one now deepening through growing friendships with Muslim students, faculty, and community members, has, I think, made me a better and more faithful Christian. Hopefully it’s made me a better human being.
As our Muslim neighbors celebrate Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan, I encourage you, whatever your faith tradition, or even if you have none, to see this as an opportunity. If you have a Muslim neighbor or colleague, find a way to express interest, build a friendship, and experience life through their eyes. I hope it can go deeper than attending an Iftar, though a meal like that can be a wonderful place to start. As your friendships deepen, and you develop true and meaningful bonds, I’m confident you’ll come away changed.
Joel N. Lohr is the President of Hartford Seminary and co-author of Mitka’s Secret: A True Story of Child Slavery and Surviving the Holocaust, to be published on July 20.