Adventures of a Presbyterian pastor on a Jesuit campus
Fasting with Muslims
My third Iftar as a campus minister, amid the swirling violence of Chapel Hill, Charlie Hebdo, and Chattanooga
by Abby King-Kaiser
The noise rose around me as I sat down with my overloaded paper plate. No one was yet at my table, but I had decided, for once, to do what pastors are not supposed to do and just eat. Usually at these sorts of gatherings, I circulate and chat up folks in line. If I manage to get any food, I have to scrape up the last bits and eat standing up. Not today.
This was no typical church potluck.
I was hosting my third Iftar as a campus minister, the first one where I had joined in and fasted all day, and so I now made eating a priority. As we gathered up serving dishes and wiped down tables amid laughter, I had that elusive feeling I seek as a pastor—that I am right where God has called me to be, loving the people God has called me to love. How could that possibly be true for a Midwestern Presbyterian who didn’t know any Muslims until college?
I woke up that Friday with a keen sense that I had no idea what I was doing. I got up before sunrise to eat—I think that is how this works?—shoveling down a bowl of cereal and some yogurt before the babies woke up. My husband gave me a look as I left, with a “good luck.” He knows I get angry when I am hungry, so he thought fasting was not such a good idea for the people around me. I sucked down water all day, joining my coworker for conversation but no food at noon. I deflected questions from my kids about why I wasn’t eating pizza, but by the time I was picking up pans of halal kabobs and chicken wings, I was feeling good. I had done it. I wasn’t as hungry as expected. I reveled in some mastery over my body in a way that is rare for me. I looked toward a room full of students celebrating, an oasis in the desert of a quiet summer for me. Rushing through last minute details, I felt joy and connection but was still just as lost as I was when I woke up. What was I supposed to get out of fasting? Had I even done it right?
The answer was no; I hadn’t done it “right.” Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t gotten the rules right about when to eat in the morning—I had eaten later than I should have. I shouldn’t have been drinking water all day, which of course is what I felt made the whole thing possible. I shouldn’t have licked the pizza sauce off my kid’s hand either. Hmmm.
But, one look at the faces of the my students told me it didn’t matter if I had done it right. All that mattered was that I had joined them. “Right” happens when I draw nearer to God and all God’s people, not when I manage rules or systems with deft ability.
And, I cannot, will not, encounter God when I stay hung up on doing things right all the time.
This was a very difficult year for the Muslim students on our campus, as well as for many Muslim communities in our country. Last summer was fraught with war in Palestine, continued destabilization in Syria, and the resulting refugee crisis. The Charlie Hebdo shooting at the beginning of the calendar year and then the resulting hateful backlash on social media felt personal. Our Muslim Students Association responded with a witty flier campaign that aimed to normalize the Muslim student experience. I thought it was brilliant (though I am quite biased).
‘One look at the faces of my students told me it didn’t matter if I had done it right. All that mattered was that I had joined them. Right happens when I draw nearer to God and all God’s people, not when I manage rules or systems with deft ability.’
And then the Muslim students known affectionately as Our Three Winners were murdered in Chapel Hill. This was a tragedy that it hit close to home, and the fear it generated was personal, deep, and real.
Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha were killed at the beginning of Lent. I couldn’t help but live this unfolding drama through the Gospels. The message I hear, again and again, is the challenge from Jesus to stand with those who are different from ourselves—to see the pain that would be easy to ignore and to respond to it. That act of seeing—really seeing—is our first step as Christians in loving our neighbors. But it is not the only step. The next step is to become kin—to eat, mourn, and celebrate together, maybe even fast together.
Maybe I didn’t fast right, maybe I didn’t reach some higher spiritual plane, but I do believe that fasting in community will move me towards building God’s kingdom where no one is killed for their love of God—no matter their creed, tradition, or skin color. And that moves me closer to Christ.
To profess love for or belief in Christ in this country puts you in the religious majority and confers certain privileges—the ability to wear religious symbols without fear, to celebrate holidays without using vacation days. To claim faiths other than Christianity in this country (or to claim no faith at all) can put you at risk for much more than social isolation. This reality should offend us as Americans—but as Christians, it should move us to action. If we love the Christ who crossed religious and social boundaries with intent, if we love the God who created each and every person in the divine image, if we love the Spirit that brought understanding of difference on Pentecost, then that love drives us to make this community a place where every person thrives, no matter their faith. (Some Christians rightly, in this context, want to talk about avoiding relativism, being clear in our beliefs, and not giving up on evangelism, the proclamation of the gospel. And we as a church can and should have that conversation, but first we must proclaim the gospel by securing the lives and dignity of all and by building up community.)
How can you get started loving your Muslim neighbor?
(1) Let go of your need to be perfect, to be right, even to be good. I once wished the president of our MSA “Merry Christmas,” even though I “know” better. The mistake allowed me to see how embedded Christian faith is in our culture, and apologizing allowed our relationship to keep growing.
(2) Get to know your Muslim neighbors. Take a tour of your local mosque. Check out a mosque’s website for information about tours.
(3) Read about Islam and Christian theologies of interfaith relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith and Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?
(4) Volunteer with a Project Downtown (or another Muslim social service organization) close to you. Started by Muslim Student Associations and mosques all over the country, Project Downtown feeds the homeless and builds relationships between people who want to work together for the common good.
(5) Pray and look for the unique ways God is calling you to reach across religious boundaries. Maybe a Hindu temple just opened in your community, or the Sikh people in your region have been experiencing hate. Maybe you can advocate in your school district for policies that allow for Muslim students to celebrate holidays without damage to their records. Maybe you can support a coworker while they fast during Ramadan. Or perhaps you have a unique skill or gift you can use.
(6) Challenge the harmful narratives you hear and see in your community. This year, it seemed that all I saw about Ramadan on the news was a connection to ISIS/ISIL using the month to promote more violence. No news about Ramadan’s inspiration of mercy, justice, and compassion. Let’s tell different stories.
The Friday after the Chapel Hill murders, an elderly Jesuit priest who lives on campus in a dorm, shuffled in to join the students for Friday prayer. The same priest used the Protestant form of the Lord’s Prayer when I was a part of a mostly Catholic group praying together, just so I would not feel alone. Small actions across difference can bloom into sustaining relationships that grow God’s kingdom here on earth.
Recently, my heart mourned with Chattanooga and the US Marines, and it was with all who are suffering because of violence and hatred, even those who do not share a nationality or religious tradition with me. May we all, hobbling along, cross our own perceived distances and join each other in prayer and action.
Abby King-Kaiser is the Assistant Director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for this call after a long sojourn in the Bay Area. She is a coffee snob, occasional painter and obsessive, though amateur, Instagrammer (@revabbykk).
 This Gallup poll will give you more than plenty to digest, but here is a quick fact: the more isolated a person in the West is from Muslims, the more likely they are to see a headscarf as a threat.