Every day we see and read stories that remind us of the deep divisions that exist between people in the modern world. In the United States, we have seen an increase in hate crimes and a sense of political animosity unparalleled in recent memory. A general feeling of unease and distrust seems to permeate the air, seeping into every nook and cranny of our lives. At times it can seem overwhelming, but I suspect that community is closer than we think.
A few weeks ago my family and I had the good fortune to attend a community barbeque hosted by the Valley Ranch Islamic Center (www.valleyranchmasjid.org). Hundreds of our Islamic neighbors came to the event, grilling chicken, chatting at picnic tables, jumping in bounce houses, and gleefully soaking members of the community in a dunk tank.
Members of my family’s church, First United Methodist Church of Coppell (www.fumccoppell.org ), and my parents’ church, the 3rd Ward of Coppell’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ( www.lds.org ), also attended the event. We’d been invited by Imam Yaser Birjas with the mutual hope of building interfaith community in our little town.
I first met Yaser while working on a story about VRIC for the newspaper. I’d interviewed him at the masjid and been given a tour. Yaser even invited me to watch as he led afternoon prayers. I stood in the back of the room and watched as members of VRIC filtered in and found a place to pray. I was struck by how familiar everything felt. Families snuck in late, and children fidgeted with opened the eyes during prayer. It looked just like a church on Sunday morning. The words were different, but the sense of holy community felt the same.
At the barbeque, the members of VRIC went out of their way to make us feel at home. They supplied us with free tickets for food and games. We were introduced to members of the masjid and Yaser gave us a tour, answering questions about the community and the Islamic faith.
After the barbeque, a member of FUMC Coppell mentioned that he learned more about Islam during our tour than he had learned in his entire life. His daughters attended the event with him and he told us that before bed one of them asked him about Islamophobia.
“They were so nice,” she said. “Why would people want them to leave?”
I felt a rush of joy when he told me the story. In that instant, with that simple question, it became clear that a bridge had been built. A human connection had been made that spanned the superficial chasms that we as humans work so hard to create. Even if it only lasted for a brief moment, this young girl no longer saw a distinction between us and them. She had entered into an “I-Thou” relationship with the members of VRIC.
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes two fundamental types of relationships that exist in the world. The first is an “I-It” relationship. This exists when we view something or someone only in terms of how we can use or experience it. The other relationship is an “I-Thou” relationship. An “I-Thou” relationship occurs when our whole sacred being connects with another’s whole sacred being in genuine relationship. An essay on www.communicationtheory.org/i-and-thou describes it like this:
“The I –Thou relationship is a two sided affair, when both the individuals enter into the conversation with their unique whole being…An I –Thou relationship makes one completely human by building up our wholeness and encompasses a world of personal acquaintance. In this relationship there is close bonding…”
Buber says this about an “I-Thou” relationship:
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou)
I think that Christian author C.S. Lewis understood something of this reality when he wrote:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Our world is in desperate need of “I-Thou” relationships. When we view each other with suspicion and fear, when we look at others through the lens of how they will benefit or hurt us, we reduce others to an “It”. They are no longer a whole, complete being, but a thing that affects our life for better or worse.
We overcome this by making connections, by going out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. We must expand our sense of community and recognize the God given relationships between us, relationships that transcend race, class, and religion.
It isn’t as hard as it sounds.
The connection that my friend’s daughter made did not require weighty philosophical or theological understanding. She simply showed up to a barbeque. She played with someone new.
This is how God changes the world. He gives us relationships. He leads us into making connections.
May we be open to the voice of God guiding us into deeper and deeper community.