What I’ve Learned from Valley Ranch Islamic Center


On February 25, my family attended a community picnic sponsored by Valley Ranch Islamic Center.  Like the VRIC barbeque we attended in November (https://shaunjex.com/2016/11/25/building-bridges-instead-of-walls/) , this was an amazing interfaith event.  Multiple Christian congregations attended, while VRIC supplied all of the food and drinks.  Several hundred people attended, mingling together, sharing stories, laughing, and bonding over good food and beautiful weather.


Over the last few years I’ve learned quite a bit from my Islamic friends and neighbors, things that I think would benefit the Christian Church.


VRIC is consistently active in the surrounding community.  They host breakfasts, picnics and barbeques on a regular basis, holding the events in public places and inviting any and all to attend.  The events I’ve attended have focused exclusively on fellowship, devoid of overbearing efforts to convert.  That is not to say that they shy away from speaking about their faith, but they allow their hospitality and kindness to bear witness first, inviting people to come and see who they are and what their faith represents.


Though by no means true of all Christian congregations, I’ve noticed a tendency for the church to become somewhat insular, existing like a community apart.  The community events the church holds tend to be seasonal, with events around Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.  Rather than venturing out into the community these events tend to put the initiative on the community.  We ask others to come to the church instead of the church going out into the community.  There is also an unspoken (sometimes spoken) agenda behind these events, operating under the premise that we’ll draw them in and then convince them to stay.  One of the most significant things I’ve learned from VRIC is that our service should be given without strings, or even expectation of reciprocity.  The service functions as its own reward.


Through committees and classes, I’ve heard a continuous refrain that suggests that visitors and new members at churches often struggle with the feeling that they are unwelcome.  They come to the building looking for a new congregation or church home and then find themselves thrust into the middle of a well established social circle that can be difficult to penetrate.  Cliques develop within congregations, with certain members failing to interact with and sometimes even avoiding those outside of their group.  I’ve heard complaints from visitors who were never greeted or who got lost in the building because no one took the time to help them.  Perhaps just as damaging, sometimes they are warmly greeted on their first or second visit and then forgotten about once they become regular members, as though what mattered most was adding their name to the record books.


At every VRIC event, I’ve found a consistent spirit of hospitality and that the members are just as welcoming as the leadership. During the picnic, our family was approached by several dozen VRIC members, each of whom welcomed us, shook our hands, and then offered to get us food, drink, or anything else we might need.  Every time someone stood up from their picnic blanket they asked their neighbors if there was anything they wanted.  We were regularly thanked simply for our willingness to attend, as though we were the ones extending the hand of welcome and not the other way around.


As Christians, this welcoming attitude and desire to serve should be second nature to us as well.  As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35 ESV).  Often, when we discuss declining numbers in church attendance we discuss superficialities like the style of hymns we sing, the mixed media we do or do not use to present our message, the time services are held, or the dress code.  Of course, details like these can be important, but I think that the first and most important step for the church to take is to cultivate a culture of welcome, hospitality, and love.


Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned how important it is to move past any sense of “other”.  Our church recently held a month long class studying Methodist Theologian and Bishop Wil Willimon’s book “Fear of the Other” (https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/).  The book explores our human tendency to fear those we view as “other” and how we can move beyond this fear, to fulfill the Biblical command to welcome and care for those viewed as the “other” and how they can, in fact, aid in our salvation.


These are important steps to take, but if we stop there we haven’t gone far enough.  We need to begin to see each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters, to move beyond this concept of “other” and to embrace each human being for their inherent, God given worth.


I am indebted to the members and leadership of VRIC for welcoming me, for giving me the opportunity to gather with and to learn from them, but most of all to join with them in building a community of love and acceptance, a love that does not ignore our differences, but embraces them, knowing that we are stronger together.


Nevertheless, She Persisted

“She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Eleven words.  Eleven words spoken by Senator Mitch McConnell to Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Eleven words that captured the essence of the long struggle of women to be treated as full human beings.  A struggle that continues around the globe to this day.  

I could write about the struggle.  I’ve written before about the need for the church to be at its forefront.  However, I feel that more powerful than my own words would be the words of women who have persisted and changed the world in doing so.

My hope is that, if you haven’t heard of some of these women, you will take the time to learn about them.


“I speak not for myself but for those without voice… those who have fought for their rights… their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated. ” –  Malala Yousafzai


“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.” – Rosa Parks


“In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.” – Aung Suu Kyi


“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.” – Amelia Earhart

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“Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller


“We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to conserve the environment so that we can bequeath our children a sustainable world that benefits all.”  – Wangari Maathai


“Peace cannot exist without justice, justice cannot exist without fairness, fairness cannot exist without development, development cannot exist without democracy, democracy cannot exist without respect for the identity and worth of cultures and peoples.” – Rigoberta Menchu


“As a woman, I’m expected to want everything to be nice and to be nice myself. A very English thing. I don’t design nice buildings – I don’t like them. I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality.” –  Zaha Hadid


“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” – Virginia Woolf


“We should not be held back from pursuing our full talents, from contributing what we could contribute to the society, because we fit into a certain mold ― because we belong to a group that historically has been the object of discrimination.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg


“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Rosalind Franklin


“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” –  Katherine Johnson

As the father of a young son, I am thrilled to be able to look at him every day and tell him that there are no limits to how far he can go.  As the father of a young girl, I hope to help create a world where I can say the same to her.  And I am forever indebted to the women of the world who have persisted, paving the way for her.


The Welcome Table

I love Communion Sundays.

At my church we receive communion on the first Sunday of each month and, as members of the Methodist tradition, we practice an open table.  That means that all are welcome to come forward and take part in the sacred meal.  In the invitation to communion the pastor utters these words:

“Christ our Lord invites to his table ALL* who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.”

(*emphasis mine – Words taken from the Service of Word and Table in the United Methodist Hymnal)

One of our former pastors used to put it like this.  We don’t check for a membership card at the door.  If you are in the church and want to partake, you are welcomed.  Rich, poor, male or female, people of every orientation, of every nationality, members of other congregations, even if you are not certain what you believe, you are welcomed.

The pastor recites these words from the Great Thanksgiving:

“By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world…”

(Words taken from the Service of Word and Table in the United Methodist Hymnal)

The congregation walks to the front of the chapel and kneels together at the communion rail, waiting to receive the hosts.  It is an amazing feeling to kneel side by side with others in front of the Cross and to realize that we are all on equal ground.  Again, the wealthy kneel beside the poor.  The faith filled and doubter kneel together.  Men and women.  Old and young.  Gay and straight.  There is no separation between “righteous” and “sinner”.  We kneel before the cross united in our need for God’s grace.  We recognize and confess that we are all broken and all in need of Christ’s healing spirit.    

There is a natural human tendency toward tribalism, between separating who is in and who is out, who we welcome and who we exclude, but at the communion rail these distinctions disappear.  We are filling ourselves with the body and blood of Christ, symbolically becoming one with Him, abandoning all other worldly distinctions.  As St. Paul said:

“…in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthian 14:5)

And in Galatians:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

We live in fractious times.  Thank God for the act of communion, the meal that calls us all to the table, and reminds us that we are all one in the One who saves us.

The King’s Garden

On Sunday, our family went to the park to meet up with some friends and their children. The adults gathered in a picnic pavilion while the kids ran around the playground.  A veritable smorgasbord of food covered the table.  Pizza, homemade chocolates, strawberries, cheese bread (this doesn’t convey the wonder of this dish.  It was something like dinner rolls stuffed with cheesy goodness), and jugs of cool water.

The gathering looked like a mini United Nations. One of the families is Muslim.  The mother wears a hijab and has a small nose piercing, a look that delightfully blends the traditional and contemporary.  One of the other families comes from Brazil.  Then there was my family, a curious mix of Alaska Native, Irish, and Italian heritage.

The cast of children on the playground was even more diverse. Hispanic, Asian, African American, Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Anglo.  If I had to guess, I’d imagine that there were Christians, Muslims, Hindu, and other faiths represented.  Different voices and languages chattered away happily, filling the air with a playful cacophony.

The sun shone down, but a light breeze kept the air cool.

The world is filled with uncertainty. If you follow the news, each day seems fraught.  But sometimes…sometimes I think we are given the briefest glimpse of the Kingdom of God, a peak at the lush tangle of life that makes up the King’s Garden.