First light appears on the horizon an hour before a sliver of the sun’s rounded edge breaks into the world. The muezzin (the person who gives the call to prayer) clears his throat and recites the adhan (call to prayer) over the mosque’s loudspeakers. I roll over in my sleep. The call to prayer has become like the early morning train through Holland, MI, when I was in seminary, or like the airplanes flying into La Guardia Airport over my house when I pastored a church in New York City: it is something I have learned to ignore in the early morning hours.
In Oman, and in other Muslim countries around the world, this call to prayer publicly summons the country’s Muslim majority to communal prayer to start their day. So, while I ignore it and sleep on, my neighbors get dressed and walk to the mosque to pray. (Not all of them though—there are plenty who, like me, continue to slumber.) I admire my faithful friends’ and neighbors’ dedication as they wake every morning before the sunrise to pray. They pray together, every day, five times a day. My Muslim friends show me their devotion. In my life here in Oman, I also feel their love and hospitality.
Oman is a small country on the Arabian Peninsula whose neighbors are Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It is a very peaceful and friendly country that is home to over 2.5 million Omanis and 2 million expatriate people working and living in Oman. While most of the country is Muslim, there are thriving communities of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other religions as well.
I am very open about my Christian faith and identity in Oman; it is why I am here. God has called me to help Muslims and Christians come to know each other and learn how to talk about their faith with each other.
I cannot hide my faith, even if I wanted to do so, because my identification card lists “priest” as my profession. This made for a great conversation with a border guard as my family returned to Oman from Dubai. He held up a long line of cars as he, with great excitement and warm curiosity, asked us if we were really Christian and what we were doing in Oman. I replied, “I am here to help make peace between Muslims and Christians and to help them understand each other.”
His reply is etched in my mind forever, “Christians want to make peace? Masha’allah (Wonderful)!”
Many people link national identity and/or national pop culture to religion. Many Americans proclaim that the U.S.A. is a Christian nation, and most Omanis I know would make the claim that Oman is a Muslim nation. It’s no wonder, when they see our movies and T.V. shows and experience our military activity in the Middle East, that they associate Christianity with violence, sexual promiscuity, and alcohol. It’s no wonder, if all we know of Islam is what we see on cable news stations, that we think Islam is a violent and extremist-producing religion. Neither of these is representative of what it means to be Christian or Muslim.
Yes, there are people who label themselves Christian who are violent and don’t practice the morals that most Christians would say are appropriate for a follower of Christ. Yes, there people who label themselves Muslim who are violent and who don’t practice what most Muslims would say is appropriate for a faithful Muslim. But in my experience, violent Muslims are an extreme minority and Christians tend not to support violence, promiscuity, and drunkenness.
This is why it is so important for us to engage with each other and to be open about our faith. If we remain isolated in our churches, mosques, temples, or our own religious communities and/or cultures, we let others speak for us in our silence or passivity. If we don’t lovingly engage with people outside our religion or culture, then the popular culture or the news that is broadcast to the world becomes the impression that the people outside our cultures and communities have of us.
But, back to my new border guard friend. I couldn’t get into details with him about why he was surprised that Christians would work for peace. He heard my kids in the back seat greet him in Arabic, so he stuck his head in the car and shook their hands. After shaking their hands, he glanced back and saw the cars continuing to pile up behind us and waved us through the checkpoint.
My life here is full of similar encounters.
One of my greatest learnings here in Oman that I wish to share with all people of faith around the world is this:
Be public with your faith, while being respectful of each other’s differences, and you’ll never cease to be amazed at what God can do.
While our faith is something that is personal, if we keep it private other people will have no choice to assume what our faith is and what we believe. One of my greatest responsibilities is that I might be the only public Christian that many people in Oman will ever meet. But, if I am open to listening to them and opening my heart to them, then I will be able to represent Christ to them. And, one by one, my hope is that their thoughts, feelings, and stereotypes of Christians—and Americans for that matter—might form into something different than what they get from the latest episode of our raunchiest T.V. show, violent movie, or foreign policy.
Too often, when showing love and kindness here, I hear the words, “You are not what I expected from a Christian.”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The world cannot know us unless we show them who and what we are. If we remain unengaged with other religions and cultures, others will speak on our behalf and we might not like what they say. We must be bold in crossing the boundaries of culture and religion to engage with each other.