So far this month of racism posts, I have written about what it was like growing up in the South and what it is like having a Chinese daughter. But there is another type of racism that has been growing in our country and our world. Racism against Arabs spiked after 9/11 and has only grown more more complicated in these fearful days of ISIS threats and terror.
I feel very unqualified to speak intelligently on racism against Arabs. You see my anxiety does not allow me to interact with the news much. I won’t read over the details of the three Muslims killed recently in Chapel Hill (though just the headline breaks my heart). I won’t read anything about ISIS, although the talk I hear from friends makes my blood run cold. I wish I could tolerate actually reading articles on these matters, but I’ve been six months without a panic attack and I’d like to keep it that way. I guess I’ll have to keep relying on my husband and trusted friends to fill me in.
What I do know however, is what I have lived. And in my experience that is the best teacher anyway.
Some fourteen years ago we lived in a parsonage in the south side of Savannah that was provided for us by the church I pastored. After a year of living in our spacious ranch house, we got new neighbors. Our neighborhood at that time what people termed “in transition.” What that really looked like was that our old neighbor told us he was moving “because our streets are being taken over by blacks and copperheads.” (The snake part was unfortunately true. The downside of living so close to a marsh).
Sometime mid September 2001, our new neighbors moved in. Being the friendly, welcoming people we are, we went over to say, “Hey.” True to form, our old bigoted neighbor did not sell the house to an African American family. Instead he sold it to a family of Arab descent. A middle aged mom and dad, their two teenage daughters, and the dad’s parents.
We traded hellos through our southern accents and their accents of a foreign land. Actually the grandparents didn’t speak much English so communicating with them involved only a series of head nods.
I wish I could say I wasn’t freaked out by getting Arab neighbors, but the truth is I totally was.
Most of the time I could reason with myself that the teenage girls coming over to borrow phone books and pet our dogs were not involved with any terrorist plots.
But then one day I looked out our back windows and saw Grandpa dumping suspicious white material in the Back 40.
“That’s not anthrax. That’s not anthrax.” I kept telling myself.
It didn’t work. My anxiety ridden self called my husband in a panic begging him to come home because Grandpa next door was cooking up anthrax as a part of some jihadist plot. My husband tried to get me to breath and relax and told me he’d check everything out when he got home.
An hour later Jason took a stroll along the back of our property to get a good eye on the suspicious white substance. He came back inside, looked at me with steady eyes and delivered the news.
“Babe, it’s white paint. Looks like they are doing a bit of home improvement.” He moved on to start dinner while I just sat with my head in my hands feeling stupid and confused.
I’d like to say all my prejudices about my neighbors went away after that moment. But that would be a lie.
When our church had an evangelism campaign late that fall, I walked over to my neighbors house with an apple pie and a flyer for our church. I though it was a risky move to invite Muslims over for worship, but if the associate pastor in charge of evangelism can’t be bold, then who would be? I handed my neighbors the pie and invited them to our church anytime. The mom thanked me and informed me that though they normally worshiped at a Baptist church nearby they would try and stop by sometime. Then she thanked me for the delicious pie.
I walked home and banged my prejudiced head against the back of my front door.
True to their word, Christmas Eve I spotted my neighbors out in the pews ready to enjoy our big Christmas cantata. I walked over with surprise to greet them. They were grinning ear to ear about the chance to listen to beautiful music and sing carols by candlelight. Their excitement melted my heart.
Then a few months later sickness fell upon both our houses. Grandpa suffered a mild heart attack and our beloved fur baby had emergency surgery on a blocked intestine. Although the loss of their patriarch would have been much greater than that of our pet, both households were taken over with worry- filled nursing. That first weekend Lucydog and I found ourselves walking the chain link fence line with Grandpa each hour on the hour as they both tried to gain back their strength. We would nod at each other as we both ambled around our respective yards. A couple of times I tried to encourage him and wish him well. He would smile weakly as he reached through the fence to pat my healing dog.
Several months later when everyone was well and we were preparing to leave town for another church, my husband and I decided to sneak another fun night downtown in amidst our packing. As we walked the familiar squares, we spotted a restaurant we’d never eaten at before. It was a Mediterranean place and we were both in the mood for falafel, so we headed in. As we walked up to the counter to order, we did a double take. For there behind the counter was none other than our neighbor. We greeted Dad from next door (whose name I never memorized) and asked how long he had been running this little Mediterranean deli. Turns out it was years. We had never taken the time to ask him what he did for a living (you know when he wasn’t running terrorist jihad plots out of the Baptist church he attended.)
For the first time that night we sat down and had a real conversation with our neighbor.
We asked him where he was originally from (Iraq). We talked about our worry over the looming troubles in Iraq, the great treasure of ancient Iraqi culture, and how much we loved falafel.
I walked back out into downtown that night feeling so sad. For over a year we had lived next door to this delightful family and out of sheer fear had never really taken the time to get to know them. How much more would we have learned if we had taken more time to chat over fence lines or gotten really crazy and invited them over for dinner? How much more blessed would we have been for breaking through our fear to befriend them?
I wondered how scared and lonely my neighbors must have felt. Being proud of their native culture on one hand and feeling the need to hide their heritage on the other.
I can only pray that the family that followed us were much kinder and more welcoming than we were. But my bet is that is not the case.
The threats and terror that are happening in our world are real. But what a loss for all of us when we let the actions of a few taint our view of thousands who hail from any Arab land. How much longer will be let fear and prejudice rule us?
For be clear, our fear does nothing to make the world a safer place.
Yet how much further would we get in our efforts to end terror if we pushed past the fear and took the time to build bridges and relationships with those who are “other” than us?
Do you have a story where you let fear of the “stranger” rule you? What helped you push past the fear? What was the result? Feel free to share in the comments below.