As a convert to the religion of Islam, I know firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. I’ve heard comments and questions about Muslims that made me feel unwelcome or unwanted in certain spaces. I’ve been looked at with suspicion and fear by members of my own family. I’ve been harassed on social media about my values and beliefs. And even within the mosque, it often feels like I’m on the margins of my own community as a white American boy who can’t speak Arabic and who wasn’t raised Muslim.
I also know firsthand how meaningful it can be to feel included—to be invited in from the margins and to feel that sense of belonging and community. I was blessed by the friendship of a young man from Saudi Arabia named Mohammed, who brought me to my first mosque and helped me take the shahada (a declaration of faith) when I became Muslim almost three years ago. Mohammed was like a brother to me, because he treated me like a brother. He always made me feel welcomed and included and supported in my faith.
My parents gave me that same gift, despite their confusion about my newfound tradition. They had plenty of questions for me about Islam and about what it would mean for me to be Muslim, but they always made sure I knew that I was loved and accepted and supported regardless of our differences in religion.
Now, as someone with a foot in two worlds, I’m passionate about bringing people together across lines of difference to focus on our shared values, like empathy, compassion, kindness, and respect. During Ramadan, I will often invite my non-Muslim friends to join me for iftars where we break the fast together and spend time learning about each other’s worldviews and traditions. I also try to bring those with different political views to the table as well, since politics has become an increasingly divisive issue in the United States.
After our meal, a woman named Om Ali who owns the Palms Beach restaurant in Tempe donates all of the leftover food from their iftar buffet for us to deliver to the homeless community near Tempe Beach Park. Doing this service together each night, with people who have fundamental disagreements but can share their time and energy for a greater good, is one of the most spiritually enriching experiences of my year.
I hope, with this small act, that we are able to make some people who are downcast and disheartened feel the love and concern and compassion to know that they belong, and that they matter. A plate or box of food can make a big impact on a hungry person, and often one that lasts long after the meal has been consumed. This is also something I know firsthand—like when my Christian mother prepares a meal each morning for her Muslim son, before his daily fasting.
Johnny Martin’s reflection comes to the Parliament of the World’s Religions as part of the 2017 Interfaith Ramadan series, empowering interfaith allies, Muslim and those of other spiritual and religious backgrounds from around the world, to share their stories of service, community and gratitude during the month of Ramadan. Please contact the Parliament at info@ParliamentOfReligions.org, or tag us at #RamadanPoWR to share your own story.
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