When I can, I go to the Sunday morning service at the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. This church has a history of preaching the social gospel, using its urban location to serve the needs of the city. Peter Storey, the church’s former pastor and former head of the Methodist Church in South Africa, pioneered a program called “My Brother and Me” in which blacks, coloureds, and whites gathered to hold discussions about equality during apartheid days. This church obligates itself to use its influence to help bring about positive social change in the community.
Peter Storey’s son, Alan, is the current pastor of the church. The first time I attended, he was reading announcements before the sermon, and said something that I would never expect to hear at a church service back home.
“As you know, the month of Ramadan is approaching. I want to encourage you to join your Muslim brothers and sisters in this time of fasting and celebration.”
Religion can be used as a means of dividing people. It certainly was back in the apartheid era and still today. In America, the extremism of a small minority has painted a picture of Muslims as a whole that is just not accurate. Many people who have the strong anti-Islamic sentiments only know of the Muslims on TV for committing crimes of terror.
I was entertaining these thoughts back in 2008, during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The media insisted on labeling him as a Muslim, and some foolish skeptics still do. Thinking back, the rhetoric surrounding this discussion was even more repulsive than it seemed at the time. A number of supposedly legitimate news shows entertained discussions about what could happen if America were to have a Muslim president, and how he would embrace extremist groups and invite terrorism into the country. The campaign that showed a young black boy that the highest office in the nation was attainable for him simultaneously showed young Muslims that this country is still not ready to accept them in high-profile leadership.
Stereotypes are dangerous, because they ignore the fact that within each group are numerous individuals who are neither fully good nor bad. However, seeing that they hold so much power, how would America be different if the stereotypical Muslim was Gamidah?
Gamidah is a wonderful woman who instructs a cooking class at her humble home in the historic Bo-Kaap district. Corinne stepped up to the plate as events coordinator for our group, and signed a few of us up for Gamidah’s Cape Malay cooking class (Authentic South African cuisine). While learning how to cook delicious Cape Malay curry, we observed Gamidah’s lifestyle of benevolence and charity. Several children from the neighborhood walked right into her open door, knowing they were in a safe place. An elderly man came by, appearing to be hungry. Without hesitation, Gamidah prepared some food for him. She shared with us her excitement for the arrival of Ramadan, which she described to us as a time of sacrifice and of love. She is a leader in her community, and a kind and gentle soul.
After we left the class, I wanted to learn more about Gamidah, her culture, and her religion because of what an excellent hostess she was to us. She took a genuine interest in us, and was very hospitable to us.
About a week later, Tunde and I were walking on Long Street when this man handed me what appeared to be a trillion dollar bill. He then asked me the “Trillion Dollar Question”. Where am I spending eternity?
So we began talking to this guy, telling him we’re both Christians, etc. He asks us if we know the Ten Commandments, and we listed off a few. Then he basically told us we’d broken some of them at some point, and that Jesus could offer us forgiveness, which I already know and believe. We ended our discussion, and I commended him for having the confidence to share his faith on a street corner, because that could not have been easy.
As much as I respected his effort, thinking back, I can’t help but notice a host of issues with that encounter. I understand that in South Africa 85% of people identify as Christian, but many probably don’t know what it is to accept Christ. Despite that, I did not appreciate him not believing us when we said we were Christians. I also did not appreciate the gimmicky approach to a conversation on faith; trying to lure people into such a conversation with what they think is money. I absolutely thought about the status of my faith life after such a discussion, but these thoughts came out of guilt, not love. Once again, street evangelism is not easy—it takes a bold commitment to do that. However, I can honestly say that I would have been majorly turned off had I not been Christian because that encounter was not genuine.
In my opinion, Alan Storey encouraging his congregation to fast and to attend Ramadan services truly gets at what Jesus was about. Making those around you into your brothers and sisters. What better way to show others they’re your brothers than to fast in solidarity with them? To share in their unique traditions, triumphs, and trials? Doesn’t it make so much more sense to ask others to worship with you after you’ve worshiped alongside them?
Having said that, I’m going to insert a caveat. If trying to win people to your side is your primary motivation, you’re missing the point. Peter Storey himself said that during apartheid days, Americans would come into South African with the intention of saving souls, without taking interest in the lives and the cultures of the people. In doing so, they were unable to understand what apartheid meant for people on a day-to-day basis. Rather than trying to foster quality relationships that may eventually lead to a discussion on faith, they tried to approach as many people as possible, and were very unsuccessful.
There’s no reason not to go out of your way to cross the line and learn about the many types of individuals to whom God offers His grace. The world would be a better place if we developed authentic interfaith relationships just to be brothers and sisters to one another. So, to my brothers and sisters celebrating Ramadan, this Christian sends you his best.