Encounters with grace and dogma
A few days before Ramadan began I visited London Central mosque. It’s a huge building at the edge of Regent’s Park in the middle of the city. London is a bustling and diverse city with its first Muslim mayor. I wanted to look inside the citadel of its burgeoning Muslim community.
The gates of the complex were open. It’s easy to wander inside past a colorful mosaic and into a wide courtyard. I stepped inside to glimpse the prayer room oriented toward Mecca. It is filled with a bluish light from the stained glass and ornamentation in the ceiling.
Peeking in from the foyer, a man called to me. “You are welcome to go in, but you must take off your shoes.” I hadn’t intended to enter, but he insisted I remove my shoes and go inside.
“Are you Muslim?” I am not. I am just a guest today.
He introduced himself as Mohammed. “You are a gift from God to us today. Come with me. Can I get you some coffee?”
I confessed I’d already probably had too much caffeine.
I removed my shoes. Mohammed took me inside. We stopped together and looked up. I asked if the blue had any symbolic meaning. He said no. It is just the color of our building, but it is lovely, like the sky on a sunny day, which is often fleeting in London.
His English was slow and hesitant. He left me a moment and asked me to wait. In a few minutes, my guide returned with another gentleman. His salt-and- pepper beard hung to the middle of his chest. His eyes and hair were like mine. He was from Southeastern Europe and had been a refugee in England from the former Yugoslavia. He had converted or had acknowledged Islam nearly 20 years ago.
Mohammed left me to sit and to talk with my new friend. The conversation turned more serious and intense. This new guide with fluent English told me of how he became an adherent to a more perfect Islam that he had encountered during the hajj.
Mohammed returned and asked if I wanted water. I did. He left again, leaving me in a dogmatic conversation about proper Islam. I was tired of sitting. And becoming uncomfortable in more ways than one.
Mohammed returned with water. He read my body language. I was ready to go. He invited me go with him to the bookstore. It was soon time for midday prayer. He invited me to stay. I appreciated the invitation but declined.
We parted ways. Mohammed gave me a hug and kissed me on both cheeks. He thanked me for the visit and invited me back anytime I was in London. He then moved in his wheelchair into the line among the other men gathered for midday prayer. No one in London had treated me with such kindness.
I reflect now that we as followers of Jesus are like both of these people I met at the mosque. We are dogmatic. And we are gracious. We welcome strangers. And we tear down the faith of others who aren’t as perfect in the ways of Jesus as we imagine ourselves to be.
The phrase, “You are a gift from God,” lingers. I want to be that kind of person of faith — one who encounters the stranger as a gift, who offers coffee but goes to find bottled water for the overcaffeinated, who finds a translater but then recognizes when the words are either too much or not enough, who invites others to prayer but when the offer is declined offers an embrace so warm and full of peace that it cannot be shaken.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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