“It is hard to be afraid when you understand!”

(quote from Omar Mouallem)

by Suzanne Gross, North Edmonton Ministry Interim Worker


Part of the work of “Expanding our Circle,” as our new Voices Together hymnal invites us to do, involves getting to know people who have different abilities, cultural ways, histories and stories that shaped them, and different faiths, to name a few. It involves welcoming all as brothers and sisters in our human family.  In a recent webinar I attended, author Omar Mouallem shared from his recently published book Praying to the West, How Muslims Shaped the Americas. I asked Omar what advice he would have for an interfaith worker like myself.  He offered that good interfaith work considers each group’s histories as part of the bridge-building.  As well, he encouraged me to explore smaller groups who have particular histories, not just the mainline groups that have greater power to represent others. 

Omar summed up his advice with this:  “It is hard to be afraid when you understand!” Interfaith work is about bridging to create opportunity for understanding.  The nudge I heard from Omar is that deep understanding comes from knowing about faith practices and beliefs, but, perhaps even more importantly, understanding the stories and histories that have shaped each individual and each group.  These histories include long ago, current geopolitical histories, but also the local history of the group in more recent times.  Our tendency is to take shortcuts and reduce people’s stories by taking our cues from leaders empowered to represent others, and a media that often distorts the balance that our stories as individuals and as small groups offer.

Omar’s comment works with the emotion of fear and offers an antidote which is understanding.  What is the opposite of “afraid”? And what is the opposite of “understand”?  I propose that in the context of interfaith work, the opposite of “afraid” is “familiar” and “predictable.”  When something is unfamiliar and unpredictable, the unknown can give us a sense of fear.  When things are familiar and predictable, we settle into acceptance as part of our normal.  Of course, this takes time and practice. 

The opposite of “understand” might be captured as the “oppression of misinformation.”  Mis-information encompasses all of the stories that are either only partly true or outright false representations of me, of my people, of my history, of my reality and of my faith.  When we “understand,” then, we have done the work of listening to stories, which leads to that which we most need in relationship – for those stories to be believed as true.  When we accept misinformation as truth, we become part of an oppressive machine that perpetuates stories that allow harm to flourish. 

Part of my job is to work with our Mennonite Church Alberta community to create opportunities for relationships to develop safely in unfamiliar and unpredictable contexts. This is so that we – as a community -- can begin to feel that there is familiarity and predictability in our interactions with people of different faiths.  I do this by reaching out, showing up and hanging out with Muslims of all types, and sharing my stories with you.  As we absorb these stories, as a conference of Mennonites, we can push back against the oppression of misinformation and create spaces for trusting and allied relationships to flourish – in the spirit of Jesus, our great example and saviour.