I have always been a religious person. I grew up a preacher's kid, usually liked going to church--- especially if there were snacks at Sunday school. But God was always just a word to me, an intellectual concept really, until I was sixteen and sitting outside of a bullet-ridden home in a village in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was here, when I was on a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004, that I saw God, heard God, felt God in all God's messiness and recognized it as God through the person of a seventeen year old girl named Ðana.
Ðana was one of our translators, beautiful with a strong Eastern European accent. My sister Kate, who was fifteen at the time, and I both got along well with her because we were the only young people on the team. However, Kate and I had also never been out of the country before, so we were not used to the food, which concerned our host Saja, who decided we were wasting away. We weren't, but try telling a Bosnian that. So me, Kate, and Ðana went off without the team to Saja's friend's house for a special dinner. On the outskirts of the little town where we stayed, there were many small, stucco homes lining the mountains. Grape vines snaked up the bullet-stained porch and a little table and a few stools sat beneath them. A shy, voluptuous woman had set a few bowls on the table and waved as Saja raced into her driveway.
Kate and I were quiet. We sat down on the stools with Ðana and Saja, smiling and saying hvala (thank you) as our plates were heaped with fruits and vegetables. Saja talked away, with Ðana translating intermittently and the other woman laughing. Being on a strange continent with strange people who didn’t speak our language eating strange, but surprisingly tasty, food should have been terrifying, especially after we had gotten all those "Bosnia? Why would you want to go there?!"s by people at home. But there was a warmth to the evening. Kate and I sat thigh to thigh on a tiny bench and ate lubenica (watermelon) and cantaloupe, listening to the drone of the huge Balkan bugs that zoomed around the porch light as well as the music of the almost-guttural Bosnian language. And in the midst of this, Ðana reached over and hugged us to her.
Ðana, a Muslim woman who had grown up during a war in a country that most USAmericans cannot locate on a map, a woman I had only known for two days--- it was in that moment of her telling us that she loved us that I felt God telling me that God loved me.
Still I am amazed at the path down which such a moment has propelled me. I think it is part of our USAmerican religious narrative that we continually express surprise whenever, for instance, economically poor people demonstrate immense generosity, or people of another faith offer their hands in the peace of friendship. We are so isolated in our social locations** that we cannot imagine God's grace acting through we deem less fortunate. But God continually, constantly, incessantly works through those we least expect. Think of old Abraham and Sarah and their slave Hagar as the parents of nations, think of Moses a bad public speaker as the leader of a people into freedom, think of a foreign widow named Ruth supporting her mother-in-law as the foremother of a great king, think of our redeemer born in a feeding trough for animals.
Yet we as Christians continue to ignore the stories of scripture to reject those through whom God works. We segregate our churches by race and class, we tell women it is God's will that they stay in abusive relationships, we burn Qur'ans. And we deny pulpits and membership to people if they are open about loving people of the same sex. It's like we don't even read the bible.
|The bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, destroyed by people calling themselves Christian in an act of terrorism against the Bosnian Muslim people.|
How many have we told that God is incapable of working through them the way, that God worked through Ðana? In what ways have we limited God?
God has shown me grace through a woman who has become my best friend, though we don't share the same faith, citizenship, language. Yet so many in the church work to keep that grace out, either by refusing hospitality to those who are different or refusing to see God's face in one that is not like theirs. The church needs to change. We need to change. To stop our communities from keeping God's presence from moving among us.
I am called to inclusivity because I follow a God who showed me how much I am loved through a Bosnian Muslim woman I had known for all of two days. What kind of God do you follow?
*In training, we hone our stories into short testimonies we can share, breaking the silence in a way that is not threatening but often deeply moving. This piece is too long, but, because I am using it here in a blog post, I thought the length could be forgiven.
**Not only are we isolated, but we are so indoctrinated in white imperial heteropatriarchy that we believe the stereotypes promoted by classism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and heterosexism.