It came to me like a natural instinct but acting on it was something I’d had trouble with before. After I received the chain letter, passed on to me by former church members, I had to respond. I had to speak up for my friends and for a huge group of people who were being wrongfully attacked. The message read “Can Muslims Be Good Americans?” It had rallied up a host of hateful email responses from people I personally knew as fellow Christians and friends. Responding as politely as I could, I spoke for true Christian values of compassion, American values of freedom and tolerance, and my Muslim friends who were being wrongly labeled as evil terrorists.
After I replied, my relationship with the church in which I had grown up quickly disintegrated. I don’t regret it one bit. It may seem easy standing up to others spewing out bigoted messages, but it isn’t, and it wasn’t for a long time. I risked losing the community I’d always known. It hurt to receive messages from people who once celebrated the love of Christ with me, people who now called me hateful names and treated me like a second-class citizen. It hurt even more to know some agreed with me, but decided to keep silent. I knew, though, that my Muslim friends received even more hateful responses, and for them such intolerance was and still is almost unavoidable and public.
After I finally spoke out, I acquired the confidence to continue to stand up against religious bigotry and deepen my involvement with interfaith. While I may have lost touch with many of the people from that email exchange, I gained so much more.
Now, two years later, I am completing my master’s degree with a focus on interreligious marriages and am living out an interfaith life. I am proud to have close friends from a variety of religious, spiritual, and nonreligious backgrounds. The beauty in it all is that I am no less a Christian now than I was before. I don’t have to water down my faith to be friends with and stand up for people of other religious backgrounds. I can engage with these friends through productive dialogue and respect. Sure, there are plenty of theological disagreements, but the ability to recognize the humanity and compassion in each other is what makes our conversations fruitful.
Reflecting now on that short, but significant experience, I think about what it means to be a Christian in an increasingly pluralistic society. What those members of my church exchanged in those emails was not Christianity. It was the opposite of the love and kindness Christ taught. The support and warmth I received that day came from people who were supposedly “evil terrorists”; that compassion came from my Muslim friends. They, along with others from various backgrounds, epitomized the teaching of “love your neighbor,” which I find most important in Christianity. There were no religious boundaries; the banner of compassion united us all.