Life is strange. I started this blog as a way to force myself to write something meaningful outside of the constraints of a publishing contract, to be creative and intentional and document my growth as well as augment it in the context of community. That was happening, and so many people were engaging, and it was lovely. And then I got interested in a new book project, and now I’m consumed by it, and poof. No more time for writing regular blog entries. Or so it seems. But I miss it; miss you, dear Reader, so here we are. Thanks for joining me!
I simply have to write about this cool thing that happened, because it’s one of those most beautiful kinds of stories that bring hope into the world. And if your committee meetings or Facebook feed or nightly news are anything like mine, you could use one of those stories.
I think it was in 2006 that I was introduced to a guy named Hatim by my dear friend Cheryl Smith. We had about a thirty-minute conversation when he came to my house and offered his financial planning services to Stone and me. We agreed if we ever had any money to manage, he’d be a great person to do the job. That was it. But we’ve not really been in need of his services. So I never saw him again until a few years ago Cheryl was in the hospital at UAMS fighting for her life, and Hatim and I were both there. He sat outside her room and talked to my kids so I could go in and be with Cheryl. My kids loved him. A year or so later Hatim advocated for my dad to see a great surgeon for melanoma. It was a huge favor—one I’ll never forget. Hatim has been a better friend to me than I have been to him, much better than he ever had to be.
Fast forward to about a month ago. At the funeral of Cheryl’s parents I saw Hatim again. We chatted a bit about our families and work. He asked me what I thought about Trump and I rolled my eyes. As the funeral wore on I could see that he and I were united in our shared experience of love, concern, and relative helplessness in the face of our friend’s grief. We were the last two standing with the family.
In my American Lit class the next day I lectured on John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity and we talked about the ideals that define us as Americans, things like freedom, equality, and justice. My students brought in articles with current political themes and as they discussed these, honing their critical thinking skills, the conflict between our ideals and the reality for many Americans began to emerge. Many of them expressed concern for national security, concern for refugees and immigrants, concern for citizens like themselves and all of our freedoms. How do we balance these interests? And how do we keep politicians from playing on our fears?
I don’t know all of the answers, of course. But I do know something about fear. Glennon Doyle Melton writes that fear cannot survive proximity. So in response to a student’s comment that she had never met a Muslim American, and all she knew about Muslims is what she’s seen on TV, I invited Hatim to speak to my class. I had to twist his arm to get him to come—he said he doesn’t like to talk about religion—but I told him just to be himself.
He drove two hours from Little Rock to speak to my 9:30 class. He said he chose to come to college here from his homeland of Morocco because “America is the greatest country in the world.” He explained how he had nothing when he got here–another student took him to Wal-Mart so he could buy a pillow for his first night in the dorm. He talked about working hard to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the long hours it took to make his way up to Vice President and Senior Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch. He made us laugh. He told us he sorely misses his family, but he’s proud to be an American citizen. He loves the freedom we enjoy here. He doesn’t want to live anywhere else. “We have snow here,” he said. “And rain, and so much green. It’s a beautiful place.” He answered all of our questions graciously. “My lovely wife is an attorney. She’s Jewish. We have two adorable kids. I coach their soccer teams. I drive a minivan so I can haul them around. I’m involved with charity work because it’s important to me to give back to the community. So much has been given to me. I am living the American dream.”
There was a magic that happened that day in my classroom, as my students engaged in conversation with a real person, a proud American, a soccer dad who lives in their state, who just happens to be Muslim. Somehow that word became a little less scary. The politics of fear became less powerful. And America as a place where we combine our strengths and celebrate our differences—a place of opportunity and justice and equality–seemed a little more tangible, a little more within reach.
Most of my heroes are people like Hatim and many of you readers—regular people, going about your daily lives, doing whatever you can to bear light in the world. I have one hero in the public sphere right now, Bryan Stevenson, who wrote Just Mercy. This Harvard law graduate who works with the least of these in Alabama speaks peace into a broken country, a broken world. This is what he says: Our shared vulnerability is the source of our common humanity. It is “the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing…the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
To Melton’s “fear cannot survive proximity” I think Stevenson would add that neither can apathy. Because once we move from fear to understanding we also recognize that our freedom is connected to the freedom of others. If Muslim Americans are publicly maligned, Christians should stand up for their dignity. If blacks and other minorities face discrimination, whites should fight alongside them for equal rights. If gays are targeted for abuse, their straight neighbors should stand and defend them. If women are paid less than men for the same work, men should demand equivalent pay. Why? To do otherwise is un-American. Because we’re all in this together. Click To Tweet
Ps. These are my students. To use Golum’s term, “my Precious.” They are also my heroes–going around making magic all of the time. Kudos to Kherstyne Mann in the back corner for correctly answering the question of where Morocco is.