Loving Our Neighbors

Column for January, 2017

On the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I was shocked and saddened to see a report on the local news.  Someone sent a hateful letter to the Islamic Center of Savannah, laced with insults to Muslims and threatening, “your day of reckoning has arrived.”  The letter writer claimed that the President-elect would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”


Unfortunately, such threatening letters against Muslims and other minority groups in our country are not new.  Many news sources have reported that threats have increased in recent weeks.  However, I like to think that such things would not happen in our own community.  Don’t we have decent people living here who would not single out anyone just because of their religious identity, their ethnic background, their race, or some other trait?  Aren’t we kinder than that, or smarter than that, here in Savannah?


After seeing the report, I heard that some people were going to take flowers and notes of support to the Islamic Center later that morning.  I quickly wrote a letter to the Islamic Center. In the letter, I said that I valued the commitment to peace which the Muslim and Christian religions share.  I emphasized that the Islamic Center is an important part of this community, and I said that any assault on them is an assault on all of us.  I promised to pray for our Muslim neighbors and to ask our congregation to pray for them, too.  Based on conversations about similar incidents with the Session just one year ago, I did not hesitate to print the letter on church stationery and put it in a church envelope.


I drove to the Islamic Center on Dutchtown Road and met a handful of other people.  No one from the Muslim community was there, so we attached our supportive letters and flowers to the front gate.  A few hours later, when I returned to the office after lunch, I retrieved a message from the church voice mail from a reporter from another local news station.  The reporter had seen our church stationery among the notes of support and wondered if I would be willing to be interviewed about why I left the letter.  The reporter interviewed me in our sanctuary, standing in front of the Chrismon tree, and gave me a chance to talk about my disappointment about the threatening letter and my expression of support.  I told the reporter that the real reason I wrote the letter is simple:  I take my commitment to my faith in Jesus seriously, and Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors.  The final story broadcast on the news did not include that part of the interview, but the message came across nonetheless.


I felt good:  our Muslim neighbors heard loud and clear that they are just as important in our community as anyone else.  I believed that I had acted as Jesus wanted me to.  The church got a little free publicity in the process.  Love had overwhelmed hate, and I could feel good about living in our community again.


Unfortunately, though, that was not the end of the story.  The next day, I checked the church e-mail, and there was a message from someone I don’t know but who clearly lives in Savannah.  In it, the writer said that Muslims are not welcome in our community or our nation, and he was offended that I would say otherwise.


I was discouraged all over again.  The e-mail reminded me that there are, in fact, people in our own community who will say and do hateful things to our neighbors.  There are people who live on our own streets who are so filled with fear that they cannot see our common humanity with other people.  There are people here in Savannah who think that the Christian religion teaches them to exclude others and to hate others.


The whole incident reminded me that, as people who are called by Christ to love our neighbors and to reach out especially to those who are most vulnerable, we have work to do.  Our work is to strengthen our own understanding of and commitment to Christ’s consistent and clear command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Our work is to teach each other and our fellow Christians about what it means to follow that command in our modern world.  And our work is to speak out again and again against any power of fear and hatred which threatens our neighbors.


So, please, I am asking you to join me in praying for our Muslim neighbors, and for all of our neighbors, and to listen to God speaking about how else we can show love in this time and place.