“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” 1 Corinthians 12:18
I went to a small, homogenous high school in a small, homogenous suburb. At my school there were only about half a dozen black students, two Indian-American students (from the same family), and one Jewish kid (and I think he was only half Jewish). I didn’t know what I didn’t know about other cultures and religions.
Going to college at the University of Virginia exposed me to a more diverse group of people and ideas. I made friends with new people, and after a while I felt safe enough to indulge my curiosity and ask lots of questions. My first year roommate was Jewish. She let me listen in when she said prayers during Hanukkah candle lighting and translated them for me. There was a cute guy on the first floor who was of Indian descent who answered my questions about Hinduism and told me his personal view of karma. I met a Persian guy who, without making me feel stupid, let me know that instead of asking people “Where are you from?” I should ask “What’s your ethnicity?” to avoid insulting my peers who are just as American as me.
I also met a girl from my first year hall who was a Muslim of Pakistani descent. We became friends first year and hung out occasionally in later years. I remember running into her second or third year, and I noticed that she had started covering her hair. Over lunch I asked why. I had thought that women covered their hair because they lived in cultures that oppressed their rights. However, my smart and beautiful friend shared openly with me about her process of deciding to wear a hijab. She said it was an act of devotion to God and a commitment to modesty. I was very impressed. It made me wonder what I had done lately to show my devotion to God. Now when I see women who cover their hair, I think about their faithfulness, and I meditate on ways that I can express my own devotion to God.
I befriended another guy at UVA after we kept ending up in the same political science classes. One day he casually mentioned that he had to be back at his apartment at a certain time to break his fast. Wait, what? You haven’t eaten today? No lunch? No snacks? What are you fasting for? I think I had learned in high school World History that fasting was one of the five pillars of Islam, but I didn’t know anything about Ramadan. I didn’t know that it involved fasting from food and water during daylight for 30 days in a row. That sounded incredibly challenging to me. I didn’t think it was even possible. I had given up things for Lent but never fasted from anything as challenging as abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset for a month! He answered my ignorant questions patiently. Can you chew gum? No. Can you brush your teeth? Yes, but you can’t swallow any water. Do kids have to fast? Not little kids; parents gradually introduce fasting to older kids until they’re ready for a full day of fasting.
I was still uncertain about this whole no eating and drinking thing, though he assured me that over 1.5 billion people were participating in the fast as we spoke. I told him I wanted to try it for myself. He shared with me that you’re supposed to drink plenty of water the night before. Then, you wake up early and spend time in prayer and devotion, followed by breakfast and another big glass of water. Once it’s light outside, the fast begins. Muslims are encouraged to commit acts of kindness during their fast. Finally, once the sun goes down, you have an iftar, a meal that breaks the fast, usually with friends and family.
I tried the fast the next day. I was really nervous. Would I pass out? Would I be distracted during my classes? Would I give up? Thankfully, after the initial lunch-time hunger pains subsided, I felt ok. It was mainly uncomfortable not to immediately sate my hunger or thirst when I wanted to, and I found myself being thankful that usually food and drink are at arm’s length for me compared to those who suffer from chronic hunger. I also found myself turning to God in prayer multiple times during the day for strength and for distraction. My friend texted me later to find out how my fast went, and I told him that overall it had been a positive experience. Since then, I have fasted the way he taught me on Wednesdays during Lent.
I say all this to say that learning about others’ culture, religion, and heritage hasn’t been threatening to my own. Rather, it’s been enriching. Learning how others show devotion to God has challenged me in my own devotional expressions.
Last Friday, President Trump issued an executive order to impose an immigration and travel ban on people who hail from seven Muslim-majority countries. I’m upset by this ban not only because it’s unnecessary (there's no evidence that stopping immigration will stop terror attacks which are overwhelmingly committed by nationals) but because it singles out a specific religion and specific nationalities as “the threat.”
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses a beautiful metaphor to describe how Christians should relate to one another: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Paul knew that it was foolish to label certain parts of the body as weak just because they’re different. Paul also knew that if there was division, it would weaken the functioning of the entire body.
I think this metaphor can be extended to our country. With the exception of Native Americans, the United States is made up of people who came here fleeing religious persecution or searching for new opportunities. Each wave of immigration has contributed to a diverse, flourishing body. Our diversity isn’t threatening; it’s enriching. The real threat to our unity is thinking that some parts of the body are less than. Halting the growth of one part of the body will lead the whole to stagnate and deteriorate. We can’t move forward if we cut off our own feet.