I grew up in a Christian household. I grew up loving church. I am a pastor in the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I married a Christian man, my girls attend church with us and even attend a Christian parochial school. In my house I have two prayer rugs and a Quran.
I have these because I have been a host mom with AFS for the past three years and have hosted two wonderful young ladies who happen to be practicing Muslims. These three things got left behind because they were packing their suitcases full of memories of their year in the United States and knew that they could replace those items easily back at home.
Having two prayer rugs and a Quran in my home don’t scare me. I have not thrown them away either, but hold on to them in my house. These items being left behind, is in a sense, a sign of respect toward me that I would take care of their deepest, valuable, religious items. These things help me remember my exchange daughters and their faith.
Fira, the first daughter to live in the Smoot household, is from Indonesia, which is a country that is proud of the people who practice many religions in their country. She and her family were very devout Muslims and she brought that with her on her exchange year. She showed us an app on her phone that she planned to use to make sure that she said her prayers on time during the year in Kendallville, and she did. She would wash her hands, feet, face and get ready for prayer in her room. While traveling, we would stop at rest stops so she could make her prayer in time. She attended high holy days at the Islamic Center in Kendallville and was a very good faster when it was the month of Ramadan. Sometimes, she would come with us to church on Sunday, and she would use the basement or my office at St. Mark’s for her space and just to experience a Christian church in the United States.
My girls and I took away from this experience that we could pray more often. In fact, it was really the early church, talk about Paul’s time and even up to the Medieval period, that prayer happened at least five times a day. So, we pray more.
On our third year of hosting, we welcomed Merna from Egypt into our home. She wore a hijab, sometimes would just wear a large cap to cover her hair and head. She wore different clothes than Fira and even practiced her faith differently. I was all ready for different foods in the house and even for the different prayer times so that our family could do things with her around the prayer schedule. Then we discovered she practiced her faith differently. It may have come as a shock for me but really it made sense. Christians practice liturgy, prayer and worship differently all over the world. Why would the Islamic religion be any different? She prayed her prayers differently from Fira and even seemed to put a few together so that she could experience her life here in Indiana. She may have washed her feet once in a while but not every time. Sometimes she would have her door open while she prayed. One time, she just painted her nails, and it was time for a prayer so she laid out the rug and prayed while holding her fingers up high to dry. I smiled at this and said, “She rocks.”
My take away from having Merna in our house was that it doesn’t matter what is going on, pray, and enjoy what is going on around you. So, my family does. We pray no matter what and we enjoy life, the experiences that God gives us.
They didn’t try to convert us, and we didn’t try to convert them. Apart from being a strict AFS rule, this allowed us to practice faith in the presence of one another. There was a growth of mutual understanding, living, more respect for the other person. Just plain and simple understanding that they are people. Coming from my understanding of religion and my own practices and respect for God, if they are people, then we are called to care for and love them as God has cared for and loved us.
And so that is what I did. My world experience has grown deeper. Mine and my family’s faith have grown deeper in our relationship with God and our churches. My hope is that your faith can grow deeper. My hope is that as a Christian, you are not scared of other religions but treat them with love and respect as God loves and respects you, as Jesus did to the Samaritan woman by the well (yep, she was a different religion than Jesus).
Also, if you would like or are thinking about hosting a student through AFS contact me with any questions or visit afsusa.org.