I knew Ayesha was Muslim. She had mentioned it in passing during a separate conversation with our colleagues.
This highly politicized moment with a president, heavily supported by Evangelical Christians, campaigning to ban Muslims from the country, makes it awkward for me to share my faith, let alone befriend a Muslim. But friends we have become.
Ayesha and I immediately bonded and slipped into an easy friendship. We are both mothers, both married more than 10 years, and both returning to school after a hiatus with separate careers. In addition to our studies, we are juggling family life and all those perks of parenting like tantrums, midnight wake-ups, cooking dinner, packing school lunches and coaching our kids through their homework.
One morning, Ayesha slumped into the office, visibly creased with exhaustion. “Are you okay?” I asked right away.
We put our books down and spent the morning curled in a corner of the student commons, sipping coffee. Her youngest wasn’t sleeping well, and the sleep deprivation was wearing on Ayesha. “Thank you,” she told me afterward with tears in her eyes. “Thank you for listening and not judging my parenting.” I nodded and gave her a hug. I knew. I had been there, too.
Given how well Ayesha and I were getting along, I decided to share why I was going to Indiana. “I’m going to preach,” I said. She froze.
I grinned. “Is that weird for you to hear?”
“No,” she answered quickly, then stopped and chuckled. “Sort of.”
Despite the initial awkwardness, my vulnerability opened a new level of sharing between us. Knowing that I was a devout person of faith, whether Christian or not, seemed to open the door for Ayesha to be honest about her own faith.
The more she shared, the more similarities I discovered between us, rather than differences.
“What I want my children to learn,” Ayesha told me one afternoon, “is that God loves them more than anyone else in the world. More than even me.”
I nodded vigorously. This is what I grew up hearing from my mother and what I whisper to my children every morning as they leave for school, “Remember who loves you most!”
“I want them to know that God is always with them and that he has a beautiful plan for them,” she continued.
There were times when I would double-take. Were we really talking about two separate religions? This is exactly what I want my kids to know, too.
One evening, she and her husband hosted us for dinner. I asked what extracurricular activities her kids were doing in the New Year. “Swimming and gymnastics,” she said, “and Koran school.”
“What do they learn at Koran school?” I asked.
“They memorize scripture.”
I flashed to my childhood visiting church on Tuesday nights, playing games, memorizing the books of the Bible and scripture. How many times had those same verses I learned as a child come back to encourage me as an adult?
“It helps them with language and literacy,” she continued. “And it’s good for them to know that there are certain texts where it’s important to remember the words exactly as they are.”
That resonated with me. I have tried to do scripture memorization with Noelle and Nathan off and on. After talking to Ayesha, I felt motivated to return to this tradition. She was right. There is something beautiful about memorizing a sacred text, allowing it to work on your mind and heart.
I watched from the dinner table as our children played together. The boys built with Legos while the girls worked on a magic show to perform later in the evening. Surely, our children could tell there were differences between our families. But these differences seemed only to register on the Oh-that’s-cool scale. Then back to playing.
After all, they have much more in common. Not the least of which that both sets of parents make particular lifestyle choices for their children because of faith. Our kids understand that we move through the world differently because of Christianity and Islam.
In the Christian faith, we have this old religious infinitive: “to edify.” Formally, the word means to instruct or improve someone morally or intellectually. But in the context of my religious upbringing, we often talked about “edifying one another” with a bit more warmth. When we said those words, we meant that we were lifting each other up, that we were helping each other become better than we would be on our own.
Hearing this turn of phrase as a child, I envisioned the word “edify” as full of light. I imagined we were passing light to each other, and the light was filling up the other person, lifting them off the ground, scattering the shadows around them.
Being Ayesha’s friend has edified me. She has filled me with light and lifted me. She has made me a better mom. She has helped me cherish my faith. Being her friend has reminded me that despite the politics, the vitriol, and the fear propagated by misunderstanding, there is always room for people to come together and share the light of friendship.
Christin Taylor is a PhD student at University of Waterloo studying rhetoric and composition. She has written two books and published articles in the New York Times, Sojourners, and HuffPost. She is also the chief editor of the Annesley Writers Forum. You can read more about Christin at www.christintaylor.com.