One of my most challenging moments of parental theological purposefulness came when my family moved to northern Virginia. My daughter, born in Memphis, was two. Back in Memphis, the world existed in three colors and two languages: people were black, brown, and white; they spoke English or Spanish. The triculturalism of the contemporary urban South was pretty easy for a toddler to comprehend.
In the cosmopolitan suburbs of Washington, D.C., however, multiculturalism exists at a level that even I found (and still find) challenging. Trips to the local grocery store and mall shocked and surprised Emma—as she heard unfamiliar languages and saw unfamiliar native dress.
Some of it intrigued her. But one thing frightened her: Muslim women wrapped in veils. Every time she saw a Muslim woman in traditional dress, she would point and say in a worried tone “What’s that, Mommy? What’s that?”
One day in late summer 2000, after more than a few embarrassments, I turned the mall trip into a teaching moment. Emma saw a woman walking toward us covered in a veil and asked the inevitable, “What’s that, Mommy?”
“Emma,” I answered, “She’s ‘who,’ not ‘what.’ That lady is a Muslim from a faraway place. And she dresses like that—and covers her head with a veil—because she loves God. That is how her people show they love God.”
My daughter considered these words. She stared at the woman who passed us. She pointed at the woman, then pointed at my hair, and further quizzed, “Mommy, do you love God?”
“Yes, honey,” I laughed. “I do. You and I are Christians. Christian ladies show love for God by going to church, eating the bread and wine, serving the poor, and giving to those in need. We don’t wear veils, but we do love God.”
After this, Emma took every opportunity to point to Muslim women during our shopping trips and tell me, “Mommy, look, she loves God!” One day, we were getting out of our car at our driveway at the same time as our Pakistani neighbors. Emma saw the mother, beautifully veiled, and, pointing at her, shouted. “Look, Mommy, she loves God!”
My neighbor was surprised. I told her what I had taught Emma about Muslim women loving God. While she held back tears, this near stranger hugged me, saying, “I wish that all Americans would teach their children so. The world would be better. The world would be better.”
I had been intent for some time in teaching my young daughter to honor other faiths, to understand that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all Abraham’s children. Looking around the mall in northern Virginia, I knew that, as she grew, she would have to claim, cherish, and practice her own faith, and at the same time, she would have to honor—not just tolerate—the faiths of her neighbors. I did not want her to fear difference. I did not want her to demonize someone else’s religion. She needed to understand that all people are created in God’s image—and that God loves everybody—in order to be both a good Christian and a good American in this new century.
– An excerpt from Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship by Diana Butler Bass
Diana Butler Bass is an American historian of Christianity and an advocate for progressive Christianity. She is the author of eleven books. She earned a PhD in religious studies from Duke University in 1991 with an emphasis on American ecclesiastical history. From 1995 to 2000, she wrote a weekly column on religion and culture for the New York Times Syndicate that appeared in more than seventy newspapers nationwide. Visit her blog, The Cottage, for more.