I was at Holden Village last month when I heard the news. A mosque in my hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota had been bombed. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.
I saw photos of the bomb’s damage in the national media, and those photos were taken by a friend. In the footage of the crowd that gathered, I saw people I knew, and they were friends. A few days later I saw social media posts about hundreds of people who come together at the mosque to support the community and state clearly that the violence didn’t reflect who we hope to be. Many of the people at that gathering were friends. Two of my friends also regularly pray at that mosque. Warda and Nur.
It was a difficult time to be away.
Holden is a place of intentional community and quiet reflection, tucked into the remote wilderness of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The good news is that it can feel far away from the challenges of the world. The bad news is that it can feel far away from the challenges of the world. I wanted to be able to support my friends during a difficult time, but I wasn’t in a place where I could do that.
I wondered about the bombing, and some of the division that seems to be growing in our country. I wondered what path has led us to this level of friction, and in a simplistic way, it occurred to me that the person who threw that bomb at the mosque must not have known Warda and Nur.
If they had known Warda and Nur, they would have known infection smiles, good humor, and deep patience. If they had known Warda and Nur, they would have known community service, determination, and compassion.
There is a chance that the person who threw the bomb at the mosque didn’t know any Muslims at all. And when we don’t have a personal connection…when we are talking about an anonymous group of people that we have no connection to…it becomes easier to demonize them. It becomes easier to vilify, and easier to hate. When we have relationships in place…and I immediately thought of my friends Zafar, Onder, Imani, Sammi, Odeh, Talat, Maham, and others…it becomes harder to demonize, vilify, and hate. Instead, you are inclined to protect your friends.
As it happens, Holden is historically a Lutheran community. They welcome people of all backgrounds, but it has had a Lutheran focus over the years. There’s nothing wrong with that and I happen to be Lutheran, myself. But Holden has recognized that in today’s world, they would like to invite a broader range of experiences into the Village. They see value and calling to enrich their own experience by welcoming and engaging deeply with others.
As it happens, I helped coordinate an interfaith series at Holden this summer, and a week after the Bloomington mosque bombing, Warda and Nur showed up in the Village. Now, as someone who regularly puts himself in new situations, I recognize the courage it takes to be the fish out of water. Showing up for a week in the wilderness as the only two Muslims in a sea of 400 Lutherans is not an easy ask.
Nur confided that after the bombing he considered asking Warda to stay home, where she had a support network. But as the week progressed, it was clear Warda was having as much fun as anyone. Maybe more.
Holden also hosted Rabbi Esther Adler and Chaplain Nancy Victorin-Vangerud, all friends and colleagues who I’ve worked with when our exhibit has been at Hamline University. Through the week we each led individuals sessions on Islam 101, interpreting Jewish texts, the environment and faith…and several nights we led interfaith dialogue sessions focused on topics that ranged from our understandings of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, to sin and forgiveness, and how our different faiths call us to hope.
What gave me the greatest hope of all was seeing the relationships that developed through the week. Seeing people engage with and learn from one another. Seeing new friendships emerge. This is what will make us strong. This is how we will learn to move forward together.
During that same week there was a rally of white supremacists that gathered in Charlottesville. Even with our tenuous link of technology to the outside world, we saw news of people clashing. We saw images of people with torches marching around a statue of Robert E. Lee. We mourned the senseless loss of life. In Holden’s remote mountain valley, in the midst of new friendship, it was a glaring contrast. We were a world away, but still, felt a need to respond. So we convened a community forum as a place to voice our concerns, address the challenges, recognize our privilege, and commit to new action. After seeing images of hate, lit with torches, we chose to carry a different kind of light.
Two nights later we gathered on a hillside. We formed into the shape of a peace sign. We waited for dusk to fall and we lit our candles in that tiny village, under the silhouetted mountain ridge.
There is a passage we use often at Holden that says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
People don’t stay in Holden Village forever…they come down the mountain and back into the bigger world…and we’ll all be carrying that light with us.
There’s work to do.