by Ramin Ganeshram
It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: The month during which Muslims believe the holy books of all Abrahamic religions were handed down. The month designated to put aside all worldly pursuits and attend to the spirituality of one’s soul. The month for welcoming the stranger.
This idea of welcoming the stranger is a core concept in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Torah says when the prophet Elijah appears as a beggar at the home of a poor couple who give him the last of the their food they are rewarded with plenty from God. The Bible tells us that Jesus lived as a poor wanderer who depended on the hospitality of strangers for his livelihood. In the Quran, the Prophet Mohammed clearly outlines the charitable treatment of those who are the most needy or the most unknown.
As a mixed-race, mixed heritage person with ties to Christian and Islamic heritage I’ve always found these stories compelling. Perhaps it is because, I often feel like the perpetual stranger: The layers upon layers of my ethnicity, the religions encompassed within my family, and our tribal and geographic associations make it hard to find a niche and stay in it. Like the jack of all trades and master of none, the multiplicity of my background allows me nothing to singularly call my own. While, I long to be e pluribus unum but I’m mostly just e pluribus.
That’s why when I was invited with my family to an Ramadan Iftar dinner hosted TEAM Westport and Westport’s Interfaith Council I was a bit trepidatious. (Iftar is the meal taken after all day fasting during the month of Ramadan) I went so far as to tell intrepid event host and organizer, Dolores Paoli, (who does yeoman’s work representing the Muslim voice at TEAM Westport and in the larger community) that despite my cultural background being partly Iranian, I wasn’t Muslim and was that ok?
Even as I was indulging the persistent “imposter” syndrome that often plagues me, Dolores quickly and kindly put my fears to rest. She assured me I was most welcome, that there would be people of all faiths there, including those like herself, who had participated in various religions in their lives.
In short, she welcomed me completely–not as the stranger I saw myself to be–but as a friend.
The event, which in part honored a Syrian refugee family sponsored by the Interfaith Council and the volunteers who have helped them, was enlightening. It afforded an opportunity to teach my young daughter not just about Islam–the faith of her sufi maternal great-grandfather–but to witness first-hand the excitement of a shared meal and shared experience among people who despite their unique faiths shared the common religion of humanity.
As I listened to the Qu’ranic recitation that accompanied the breaking of the fast I felt awe and appreciation for the lyrical quality of verses being read in song-like chant–so like Roman Catholic Latin chant or a Jewish cantorial song.
But what I most noticed was how readily and happily people greeted each other, asked one another’s names and listened carefully to the response. I looked around and saw no one looking at their phones or staring off into the distance. Little kids ran around playing–sometimes “interrupting” even–but no one was angry. In those few hours, people committed to carving time out to getting to know one another.
Looking around, I remembered a greeting from my father’s Caribbean heritage:
“I hope that now we are not strangers?”
It’s an opening gambit toward the possibility of friendship. It is a willingness to put aside being strangers by making those most unknown to us into those most welcomed by us. This welcome to the stranger is also a program commitment that Team Westport is making in the coming months so please keep an eye out for events, posts, and more around the theme of Welcoming the Stranger.
Perhaps you’ll join us in our goal that one day soon we may no longer be strangers and perhaps we might even become friends.