Last week I made a new friend. Her name is Leena Ayesh, and she is a 17 year old Muslim youth who lives in Columbus, Ohio with her family. She attends a local school and she knew a lot more about my iPhone than I did, just like my own 17 year old daughter!
Leena and I met at an interfaith prayer rally to deliver a message of love, not fear, in a world that is increasingly susceptible to the venom and vitriol hurled against our faithful, law-abiding Muslim friends and neighbors. I wanted Leena and her parents to know that in my church, we welcome ALL! We are a church of love, compassion, service to others and a deep regard for our interfaith friends and neighbors in our diverse and pluralistic city.
So Leena and I decided to take a “selfie” picture together during the rally to celebrate our new friendship. As I fumbled with my iPhone, Leena offered to take the picture for us (just like my own daughter would do). And that is the photo that was captured on the front page of our city’s newspaper.
I am so proud of my church for standing for love and justice and welcome in a political climate of xenophobia, blame and fear. We joined with the 100 other interfaith clergy and faith leaders who live by the Twitter hashtag we used at last week’s rally: #WeChooseWelcome
Our cultural climate in the U.S. today reminds me of a time long ago when men like Herod and Caiaphas were in power. A time when taxes were paid to Caesar, and hordes of people were forced to travel to little Bethlehem to register so that Caesar could find them and force them to pay homage and taxes.
A time when a young woman (about Leena’s age) and her husband were expectant with their first child, and there was no room for them in the Bethlehem inn. So their child, a son, was born in a stable instead.
A time when this young family learned that King Herod was planning to kill all of the babies in and around Bethlehem. So they fled from Bethlehem with their son to Egypt.
A time when Egyptian people of goodwill offered welcome and hospitality to the Son of God when he was a refugee, a child with no home, a stranger in a strange land.
Sunday was the Third Sunday of Advent in our Christian tradition. During worship we celebrated our church of welcome, as we proclaimed: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!
As part of our worship service, we took another selfie – this time for Leena and her family. It is our church members, in the sanctuary, holding a banner that proclaims: #WeChooseWelcome!
Because we want this young woman know that no matter what, we will always choose welcome over rejection, love over hate, faith over fear.
Virginia Lohmann Bauman is Sr. Pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio.