When my husband and I were living in the Middle East about 20 years ago, we were working at a university in northern Jordan.
Life there was a shock to me at first, and I had a tough time adjusting to the culture, which felt quite different from mine. As I tried to be respectful but also be myself, I took solace in this promise from the book of Acts: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (17:28).
I could feel that God was indeed guiding every aspect of my life. I began to relax and make friends in a place that felt very different from home.
During this time, we visited Syria, and although newspaper reports were not always favorable about the state of affairs there, we found Damascus a welcoming city full of history, shopping opportunities, and great restaurants. While visiting the Grand Mosque, the must-see stop for us in Damascus, I learned an important lesson about sisterhood.
The tile work, soaring arches, and peaceful quiet, right next to the largest market in Syria, was like a cold drink of water in the hot desert. We watched many tourists, all dressed in Middle Eastern style, enjoy the same sites that were delighting us.
My husband and I rested in the refreshing shadows of the courtyard, and then I went off to find a restroom. I came across a family of women there, all fully covered in dark abayahs, happily talking among themselves. I couldn't greet them in their language, but I yearned to establish contact. They eyed me suspiciously. Though conservative, my Western dress was probably displeasing to them.
Then, one of the younger women made eye contact with me. I smiled eagerly and put my hand to my heart as a greeting. She said in halting English, pointing to herself, "I, " and named the country she was from. I admit that my first reaction was to think, "Our enemies!" The strife between our countries had been severe, and I vividly remembered acts of terror. But just as quickly, I thought about a passage in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," the major work by Mary Baker Eddy, who also founded this newspaper: "It should be thoroughly understood that all men have one Mind, one God and Father, one Life, Truth, and Love. Mankind will become perfect in proportion as this fact becomes apparent, war will cease and the true brotherhood of man will be established" (p. 467).
This thought of our God-based unity stayed with me, and images of terror were replaced in my mind by images of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. When I responded in one word, telling her my country, she nodded, "Yes, sisters." I placed my hand on my heart again and smiled broadly. I wanted to embrace her, but I didn't need to, because she had already enveloped me with her kind eyes and few words.
From this short experience, I learned that when we are tempted to see an enemy, it's helpful to remember Mrs. Eddy's words of promise.
Almost 10 years later, when I was working in refugee camps in eastern Africa, the experience at the Grand Mosque in Damascus came flooding back to me. I processed thousands of refugees for US resettlement who came from a country that had brutally murdered my countrymen. I rejoiced that I could see and hold all these people in my heart as my brothers and sisters, and move with joy and fearlessness among them.
There were no images in my thought of the previous brutality. Instead, during the months I spent with the refugees in their camps, I was treated like a sister, welcomed into their family groups, showered with gifts, and offered endless glasses of sweet tea. The lessons I've learned about the universal family of man have kept me safe and helped me see brotherhood and sisterhood amid strife.