This school year I am hosting two foreign exchange students who are both Muslim. They are seniors at Perham High School. They are here to learn about America and to inform Americans about their countries, culture and religion and promote better relationships between us. Their experience to date in Perham had been one of being welcomed and wholeheartedly accepted.
Since their arrival, these two young men have taken advantage of many opportunities to learn about America and to share information about their homelands and Islam faith. They joined the Boy Scouts, FFA, and the Yellowjackets Speech Team, and have volunteered with Special Olympics, the Boys and Girls Club and the library. They regularly attend church with me on Sundays because the closest mosque is in Pelican Rapids. They have made presentations about their faith to a number of church groups and are planning to speak at a public forum in Perham.
These two young men, each raised in a predominately Muslim country, devoutly follow the teachings of Islam. They pray five times daily, hold in their hearts love and forgiveness, conduct themselves with modesty, treat others with great respect, answer when sure of the answer or say " I do not know" because they do not want to speak a lie.
As Muslims, they were interested in the program offered by the Assembly of God Church that featured a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity. I consented to their attending, thinking they would witness Christian love. I was wrong.
For the first time since coming here, they came home to me upset, for they had been told to leave: "Out, out!" This was because during the question/answer session, they had the nerve to challenge the speaker on some of his references and credibility. There were mischaracterizations and distortions about the speaker's teachings. To them, these misrepresentations were lies, a no-no for a Muslim (and maybe even a Christian). To them, the comments exhibited intolerance and instilled bigotry - not just toward a small group of right-winged fundamentalist Muslims resorting to terroristic acts, but intolerance toward all Muslims.
What I have learned from these two young men is that the majority of Muslims do not approve of terrorism and don't deserve to be associated with it. I have also learned that they as Muslims are taught to respect other religions, to hold love and not hate in your heart, to be slow to anger, and to not raise your fist to others until and unless provoked.
Well, let me tell you, this Mama - me! - becomes a She Bear when she sees her young threatened. And my young were threatened with intolerance, half-truths and non-acceptance at the Assembly of God Church. When they have visited other churches in the area they had been received with acceptance and a respect for their beliefs.
Some religions may want us all to believe as they believe and that their way is the only right way and the rest of us are lost. But the bottom line for me is that, in America, freedom of religion is the bedrock of our legal system and culture. Freedom of religion means to me that I may not agree with what you believe but I believe you have the right to your belief and I ask you to respect me and my right to my beliefs. What I believe is between me and my God.
This might not be the last time my boys will experience meanness in this community because they have different ways and beliefs, but it was heartbreaking to watch the devastating effects of that meanness. And it is disappointing to me to find that there are people within my community who sponsor such meanness and did not stand up for my boys. Shame on you!
Anyone who meets these two young men are left only with the impression that they are smart, capable, courteous, open, respectful, devout and loving.
Before they leave in June, I hope you will attend a presentation by these young men about their countries and their Islam faith. It is in learning from others that we learn about our similarities and bring down the walls of misunderstanding.
If we can't bring peace, tolerance and acceptance between us at the small town level, how will we ever gain peace on Earth?
For those of you who have only shown acceptance and tolerance, thank you. For those very few now who have not, I say also to you:
Peace be with you.