For several years, Kenya has been a flashpoint of Christian-Muslim conflict. With each incident of terror, the tension increases.
Kenyan Mennonites are finding hope in small incidents of transformation. Kenya has received waves of refugees from Somalia over the last quarter of a century. Many land in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, or in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. There, at the Mennonite-initiated Eastleigh Fellowship Center, Christians and Muslims interact.
Yusuf, a Kenyan Mennonite who teaches English in Eastleigh, discusses faith with young Somali men. One day, one of his conversation partners became angry and slapped him across the face.
“I prayed to God that I would not be angry,” Yusuf said. “And I just continued the discussion. Later, the other guys who were there came to me to say that they were sorry and that they were surprised I was not fighting.
“I said to them, ‘Christ has forgiven me, and he called us to forgive.’ It became clear to me that peace is the best witness. And from that time my relationship changed with those men.”
A woman who pastors a Mennonite church in Eastleigh confesses how hard it is to stay when so many other churches have left the area. There was a series of bombings in 2014, and tension runs high at times.
She has worked for many years in Eastleigh, teaching at the fellowship center and helping young Somalis with immigration issues. Now those Somalis have children of their own and bring them to the center. They still refer to her as “Mama Rebecca.”
An incident on a bus
There is hope that these transformative relationships are spreading, even as violent incidents dominate the news.
Occasionally the fruit of these loving friendships blossoms in astonishing ways. One such incident occurred when al-Shabaab militants stopped a bus in Kenya and ordered the Muslims and Christians to separate. The passengers refused. The Muslim passengers protected their Christian neighbors, and one Muslim man even lost his life in the attack.
This new paradigm for neighborliness reflects the best in both faith traditions: to love and obey God and to love and protect one’s neighbor.
This model of neighborliness is one of the most important interfaith issues in our world. Welcoming vulnerable strangers is one of the deepest commonalities Christians and Muslims share.
Jesus, the refugee
Central to our faiths are two prophets, Jesus and Muhammad, who were both displaced people. To these we might add Moses, a castaway as a result of genocide.
We notice three things about Jesus and welcoming strangers:
- Jesus was born into a covenant revealed in the context of migration, beginning with the prophet Abraham and climaxing in the central event of the Old Testament, the Exodus from slavery.
According to the Bible, immigration is a covenant between God and humans. This covenant was a gift and a responsibility; it reflected God’s goodness to them but also called them to respond to strangers in the same way that God responded to them in their slavery: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
- Jesus was himself a refugee, fleeing from a murderous king to the land of Egypt. What a stunning reversal of the Exodus story! The land that held the children of Israel in slavery for 400 years became the land that received the vulnerable refugee Jesus, the Messiah.
- Jesus’ experience as a refugee surely impacted his view of the world. As someone who had been an outsider and a stranger, he spent his life challenging the divisions that kept people on the outside.
In his life and ministry, Jesus went beyond borders of all sorts: clean and unclean, saints and sinners, rich and poor. Jesus’ life was about calling into being a community of generosity that would reflect God’s unlimited love for all people.
Jesus fulfills the original calling of God’s people, to follow God’s example as deliverer and provider for our fellow humans.
A prophet’s journey
Muhammad, an orphan, joined a long line of prophets whose obedience to God resulted in hijra, the Quran’s term for migration. He identified as a migrant, saying that he was like a traveler who stays for a short time to rest under the shade of a tree and then continues on his journey.
The Quran speaks on behalf of the oppressed and weak: “Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refuge” (4:97)? In other words, God owns the land, and those who have authority should take care of refugees.
Muhammad sent 83 members of his community to find refuge from the Meccans in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). When the Meccans asked King Negus to deliver the migrants to them, the king protected the Muslim immigrants. His kindness is praised in the Quran. This incident is an important example of mutual love between Muslims and Christians.
Our central prophets — Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — were displaced people. Our Scriptures tell us of God’s special concern for the marginalized. Caring for immigrants is central to living out our faith.
Peter Sensenig works with Mennonite Board in Eastern Africa in a majority-Muslim area of Tanzania, teaching peace studies at a university. He has taken part in Muslim-Christian dialogues, from which these reflections emerge. This testimony is part of Mennonite World Conference’s Peace Sunday worship resource for 2018. See more at mwc-cmm.org/peacesunday.