My father is a retired Christian pastor, and chaplain at the Veterans Administration Hospital. His father was a pastor, too. Faith plays a pretty central role in our family.
So it was a bit jarring when two of my female cousins showed up to the Thanksgiving meal in hijab for the first time – and with their faces covered, too.
That was about fifteen years ago – the year before 9/11 maybe, or the year after. It's sort of beside the point.
Context is important here. It wasn't a surprise that my cousins were Muslim – that we've known for about 50 years, since my dad's sister got married and converted. What had changed was that one of my cousins in that branch of the family, Iman, had decided to quietly enlist in the Army. Just weeks later, he was killed in a jeep accident. That tragedy, the latest in a series, prompted several members of the family to a fresh level of devout observance.
The dynamic might have been different if the rest of my family were less focused on spiritual issues. But my grandmother, a praying woman who was known to hand out pens engraved with Bible verses, set the tone for the family. She was determined not to compromise her beliefs ... or her longstanding commitment to keep her family together.
These years later, I asked Omar, the oldest surviving son in the Muslim branch of the family, if he would sit down and talk to me for Fortt Knox about something many of us can relate to at a time like this: The struggle to find common ground in the face of fundamental differences. Before we had our talk, he took his rug down to my basement to pray, one floor away from where I like to read my Bible in the morning.
America faces some vexing challenges, in a time of real fears about terrorism, assimilation, and hate. This episode might help.