The half-naked young man before me lay stretched on a table, his lifeless limbs unnaturally awry. Long and lanky like many a twenty-year-old, his light-bronze skin, dark hair and angular facial features made him look the Arab that he was, while his clean-shaven face identified his Islam as moderate. He lay in Yemen, half a world away from me, but as my host held the screen and its image before me, the pain behind his eyes made death a palpable presence in the room. Adel, the youth in the image, was his little brother, killed two weeks ago.
Truth? Six months ago, I could have shown you Yemen on a map, and given you some basic cultural information — but while I may have had a nagging sense that things like human starvation, and violence, and oppression physical and spiritual should have prompted some kind of response in me — well, I may just have found it hard to care. I’ve heard this called “Compassion Fatigue” — which sounds so much better than “self-centered callousness”, the phrase I suspect may be more apt.
The difference now? An unlikely friendship.
I am a Jesus-follower, a “person of the Cross”, one who believes that real, vibrant, forever-life is found only through the person of Jesus, who is God-in-flesh, full of inexplicable love… and power… and goodness. And my heart cries, “Glory!”
My faith is irreconcilable with that of my Yemeni friends. The divide between us as bloody today as at any time in history. And yet…
In early March of this year, not even two weeks before the country of Yemen would plunge into civil-war-turned-international-conflict (or is it international-conflict-turned-civil-war?), our family received a remarkable invitation from people we had not yet met in person. (You can read here for the story leading up to this invitation)
The President of my city’s primary mosque opened the door of his ordinary home to my large family. Our families exchanged the warm, awkward greetings of strangers eagerly trying to scramble over cultural barriers. Our sons eyed each other with that universal relief kids feel when they see that this will NOT have to be an exclusively adult affair… that there are, in fact, potential playmates at the ready. His lovely, hijab-clad wife led us to a living room that elicited small gasps of delight from all of us. An ornate, rounded couch lined most of the walls — walls hung with gold fabric and framed Arabic verse. Perhaps most remarkable to me — from one mother of boys to another — was the rich carpet, perfectly clean.
We took our seats on the floor, Yemeni-style, and our hostess laid a tablecloth before us, bringing out steaming dish after steaming dish. The aromatic rice mounded on that huge platter, topped with lovingly prepared lamb — which our host had traveled all the way across the state earlier that week just to purchase for us the very best lamb he could find. Yemeni coffee. Yemeni tea. Served in exquisite pots and glasses, distinctly Middle Eastern. But it was the four luxurious hours of conversation – boys long escaped to play together elsewhere – that left our hearts brimming as we finally said good night.
Two weeks later, a drawn-out conflict in their homeland exploded into civil war and international crisis. As of August, the death toll exceeds 4,000 — and nearly 60% of the entire population of the country is at risk of starvation. Armed factions supported financially and militarily by foreign regional powers are terrorizing the common people and making it nearly impossible for aid organizations to deliver their assistance.
A dinner in our home. A visit to their mosque. Brief, email conversations about their families in Yemen. And then it was the month of Ramadan. The highest point of their year. Daylight hours of fasting made particularly difficult by summer solstice, a northerly latitude, and a surrounding culture that is certainly giving no thought to accommodating hunger-weary people. All the more reason to joyfully celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, their favorite holiday — the breaking of their month-long fast.
With a bit of trepidation, I assembled a basket spilling with fresh fruits to contribute to their celebration. An outsider, I showed up at their home uninvited, the day of their most prized festival — and I was engulfed by a tidal wave of affection from an entire gathered clan. The elderly matriarch embraced me with tears, a daughter translating the Arabic as she repeatedly declared how much she had heard of and wanted to meet my family. She took me under her wing, seeing to it that I had no choice but to eat, and together we practiced Arabic phrases while the children played around us.
Impossible, though, not to notice the weariness behind my friends’ eyes. Lengthy holiday preparations? I know Christmas can certainly wear me out. Cooking all week? This cake is delicious. And then I ask about their family in Yemen. Are they still safe? Have you been able to be in contact? Eyes look meaningfully to each other. My host sits down next to me, pulls out his phone, and begins to tell me of his little brother. “He didn’t care anything about politics. He was just a kid…” This year, they celebrate Eid-al-Fitr as a discipline. An intentional choice to practice joy in the midst of grief.
And suddenly, a statistic – death toll, 4000 – takes on a face.
“For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) But my heart is too narrow. Such love, far too broad.
Yet … “The Word was God… [and] the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1&14) What is this? The expression of this world-encompassing love actually looks something like … an initiative-taking, cross-cultural friendship.
And therein lies my way forward. The way I can learn a broadly-encompassing kind of love.
Friendship by friendship.