(This was initially a guest post that I did for my friend Jeremy, which he made some slight edits to. You can go here to see it on his blog, and be sure to check out the rest of the series.)
“I love your hand decorations.”
And that is how I began one of the most exciting conversations of my life. In early March of 2015, I was taking my seat on a plane from Denver to Minneapolis. I always love hearing stories from speakers and preachers about the interesting conversations that they have with folks during their flights, and I’ve always wanted to have one of those experiences. Well, that day had finally come.
I sat down next to a woman wearing a hijab and sporting some pretty intricate henna on her hand. My simple compliment started a long conversation that took up almost the entire flight. She was on her way to the Twin Cities for a family member’s wedding, and the henna was part of the… er, well, the religiously reverent, Islamic equivalent of a bachelorette party, I guess. I asked her about her faith, which she was more than happy to share with me. Alongside her religious convictions, she shared her life story as well – a story of years and years of abuse, first at the hands of an elderly man that she was married to when she was little more than a child living in Somalia, and then at the hands of her aunt (who she claimed was even worse).
She also told me about redemption, about how she is now married to a man much closer to her age, about how he takes care of her and adores her, about how she has four children and how her husband adopted the eldest one who wasn’t biologically his. She and I laughed about how she is the saver and her husband is the spender, even though she probably has more head scarves than she actually needs. And when I told her how sorry I was that she had experienced all that abuse growing up, she smiled and reassured me that the past is behind her and she is happy now.
We talked about a lot of other things – religion, politics, cultural perceptions of Islam – and I could write forever about what we discussed. But I want to get to the best part. The part where we ate together.
It wasn’t much. She and I had each brought some trail mix to eat during our flight, and so we shared with one another. And as we crunched our way through raisins and sunflower seeds I began to notice what was happening. It was like waking up. Not a quick jerk to consciousness, like an alarm clock. But like slowly coming out of a lazy summer afternoon nap, where you don’t realize that you’re awake until you already are. Here we were, some thirty-thousand feet up in the air, breaking bread with one another. Her, a Muslim woman from the other side of the world, and me, a Christian man born and raised in the American midwest.
To be honest, I felt a genuine temptation to bring up every apologetic argument that I had ever learned from my Bible college text books. I could have talked about the historicity of the resurrection, the shortcomings of monistic monotheism, the flawed character of the prophet Mohammed, or any number of polemics. But, because I chose to begin our conversation with a compliment, because I first got to know her, because I listened to her story with all of its heartbreak, I found myself instead sharing a meager meal with her, showing each other pictures of our children on our phones, and laughing about their antics and similarities.
I truly believe that there is something cosmic and transcendent about sharing the table with someone. And, from the Passover meal to the Eucharist, I don’t think it is merely a coincidence that God’s people have always used food as an act of worship. Of course, she and I have significantly different ideas about what God is like, and that has led to incredibly different expressions of faith in our lives. And yet, when we set all of that aside and simply got to know one another, not as religious silos, but as fellow human beings, our trail mix became more than just nuts and berries. In a very real, although entirely not-literal, sense it became the body and blood of Christ – a divine something that tears down all the dividing walls of human history until there are no more Jews and Gentiles, no more slaves and freemen, no more Muslims and Evangelicals.
In that moment, I think that we touched heaven, even if only for a few minutes. My hope and dream is that instances like this would become more commonplace. As Christians, as people of the table, breakers of bread, and sharers of food, may our dining be less and less private and more and more transcendent. May we invite those that we are told to hate to instead eat with us. And may our meals come to reflect the awaited wedding feast, where all people from all nations, even Somali Muslim women with sad stories and beautiful hands, will laugh and eat together.