“Isn’t the twentieth century the age of the expatriate, the refugee, the stateless—and the wanderer?” — Elie Wiesel
Several years ago I showed The Jesus Film to an apartment packed with devout Muslims. I had ordered the VHS off of a special minister-to-Muslims website (it was pretty old school—hence, the VHS). The people were Somali Bantu, recently arrived from decades spent languishing in a refugee camp. I was the earnest young volunteer with English language skills and free time to burn. The apartment was small and hot and musty, full of the smells of food and people who don’t adhere to western methods of personal hygiene.
I was nineteen years old, and I wanted to be a missionary.
The film, rather artlessly dubbed in Somali, translated well to a people in love with color and drama. It was histrionic and over-the-top, filmed with copious close-up shots of weeping, strained faces. Combined with the soap-opera lighting, it’s rather like a Bollywood film without the song and dance numbers. Everyone watched, mostly rapt with attention, until the pivotal crucifixion scene. At that moment, people began to busy themselves, picking up plates and chatting with each other, turning their gazes from the television set. I grew annoyed, as the very narrative of my childhood was being ignored. I myself had been inflicted with the agony of watching a bad actor writhe around on a cross to somber, fuzzed out music many, many times and it had meant something to me.
It wasn’t until (spoiler alert!) Jesus appeared as his risen self, beatific, with beautiful, soft hair, that my friends turned their attention back to the film.
After it was over, everybody had to discuss it. I had no idea what they were saying, but I could tell it was passionate. The men did most of the arguing, but the women held their own, too. The kids, and there was a veritable sea of them in the apartment, clung to skirts and wiped their noses and leaned into one another, eyes wide and yet sleepy.
Abdi, the elder of the group, waved a hand at me. In his grand, broken English, he gave me their verdict. “Jesus,” he said, holding the palm of his hand straight out in front of him, “is here.”
“But Mohammed,” he looked at me intently, for full effect, “is here.” And with that, he moved his hand up by his head.
And that was that.
We never spoke of it again, and I felt almost relieved. I had grown up wanting to be a missionary all my life, but when faced with a real mission field, I felt overwhelmed by the burden of proselytizing. I went to conferences and Bible studies and even majored in “Inter-Cultural Studies” (which was just evangelical code for missions), but nothing I learned seemed applicable when real people were in front of me, drinking chai and discussing my pasty appearance. The Jesus Film was a cop-out for me, a way to feel like the missionary I wanted to be but without any of the hard work of explaining the Four Spiritual Laws (which I would explain right now, except I am too lazy to go find the little pamphlet, complete with pictures, that lays them out). The minute I pressed play on the VHS player I knew it was no good. That fundamentalist guilt was still going to stick around.
And then, strangely, it went away. As we watched The Jesus Film, all the pretense of Portland began to wash off me as I relaxed into a culture as removed from my own as I could imagine. I sat on the couch and listened to the rhythms of a different language while children perched on either side of me and marveled at my blond hair, caressing it with their chicken-greased fingers. For the first time in a long while, I felt at rest.
In many ways, I thought myself a refugee. I grew up within a hairsbreadth of becoming a raging fundamentalist. As it was, I grew up to become a devastatingly conservative Christian—but compared to the hardcore believers I was found to be a little too “worldly” (I wore jeans, and cut my hair short). When I moved to Portland at age 19 I felt like the evangelical Margaret Mead, studying the savages of the real world with a mix of fascination and condescension. Beyond the sex, substance abuse, and materialism of the city, I was most horrified by the lack of real existential crises. While everyone was ostensibly “finding themselves” by indulging in their destructive habit of choice, it seemed to me they were just cluttering up their lives in order to avoid any real contemplation.
I learned to be quiet, to laugh at the jokes I didn’t understand, to downplay my past and my future and to focus so relentlessly on the present so that people would stop giving me funny looks. I learned what shoes to wear and what books to bring on the bus and watched a lot of terrible television. But inside, I felt like a stranger. There was no place that I felt at home.
Christian, Muslim, Somali, American.
Suffice it to say, there were no conversions that night. To this day, eight years later, I still have not converted one single Muslim. I am pretty much the worst missionary ever, for reasons quite varied. Example: much later I found out that the crucifixion scene is incredibly offensive to Muslims, who believe Jesus is a prophet of God and therefore would never have been subject to such indignity. I had no idea. I didn’t really know these people, their culture, or their religion. All I knew was Muslims! In my backyard! It was obviously a sign from God.
But the more I hung out with my refugee friends, the more I recognized certain elements of the Somali Bantu culture as being close to my own. As a self-identified stateless wanderer, I identified with the disorientation with Western society, the clinging to fundamental beliefs, and the withdrawal away from a confusing culture. Like me, the refugees were black and white thinkers in a very gray city. They might laugh and make broken jokes in English with all those bright and faceless volunteers, but inside they were always wondering what the next dance step must be. I saw this look in their faces, the constant navigating of a foreign and unclear culture, and I wanted to cry at all I knew that was ahead for them. How it gets worse, so much worse, and the temptation toward insulation or violent rhetoric takes on the siren song of belonging.
We were Fundamentalists.
Looking at my own culture, I was beginning to realize us “fundies” (whether we might be Christian or Muslim) had few options: we could blend in, we could withdraw, or we could fight it. Hard.
When I looked around that room, stuffed full of people who had suffered more as a collective unit than I could ever bear to realize, I knew that this was no melting-pot scenario. In many ways we were the same: we needed our communities, we needed our families, and most of all we needed our religion. We needed to breathe and sing and talk about the stories we had heard all of our lives, because we didn’t know how to make sense of the world in any other way. It was changing so fast, and we were being asked to assimilate or go home.
And we couldn’t do either.