Right before I turned 14, my narrow little view of the world was rocked. The U.S. had just declared war on Iraq.
I wasn’t so afraid of a war on the other side of the world as I was of the implications of this war.
“Armageddon,” “World War III, “and “Christ’s return,” were just a few of the words swirling around in the adults’ not-so-quiet whispers.
I went home and cried. I was devastated. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet.
Through my teenage years, it was never a question who the enemies were. Anyone who looked like they could be from the Middle East was someone to be feared. Someone who mistreated not only their own, but would mistreat us as well, given the chance. While the Middle East conflict stretched into what seemed to be an endless amount of time, I got my license, went to college, got married, and had kids.
Our second ministry position took us to the suburbs of a large Midwestern city, where we were privileged to become part of a church whose diversity spanned over 20 different countries. It’s where Jesus used his love and grace to completely shift my small-town, American, white-girl worldview, and gave me the desire to embrace those from any culture. Trying to learn their language and tasting (and loving) their food, gave them cause for a lot of laughter—especially the language—and we loved each other.
Still, I admit I was a little surprised when my husband recently took me on our 20th Anniversary trip and I discovered we had a two-day layover in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Actually, the surprise I felt even surprised me. I thought I had long since moved past the group-think of my conservative circles in believing the generalities of Middle Eastern evil.
The voices buried deep in my 13-year-old self started whispering. Voices I didn’t even know were still there. Fortunately, I was able to rapidly silence them (and it helped that we had a 13-hour flight before arriving) and once we were there, I was able to enjoy this new-to-me culture as much as possible, while trying to remember what behavior was acceptable in this region.
**Sidenote—First day: unacceptable behavior was drawn attention to (loudly) when my husband put his arm around me for a mosque selfie. The selfie was fine, just not the arm around me. “No public displays of affection!” the robed man chided. Oops. **
The second day ended on a desert tour with another family. A man, his wife, and two beautiful girls, all with caramel skin, jet hair, and decidedly English names. We sat down with them to share a traditional Arabic meal when, in an attempt to make conversation, my husband asked the man where they were from.
“Australia,” the man answered.
“No, where were you from originally?” he probed.
The man’s gaze dropped. Hesitantly, he spoke.
“We are from Iraq.”
I was ashamed at what I perceived to be the thoughts running through his head. Iraqis = American enemies. A generalization, sure, but there’s no telling what propaganda he had been exposed to. Would we recoil in fear? Would he see our eyes darken in suspicion? How awkward was this going to be?
My husband leaned forward and said, “Tell us your story.”
The man relaxed and began.
He was born in Syria, moved to Iraq during his childhood, and was immediately conscripted into Saddam Hussein’s army as soon as he graduated from high school.
He was in Saddam’s army for eight years, during which time he married his Iraqi wife, and was wounded in the line of duty three times. He stills carries the shrapnel.
Because of all that was happening, he decided he must get out. So, he left Saddam’s army, took his wife, fled Iraq, and headed for Greece. Five months later, the U.S. declared war on Iraq. I was 13.
Because they were Iraqi, Greece refused to allow them to stay and they were forced to go to a country that would accept people of their nationality. In this case, it was Australia. It took him five years to be able to get their parents and relatives out of Iraq, and he considered himself fortunate that he was able to get them out at all. That they had lived that long. Once they were safe in Australia, they were comfortable enough to start a family, which now is expanded to two girls, slightly younger than my own boys.
His story moved me like nothing else has.
Five months longer and he may have come face-to-face with any of the Gulf War veterans I know and love. He was a piece of military machinery that he wanted no part of.
The enemy who was not an enemy.
If you looked into his heavy-browed, deep-set eyes, you could see the love he had for his wife and his family. His face was free from malice towards us, and as we parted ways, there was a genuine gratitude that our paths had crossed.
When was the last time you looked past the appearance of the person walking by and recognized that he or she has a story?
Brown skin, black skin, tattooed skin, yellow skin, white skin, pierced skin. While it may have never been said aloud, what skin have you been “told” is less-than, inferior, or maybe even superior? Maybe it’s a robe, or a dark hoodie, or a turban, or baggy jeans, or simply filthy and patched? Or maybe it’s a lifestyle that contradicts your beliefs? Who do you avert your gaze from? Refuse to make eye contact with?
Let’s word it this way: Who do you feel better than? Or maybe this way, as I paraphrase one pastor’s words: *“If you were the man beaten and robbed on the side of the road, who is your Samaritan? Who would you NOT want to stop and help you?”
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Colossians 3:12
Once you start viewing people as God’s creation, whom he loves and sent his Son to die for, and once you can see past their outward shell of flesh and blood, you will see into their heart and soul.
You will see that they have a story.
It’s worth listening to.
*Jon Middendorf, senior pastor at OKC First Nazarene http://olive.nowsprouting.com/oklahomacityfirstchurchofthenazarene/media.php?pageID=6