Growing up, I can recall numerous experiences of discomfort. I remember the two years that I spent wearing a hard, plastic back brace underneath my clothes for my scoliosis. As well as being physically uncomfortable, the brace was socially uncomfortable. As a 13-year-old girl just wanting to ‘fit in’, a plastic back brace that led to awkward conversations whenever someone tapped me on the back was not my favourite accessory. I didn’t like having those awkward conversations. It was a lot more comfortable to stick with my immediate friends and family who understood me. Stepping outside my bubble seemed unnecessary.
When I began university, I began regularly finding myself in situations where my discomfort was inevitable. I visited India three times over a period of two years where I worked with orphans and street children to tell their stories through photographs. In my final year of university I began working at the Columban Mission Institute’s Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations where I have spent the last year and a half working with Christian and Muslim youth to promote respect and mutual understanding.
I have always been aware of the beautiful Franciscan blessing, “May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.” Only now have I begun to ponder the possibility that stepping outside my comfort zone and experiencing discomfort is going to make me a better person. Jesus was uncomfortable with the status quo. He challenged people. He mixed with the outcasts. Perhaps every time I experience discomfort or awkwardness, I am one millimetre closer to knowing Jesus.
I grew up on the Central Coast and I went to primary school at St Mary’s, Toukley. I remember thinking my class was multicultural because there was one girl whose grandmother was half-Chinese and a boy whose Dad was Polish. In fact, it was a very Anglo population and far from multicultural! At the age of 20 I had spoken to one Muslim. I had been on a school excursion to the Auburn Mosque and I had seen Muslims on television, but I had never considered the possibility of having Muslim friends.
In my final year of university, an opportunity arose for me to work at the Columban Mission Institute’s Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations in Strathfield. They were seeking a young, energetic, Catholic woman to co-ordinate events and projects that facilitate dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
I thought the job looked exciting and right up my alley! Before long I had signed up for several Muslim events where I was going to meet new people, build relationships and play my part in dispelling stereotypes about Muslims that are perpetuated in the media.
I was energised and excited as I walked into a Muslim conference for the first time, until I realised that I was the only person in the room with orange hair, green eyes, pale skin and no hijab. There was nothing about that situation that was comfortable. All I could think about was what the other people in the room were thinking. Surely they’d be wondering why I was there.
After this initial period of discomfort, things changed on a March morning in 2013 when I received an email from my boss. The NSW Community Relations Commission had agreed to sponsor twelve young adults to participate in an interfaith hiking trip through the Tasmanian wilderness and my boss had suggested that I apply. After receiving the news that my application had been successful, I found myself on a plane one month later with five Muslims, two Jews, one Mormon, one Hindu, one Buddhist and one other Catholic. We were on our way to Tasmania to climb Cradle Mountain, together.
Commonly, interfaith gatherings consist of a panel discussion with representatives from different religions exploring a common topic. The discussion is usually followed with tea and refreshments in the foyer where friendly, polite conversation takes place. The most remarkable part of our interfaith trek was that the dialogue was organic and unstructured. As we were faced with the common tasks of pitching a tent, reaching the top of the mountain and dealing with the icy cold weather, dialogue just happened.
I knew Muslims had to pray five times a day, I knew they had to wash themselves before prayer and I knew their food had to be Halal. I knew Jews were required to eat Kosher food and I knew they strictly observed the Sabbath. However, it wasn’t until I experienced living in an interfaith setting that these rules took on a new significance. My respect for people of other faiths grew enormously after forming deep friendships with these individuals during our trek in Tasmania.
Whenever I spend time with my Muslim friends, I am amazed and inspired by the commitment with which they put on their hijabs each morning and pray at set times per day. The more I spend time with Muslims, the more I am motivated to exercise the same dedication and commitment to my Christian faith, particularly in the way that I model my life on Jesus and love everyone, including my enemies.
The faith of my Muslim friends affects every one of their daily decisions, from food to clothing to their prayer patterns. It should also affect each of my daily decisions!
I should be asking myself:
Are the people I eat with the people Jesus would be eating with?
Are the clothes I buy Fairtrade or are they made in sweatshops where people don’t get a fair wage?
Is my prayer drawing me closer to God’s will?
My Muslim friends have challenged me, inspired me and, ultimately, they have helped me to become a better Catholic. They have shown me what it looks like to be a faithful person. A Muslim, by definition, means one who surrenders and submits to God. This absolute submission to God is something that I admire, and I pray that as a Catholic, I can submit to the will of God in the same way.
To learn more, visit Pints with a Purpose or "like" the Diocesan Youth Council on Facebook.