Faith through new eyes
Rachel Pieh Jones talks to Reform about learning Christianity from Muslims
Rachel Pieh Jones grew up thinking of Muslims as dangerous and different, unbelievers who needed to hear God’s plan of salvation explained so that they could become Christians. In 2003, she went to Somalia with her husband, who taught in the university there, and their young children. It quickly became too risky to stay, so they moved to neighbouring Djibouti.
In 20 years in the horn of Africa, Rachel learned about who Muslims really are, but she also learned from them about her own faith. Seeing their practice of the five pillars of Islam – the profession of faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage – she not only realised how much common ground they shared, she discovered dimensions to the Christian faith that her own tradition had not taught her.
Rachel Pieh Jones’s book Pillars: How Muslim friends led me closer to Jesus is published by Plough Publishing House.
What first took you to Somalia?
My family is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States, which has one of the largest populations of Somali refugees in North America. My husband and I were students, living in an apartment complex that was mostly refugee housing, close to the university campus. Through our Somali neighbours, we learned about this university in the north of Somalia. The south, the Mogadishu area, wouldn’t have been safe, but the north had the only functioning university. We were invited by people who work there, so it felt like they could really welcome us. We wanted to help, but we didn’t want to be the foreigners coming in and saying: ‘Hey, we’re here to help you guys.’
What idea of Muslims did you have before this?
I grew up in a Christian home, and pretty much anybody who wasn’t Baptist was outside the kingdom of God. Forget about Muslims, I didn’t even think about Catholics as legitimately our brothers and sisters. The culture around me was not thinking positively about Muslims: they were other, they were dangerous, they were considered enemies.
But when I met Muslims in college, it was immediately evident that that idea was wrong. People were so welcoming and kind and helpful. I had to re-examine why I thought that stuff. Where did those ideas come from? What does it mean when you discover that people with very different beliefs are actually generous and good people?
Tell me about the letter you wrote to Aziza.
The first Muslim I ever met was in college, in Colorado. I worked at a YMCA hotel ranch as a housekeeper and Aziza, who was from Nigeria, was my shift boss. I always wanted to work under her because she got the work done quickly, and we could sit around afterwards and talk. She didn’t cover her hair, she was hilarious, she didn’t fit the ideas I had of kind of an oppressed Muslim woman. She was vibrant and really interesting.
Then one of her relatives was killed in an ‘Islamic’ bomb attack on an embassy in Kenya. Aziza left Colorado overnight. In my youthful Christian zeal, I wanted to share the Gospel with her, so I wrote her a letter which contained ‘the bridge illustration’, a picture where the sinner is on one side of a cavern, heaven is on the other side, and the only thing that can bridge the cavern is the cross. Afterwards, it made me really uncomfortable. I never heard from her again, and I thought: That wasn’t the most loving thing I could have done for her in that moment of grief and in shock. I hadn’t even thought about her emotional state. I do believe it’s important to share what we love about faith with people, but I don’t think I did it in the most loving way.
So, in some sense, I wrote this book, Pillars, as a redo. I highly doubt she will ever encounter the book, but I would like to have a different way of sharing what I love about faith with Muslims, and with Christians too…
This is an extract from an article published in the July/August 2021 edition of Reform