Growing up in various small towns in Kansas, I’d lived a life wrapped in the gauzy imagination that insists the “real” America is comprised of white Christians. Our neighbors were Catholics or Methodists, Lutherans or Baptists. I had exactly one Jewish playmate throughout my childhood. But then I left for college.
At the university, life was different. I met students and instructors from other countries, and discovered that instead of learning about distant places through books alone, I now had the opportunity to meet people from these wonderlands and hearall about their lives firsthand. My study partner in French class came from Senegal, one lab instructor grew up in South America, and a new friend hailed from the United Kingdom. I wanted to know everything. What was a typical day for them growing up? What were their houses like? Who were their families? They all had rich life experiences, and, to my amazement, they were as interested in my upbringing as I was in theirs. We shared our cultures with one another, relishing every vibrant detail.
While I met many people from far-reaching regions, I still lived in a college town where the majority identified as Christian. My new friends were also from countries with strong Christian backgrounds. And so, during my first few months of undergrad, I didn’t give much thought to the non-Christian world. I had no reason to.
That all changed on an October night in the late 1990’s, when I met a young woman named Mariyam who became my introduction to Muslim culture. She’d grown up in Maldives, an entirely Muslim country. The first evening we spent together ended in a shower of meteors lighting their way across an expanse of Kansas sky. A sign of magic yet to come. Watching in awe, we made wishes together. We traded stories about our childhoods and discovered we had many things in common: we loved the Beatles, were rebellious in high school, and had both dreamed of travelling to visit distant cities. She was as fascinated by my life in America as I was by her island homeland. The two of us became confidants, establishing a rapport that usually takes months for new friends to achieve. Soul Sistas.
I live in Philadelphia now. Our neighborhood is comprised of gay and straight families. Our neighbors are African-American, Caucasian, and Chinese. Some of us go to church, or temple, or the mosque, and others don’t attend religious services at all. My son has friends with gay parents, and I’m happy that he’s growing up in a world where parents are just parents. It’s easy then, in our particular corner of this Democratic city, to become blind to the terror that still grips so many Americans: the fear of anyone deemed other.
But Facebook keeps me connected to the heartland of my past. I am reminded daily of the reality that those back home are living. Simply put, millions of Americans know nothing other than themselves. Their neighbors and co-workers and extended family are white and Christian, and anyone outside of that perspective has been built up in their minds as a disruptor of their world. The Republican platform’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is gobbled up and regurgitated by many, and the only reason people get away with that kind of talk is because no one can say wait a minute, my brother-in-law is Muslim.
Back in college, I brought Mariyam to my hometown for a weekend visit. While there, we had dinner with a local friend and his grandparents. The grandfather was a school principal and a devout Christian. It was a lovely meal, with everyone engaged in conversation, and so I was surprised when the grandfather spoke to me about my friend the next time I saw him. It’s a shame, he said. I didn’t understand his meaning. Such a nice young woman, but she can’t be saved. He shook his head in regret.
Ever since, I’ve struggled with this kind of thinking among some Americans. The idea that Muslim people, or people of any ethnic or religious group that is not on the familiar white Christian landscape, are of no use unless we can convert them to become like “us.” The idea that our world must be viewed with an “us versus them” sentiment. The idea that Mariyam and I should be at odds with one another due to our cultural backgrounds. Have we Americans lost our childlike wonder and glee at discovering new friends? Have we determined that only one way of life is right, and that all others are wrong? And have we thought about all we will lose if such a philosophy becomes accepted as the norm?
I’m thankful for my little Philadelphia neighborhood. I’m also made more hopeful for our country’s future when I think of the young college students I teach. They are open and eager and excited to get to know one another. They are more accepting of others than previous generations. My wish is that their enthusiasm for people of all backgrounds will spread, and that maybe someday I won’t have to be so grateful for this little pocket of happiness. Maybe this neighborhood won’t be so unique in the future. Maybe other Americans will be lucky enough to find Soul Sistas of their own.
Chelsea Covington Maass lives in Philadelphia with her family. She teaches writing at two area colleges. Her work has appeared in HOOT Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Shotgun Honey.