a nearly-forgotten memory of failing to stand up to Islamophobia
[Mit einem Glasdach überdachter Vorplatz des Staßburger Bahnhofs, by Dr.-Ing. S.Wetzel, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0]
I don’t remember exactly where we were, but I’m pretty sure it was near the Strasbourg train station. Maybe we were in the station, or maybe we were somewhere nearby. We must have come to Strasbourg from Colmar, where we spent most of our time. It was a shop of some kind: Were we buying breakfast? Day passes for local public transit? I can’t remember for sure.
The woman in front of us in the line for the cash register was an outspoken Christian, in a way that was markedly uncommon in France but might have been right at home in the U.S. Bible Belt. It was odd to hear a French woman speaking in the way that she was. Her evangelism, while passionate and presumably sincere, had a dark undercurrent. I remember the cashier being Muslim, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how I’d arrived at that conclusion. Was it something that the woman said? Was it some visual cue? Was he actually Sikh, and my fuzzy memory is conflating the two in a problematic way?
At any rate, while I don’t remember exactly what the woman said or how I came to believe (know?) that the man was Muslim, I do remember the woman being patronizing, or disrespectful, or maybe outright insulting as she talked to the cashier. Something about her public profession of faith stood out as a statement of Christian superiority and Islamic inferiority. I felt deeply uncomfortable to be present for what was going on. This was a somewhat remarkable reaction for me to have, given that I was in this shop (in this town, in this country) as a Latter-day Saint missionary. I was there to be an outspoken Christian in a way that was markedly uncommon in France; I was there to tell people (in respectful but firm ways) that my religion was superior to other religions and that their beliefs were inferior to mine.
And yet, it was important to me after seeing this exchange take place to let the cashier know that not all Christians were like this woman—that even though I had the name “Jésus-Christ” in a prominent place on the prominent nametag I wore, I had a deep personal respect for Islam and did not think less of this man for belonging to this religion. I don’t know how I squared that with my belief that the church I represented was the only true religion on earth, but I hope it isn’t wishful thinking or a self-serving nostalgia that remembers both of those being sincere beliefs locked in a very real tension in tha moment. I wanted to say something to the cashier to indicate that I thought that the woman’s conversation with him had been wrong.
I didn’t end up doing so. At some point between when the woman left the store and when I stepped up to the cash register, I convinced myself that it would suffice to give the man a big, American smile and just emit friendliness at him in the hopes that he would understand everything that I wanted to say but felt too awkward to. I regret this decision and wish that I had done something more.
I’m not sure why this memory came to me tonight or why I’m typing it up instead of doing the nightly stretches that keep my lower back from acting up too much. It isn’t that I’ve never thought of this moment over the past almost-14 years; it comes up every once in a while like so many mission memories that I never wrote down in a journal or a letter somewhere. I’m guessing it came up tonight after reading my friend Josh’s most recent blog post, where he makes a comment about how “exclusionary and hurtful… religion… can all too often be.”
As my religious views have changed in recent years, I’m glad to have let go of the exclusivity of my own faith. Yet, I still have regret for the times I let that exclusivity hurt others. In this particular moment of not doing enough, I added to the marginalization of a religious population that was already far too marginalized, both in France and in my home country. May I do better at remembering these failures so that I can avoid them in the future.
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