Embracing the Diversity of our Neighbors of Different Faiths

Written by
Carrie Poling

As the city of Fishers grows in its vibrancy of diversity, we can gladly embrace neighbors that are different from us and praise God for the opportunity to know them.

I didn’t grow up around a lot of diversity in the Midwest manufacturing town I call my ‘hometown’ in Illinois; (or maybe I just didn’t notice it much.) In my early youth, I understood diversity simply as a matter of ethnicity – mainly just the basic two-dimensional factor of skin color. Sure, I went to school with kids of different skin tones and my heart broke when learning about the atrocities of segregation and still does for the hate crimes that unfortunately continue to happen today. As a person that’s experienced the hurt of feeling left out, I’ve had a natural sensitivity to desiring just, equal, and fair treatment for all. I may not be in the middle of a civil rights battle myself, but I wonder if I can be doing more in my everyday life, normal existence to make a positive impact.

More than a Skin Color

Now as an adult that’s lived in Fishers for over 13 years, I understand diversity to encompass so much more. Diversity includes a comprehensive three-dimensional set of descriptors of how we classify and group individual people. Language, country of origin, political loyalties, gender identification, age, socioeconomic status, and religion are only just a few diversity tags that come to mind. Society has conditioned us to deem some subjects--such as politics and religion as taboo topics: off limits for purposes of conversation with someone we’re just getting to know, but as followers of Christ that can be hard.

Be the Real YOU to Welcome Others to Do the Same

As Christians, we desire to share the good gospel news of the redeeming work of Christ experienced in our own lives. Our faith is such a central part of our true identity, that it’s hard to conceal it and not wish to reveal and share that part of ourselves. It’s impossible to extract and compartmentalize our faith if we want to truly be ourselves and be known for who we really are.  In my opinion, I think we can naturally do this while fostering and welcoming others to do the very same -- even if their faith is different than our own. This open-door policy of free and honest conversation allows us to go beyond the surface level to break down the invisible barriers of diversity and build up mutual understanding, respect, and appreciation of the human on the inside.

My Beautiful Neighborhood

I’m proud to live in a neighborhood of growing diversity.  My oldest son attends New Britton Elementary School which has over 22 languages spoken in the homes of its students and in its hallways. In fact, just recently our family attended and participated in an International Exposition event at the school that was a multicultural extravaganza, to say the least! My youngest son attends a nearby daycare/school center, and I adore the pictures I receive of him playing with friends of many different skin colors including many of the teachers he’s learning from. I’m so grateful my children are in excellent atmospheres to prepare them for what the real world is really like:  full of many different types of people!

Within walking distance from our home is a large Mosque and Islamic Center – the Alhuda Islamic Center of Indiana (AICI) which represents the largest congregation of Muslims in the state of Indiana. It’s no surprise that our neighborhood is a popular choice of where to live for Muslim families.

One Muslim family has been extraordinarily kind and welcoming to my family and me. They’ve made sure my son always feels welcome and included to play with their kids. They’ve invited him to birthday parties. They open their trampoline up to all the neighborhood kids (even if they can’t be outside) and they’ve warmly invited many in the neighborhood to interfaith community events. They have showered us with gifts during Ramadan and after returning from travel to India. They’ve also warmly welcomed us into their beautiful home – even with a new little baby to care for! They’ve spontaneously brought us delicious home-cooked meals and another Muslim family has also done this very thing! The mom in this family has lovingly entertained my curious questions with great two-way conversation and has generously given me her time. They are busy working parents – a medical doctor and teacher with five children, yet amid their busy and demanding lives, they find ways to be good neighbors to us.

Sadly, I can’t confidently say they’ve always experienced the same welcoming treatment around town and in our community’s schools. (Those stories are theirs for telling, but I assure you, some of them would sadden you.).  It’s my desire that my husband and I model for our children that we can hold strong to our faith and be in healthy and close friendships and community with people of other religions: they are our neighbors!

What Not to Do

Several years ago, during the construction of AICI, my sons were driving in a vehicle with family members of mine that were visiting us from out of town. As they drove past the construction site, my family made some very negative disparaging remarks concerning their disapproval of the building’s location in the city and what it represented. I wasn’t in the car, but words and phrases must have included sentiments such as “wrong religion” and “no heaven for them.” It’s no surprise my oldest son had lots of questions for me later that evening as he relayed the conversation with me during his bedtime routine. I could feel anger quickly rising up in me. I knew the overall message my son understood is that Muslim people were unwanted in this area by my family – the very people he’s supposed to admire and respect. My thoughts swirled:  ‘How dare they negatively frame our neighbors like that to my son?! Muslim people have just as much right to be here in Fishers as anyone else! They’re talking about our friends…about the sweet little boy at the bus stop that always allows everyone else to board first because he’s truly a polite gentleman. Who do they think they are?!’ I was disappointed in my family’s callousness, inconsiderate carelessness, and disrespect.

Sadly, my family did exactly what we shouldn’t do: focus only on the differences. Doing this is how prejudices begin. It instills distrust, suspicion, an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and fear that builds up barriers; barriers that prevent relationships from forming before they even have a chance to begin. I didn’t want this negative seed planted in our son’s young impressionable mind.

I had a restorative conversation with him to explain that there are people who have beliefs that are different from ours, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends with them and love them. I tried to convey that we believe God gave us His way for us to know him through Jesus Christ, but sadly not everyone will accept this. We believe God loves and delights in every person as dearly loved children made in His image and desires for us all to know Him. We can love others as God loves us.

What To Do

We can welcome and be grateful for the opportunity to get to know our Muslim neighbors. They have uniquely experienced life through a different lens and have a rich culture, wisdom, and perspective to offer and share. Ask them about where they and their families are from and learn about their traditions. Be curious and appreciate the beauty of their heritage.  

While it’s true that we don’t agree on what our Christian faith is built and centered upon – Christ’s saving work on the cross, we can be firmly rooted in the truth of our own faith without asserting a pre-formed agenda upon our neighbors which could risk pushing them away. It’s important to realize that learning about a different religion to understand it better doesn’t mean you’re rejecting your own.  Rely only upon promptings by the Holy Spirit and invest in the person first by building genuine relationships. A sincere heart’s intent driven by love and love only is the key motive here. Seek understanding of the individual and respect them.

We do share much in common and many of our values are the same. At our core, we all share the same emotions, and we all have the same human needs: we desire healthy families, safe communities, to be seen, valued, to be included, welcomed, and to belong. Muslims are monotheistic and believe in one benevolent, all-powerful, and permeating God (just as we do). Muslims also share in Abrahamic faith: they believe in the events of the Bible in the Old Testament and believe in most of the events and teachings of Jesus during his time on Earth. (They do differ from us in that they believe Jesus was a prophet, etc; although they do believe in the future return of Jesus).

Muslims are devout, humble, very generous, and caring. Prayer is a core tenant of their life (they pray five times a day facing Mecca (a city in Saudi Arabia regarded as Islam’s holiest city as it’s the birthplace of Muhammed). The women’s traditional way to dress and cover as they do is a personal choice they make proudly to show as a sign of self-respect and humility to conceal their beauty.  The two main Muslim holidays signify much, but a key principle is compassion and generosity. As they fast during Ramadan, the purpose is to truly feel the difficulty of the poor and hungry. Their other holiday of Adha celebrates sacrifice and sharing of resources with others as it commemorates the act of Abraham’s obedience in being willing to sacrifice his own son Ishmael, but mercifully being spared from doing so at the last minute by God (a story of which we’re all likely familiar.) Muslims value their heritage and make a pilgrimage to Mecca during their lifetime if they’re able – this pilgrimage is called Hajj.

With access to the internet at our fingertips, we can easily learn more and educate ourselves on things unfamiliar to us. We have the resources to do our best to understand some of the basic terms and ideas of other faiths so we can build respect, common understanding, connection, and have intelligent conversations with our neighbors – fostering the feeling of being known, appreciated and respected. Become familiar with customs, traditions, norms, and common terms of other faiths. Below is a picture of a starting list of basic terms I found in a children’s book in our elementary school’s library. Refer to their sacred people with a language of respect: when referring to their prophet Muhammed – it is their custom to follow his name with “peace be upon Him”...consider doing the same.  Recognize commonly used words if you can: for example, their term for Mosque (similar to a church, it’s a prayer and gathering/learning center) is the word Masjid (the Arabic term for Mosque). Realize the teachings in their holy book, the Quran lay out instructions for how to live. These guidelines prohibit certain practices and things common in culture, so be mindful of some restrictions and respect and honor their choices. A few to be aware of is no consumption of alcohol, no eating of pork, and no addiction of any kind (this is not an exhaustive list). Men and women may interact a little differently in public social settings, as it’s not the norm for men and women to commonly have peer friendships spending time together alone, but interaction in professional settings is culturally no different than what we’re accustomed to. These are just a few starting ideas – but I know I’m going to work on digging a little deeper to learn more!

A starting list of basic terms found in a children's book in our elementary school's library.

As the city of Fishers grows in its vibrancy of diversity, we can gladly embrace neighbors that are different from us and praise God for the opportunity to know them. Can you think of a neighbor you’d like to get to know better? What’s holding you back?  Be welcoming, inviting, open, authentic, curious, and enjoy the adventure of new and growing friendships!

Meet the Author

Carrie Poling is a mom of two, wife to Tyler, small business owner, budget coach in training, and aspiring writer and author seeking to promote contentment in our everyday living.