The Voice: Spring 2002
A semester abroad makes easy answers seem irrelevant
By Allison De Jong ('02)
Ive lived most of my life in Sioux Center. Its a small town.
Ive grown up surrounded by the Christian Reformed Church. And the Dutch-American people
that come along with it. And Reformed theologythough I havent always known what
Spending a semester in Egypt was quite a change for me. It jolted
my faith. It jolted my Reformed foundation. It jolted my sense of responsibility.
Egypts population is ninety percent Muslim, ten percent Christian. I lived in Cairo
for three months, surrounded by beautiful mosques, the call to prayer, women wearing
higabs (head scarves), and taxis displaying verses of the Quran. And I found
it too easy to observe without engaging, to hear the call to prayer
at 4:30 in the morning without realizing the implications of millions of people
exercising a different faith, to admire the flowing higabs yet not be touched
by what they represent. I watched Egypt from the outside, holding myself back,
not letting my heart or mind open up freely to the people and
experiences around me.
I heard the loudspeaker-amplified call to prayer five times a day and was
fascinated by this alien culture. I watched devout Muslim men kneel on their
prayer rugs in the streets, bowing their heads to the ground, murmuring prayers
to Allah. I admired the elegantly attired Egyptian women, made even more lovely
by their vivid higabs. I drank it in, yet I did not let
the implications sink into my mind.
Until one day. One bright Egyptian afternoon (the sun always shines in Egypt)
I met with three Muslim women to talk about their faith. They were
beautiful, elegant, educated, employed. One wore a higab, two didnt. As I talked
with them, I became increasingly aware of their passion for God. I knew
Muslims worshiped God, but I didnt understand that they, like Christians, became excited
and awed when talking about his goodness.
We must worship only one God, my friend Yasmin told me. He is
the one God who created the whole universe. He calls his creation to praise him. As
she went on to talk about how she loved and worshiped God, her
face lit up, dark eyes flashing.
I sat there, watching her, listening to what she was saying, while
at the same time my mind seemed to shut downor maybe it was
my heart. Or my soul. Where was my passion, my excitement, for God?
At that point in my life I had very littlecertainly not as much
as Yasmin Amine, a young Egyptian Muslim woman, had just shown me.
My foundations were shaken. It was easy enough for me to believe in
the rightness of Christianity when I hadnt met any Muslims. I could coolly
shrug off other religions as wrong, as silly, as inferior, before Id lived
in another religious culture. But I realized that day that my entire background
and existence were small compared to the rest of the world. I was
shaken by the realization that I knew so little about the billions of
people, thousands of cultures, and hundreds of countries spread across the earth. What
assurance could I have that my beliefs were right when Id never considered
What good is blind belief? Who could say I wouldnt be a Muslim
if I had been born an Egyptian? I realized that I had never
questioned my beliefs before, that I had never been forced to a place
where belief and tradition were torn away.
I found no easy answers. In fact, as the semester progressed, I
found no answers to the question burning in my soul: Why do I
believe what I do; what should I believe? Rather, the number of questions
grew. And, in the two months since Ive come home, the questions linger
still. Back in my Reformed, small-town community, easy answers lie at my fingertips:
Read the Heidelberg Catechism. Go to church twice on Sundays. Do devotions for
half an hour every day. Go back to the traditions, the way of
life with which Id grown up. But I dont want easy answers. Accepting
them, being content with them, would be like a starving woman eating grass:
it fills but does not satisfy.
Refusing the easy answers is a challenge, but God gives me His grace.
He works through people and events, through friends and letters, snowfalls and pastors,
books and professors. As I watch the people around me, I am encouraged
by their small acts of faith, by activities as simple as crocheting or
baking bread. I am encouraged by those with wider views, who look at
the world and know its darkness, yet smile and pitch in with all
their love and energy. I see the faith of those who have been
through hard timesyet whose trust in God is woven into everything they do.
I see the struggles of others and realize that my struggle is not
so unusual, that struggling is necessary to make us stronger. And I see
the beginning of finding answers to my questions.
Perhaps the reason I refuse the easy answers is that they seem empty.
Perhaps the reason my beliefs were stripped away was that they, too, were
empty, without the substance of action. What makes beliefs genuine also makes them
challenging: living them out. Faith without works is dead, James tells us, and
maybe thats why my faith faltered so quickly.
I have a long way to go. And living where I do makes
it easy for me to be complacent and even apathetic. But I found
something I wrote last semester, a realization I had while learning about the
conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis:
I cant change others. I have to start with myself: looking at my
views and seeing how they may be blinded and prejudiced. I have to
learn all I can, pray continually, open my heart and mind to the
suffering and injustice. Living what I say I believe is the first step,
and one of the most powerful witnesses to others.
If I seek to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,
that way of life has a way of shininglike light rays, spilling, gleaming,
refracting, to reach the people and minds and hearts around me. And if
that light of peace reaches others, perhaps it will illumine their lives as
well, so that they, too, become lightsand more lights, and more, until the
darkness is fragmented, broken apart into tiny pieces and gone forever.
And that inspires me.