“Friendship is a real thing where people open their living to one another, allowing the paths of life to crisscross in journeys imagined as in some sense shared.”
‘Friendship First’, ‘friendship evangelism’, ‘friendship club’. We spend a lot of our time as we build relationships with the communities we seek to reach out to/become a part of, talking about friendship. It might be interesting for each of us to explore, in our own context, what we mean by that friendship.
Reading the book After Whiteness has troubled me as I’ve reflected on my friendships. I recently reconnected with a friend from several years ago when I worked in South Asia. She has grown in her religious practice, becoming more secure in her identity as a woman whose faith is found within Islam. As I was going to spend some time with her, I wondered what friendship would now look like.
In South Asia she was a cultural interlocutor, helping me navigate the complexities of a culture I was unfamiliar with. I became a place for her to explore other ways of imagining who she was as she wrestled with things she found restrictive in her community. Jennings talks about relationality and connection that can be first and foremost utilitarian where one, and sometimes both, profit. I recognised this in reflecting on my friendship as I was preparing to connect face to face again.
When we spent some days together late last year things were different. This time we opened our lives to each other in a way that became a shared journey. I remember the first afternoon as we sat and shared stories, mostly of the deep waters we had both been through. The fabric on which our friendship was being woven now was being remade. The transactional nature of what we would gain from each other was reformed in an intimacy, reciprocity and mutuality.
There are many ways that I find we might be challenged when we think about all those connections which we pursue as friendship with the women in the Muslim communities we seek to be a part of, or work in.
Can we have a real crisscrossing of our life journeys? We put on programmes, we invite neighbours, we pursue relational connections with women we meet at a centre or on the bus because we have a desired outcome. Our friendship can be the pursuit of a fixed outcome, my friendship because I want you to accept the Christian faith.
Don’t get me wrong, it is my deep desire and prayer that the women I connect with, my friend who I have reconnected with, would know a living, life-changing relationships with
It is also true that we will have both transactional relationships as well as friendships of deep connective relationship.
Perhaps what we need is to understand that these are different. There is a power differential in the connection when it is transactional. We enter a community, invite members of that community into our spaces. We are often acting from a place of power. We have something to offer, to give, something they need.
That is good, necessary even in particular circumstances: support for women seeking to interact with authorities in a foreign country, job opportunities, educational opportunities that could be formal or informal, access to medical care, counselling. But we need to acknowledge these relationships for what they are. Some are professional and there will be boundaries there. Others are friendships but shaped by the fabric on which those interactions are woven.
Relational friendships are transformational in the negotiations of the everyday of life as a shared journey. “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” I experienced that with my friend as we reconnected, and I think she did too.
Why does this seem important to me? Jennings talks about the legacy left by whiteness, by colonial power and the ways we have constructed the world of relationships with that legacy as our foundation. He challenges us to embrace ‘power that finds its home in divine ecstasy in which God relentlessly gives Godself to us…’.
I am concerned that in my life and work, my connections with the women of my Muslin communities, I sometimes use friendships as a commodity for transactions. And as I listen to conversations where we make friendship a tool of our outreach, I worry that we are distorting the fabric of relational connections that our God so generously gifts us. In this maybe we diminish the image of God.
How do you reflect on your connections, networks, relationships and friendships with women who practice Islam in your community? What sort of relationships are they and how do you navigate that as you seek to love them as yourself?
 Jennings, Willie James. After Whiteness: An education in belonging. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. 2020. Loc 2267
 Op cit. Loc 2214
 Nouwen, Henri. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life. Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame. 2004
 Op cit Loc 2333
(c) When Women Speak … January 2022
CH spent nearly three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).