Last week, on hearing the sad news, I rush to the house of a dear North African friend, suddenly and very unexpectedly made a widow at the tender age of 38. Despite the enormous shock the community is experiencing at this news the house is calm and at the atmosphere could almost be described as soothing. The door is opened to me by one of our mutual friends, who has obviously taken it on herself to host for our grieving friend. She skilfully but gently “manages” the visiting by welcoming the stream of people coming, quietly ensuring that hot, sweet, mint tea is offered around and checking that our grieving friend is not being swamped by the grief of others. Women of the same religion, but from a wide range of countries, representing the reality of our neighbourhood, sit with our grieving friend. Her normally stylish, colourful dress has been replaced by a covering of black and her sunny demeanour is pale, wan and downcast. As new women friends arrive there is a fresh bout of tears, most shed quietly but, at times, the guard is let down and, for a few moments, the distraught are given full voice.
Later, a steaming platter of carefully prepared couscous piled high with colourful butternut squash, courgette and carrot is brought into the room and all are served this delicious food. I’m heartened to see my friend eating with us and I see how her being served by her friends releases her to fully engage in the work of grieving, knowing that her personal needs and the needs of her guests will be fully catered for by the community of women around her.
What can I do? how can I help? “I ask. “Thank you, we will let you know, “is the reply. “Don’t worry for her. We will feed her, sleep with her, make sure the children are Ok until she can manage these things herself. It may take some time, but we will not let her feel alone. We will be her family for her. But please, feel free to visit anytime.” I am deeply moved and profoundly impacted by the enveloping love and care expressed by this group of women. I feel I have walked into a soft, warm, comforting womb where all are yearning for each other and the expression of love, whether shown in silence, words or action is physically palpable.
Cathy Ross has written and spoken of a woman’s missiology which is expressed in the perspectives of emptiness and hiddenness; in comforting, consolation and healing; in hospitality and relationship; and in sight, embrace and flourishing (1). I see these pairs of activity being played out in front of me in the behaviours of my Muslim friends, literally ministering to our friend as together we walk through this first week of mourning with her. This unsettles me at first – are these behaviours not descriptors of the mission of the people of God, reflecting the character of God back to the world? What have kingdom perspectives to do with a mourning within a community of women in the Muslim community? And then I remember that the ways of God are themselves at times mysterious and hidden (2), and that we have no right to limit His activity – however surprising.
Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gemp (1960) studied rituals from around the world and showed how their practice enable the celebration or marking of the passage of people from one stage of life to another. Rituals can be defined as a prescribed set of actions that employ symbols to enact the deepest beliefs, feelings and values of a people. They also serve to renew the bonding of the whole community to its religious tradition (3). Moyra Dale has suggested that whilst women under Islam are often excluded from participating in formal faith practices (due to their regularly being in a state of ritual impurity) they “preside Janus-like, over border-crossings from the old state to the new (4).”
In the next 3 blogs I will use some of Cathy Ross’ pairs of activity to explore some of the things I observed, my thoughts and my reactions as I had the privilege of sharing with my Muslim friends in this rite of passage process following the immediate death of a loved one. What was I seeing and learning from them about how the ways of doing community and relationships are connected? What could my role, as a Jesus following friend be best played? Were there any insights to be gained for cross-cultural discipleship?
(1) “Without Faces”: Women’s Perspectives on Contextual Missiology. Dr Cathy Ross. See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hVHTZpN2D0
(2) Isaiah 15:45. Mark 4: 11. John 3:8 . 1 Corinthians 2:7
(3) Peterson “Initiation Rite as Riddle” p81
(4) Moyra Dale Women’s Gatherings CTFC2
Featured image: https://christianmuslimalliance.com/a-grieving-mother-sends-a-powerful-message/
(C) When Women Speak … October 2019
Miriam Williams: Miriam has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.