The Voice: Spring 2002

The Voice

A semester abroad makes easy answers seem irrelevant

Allsion De Jong (bottom left) spent the fall semester studying in Cairo in the Middle East Studies Program.
By Allison De Jong ('02)

I’ve lived most of my life in Sioux Center. It’s a small town. I’ve grown up surrounded by the Christian Reformed Church. And the Dutch-American people that come along with it. And Reformed theology—though I haven’t always known what it is.

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.

Egypt’s 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 Qur’an. 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 didn’t. As I talked with them, I became increasingly aware of their passion for God. I knew Muslims worshiped God, but I didn’t 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 down—or 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 little—certainly 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 hadn’t met any Muslims. I could coolly shrug off other religions as wrong, as silly, as inferior, before I’d 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 I’d never considered other alternatives?

What good is blind belief? Who could say I wouldn’t 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 I’ve 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 I’d grown up. But I don’t 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 times–yet 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 that’s 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 can’t 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 shining—like 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 lights—and more lights, and more, until the darkness is fragmented, broken apart into tiny pieces and gone forever.

And that inspires me.