We were a strange crowd, to be sure. My two Iranian friends and I, along with a cowboy hat-wearing older veteran, walked into a twenty-four-hour diner. It was the kind of local place that was local before local became hip and trendy. Squat and grimy, the building sat an intersection just across from a liquor store. It’s had probably passed its prime sometime in the 1960s. However, this particular restaurant was just down the hill from our first apartment, and it had served us well during my wife’s first pregnancy. Middle of the night burger or omelet cravings had gotten me in the door, and my nonconformist tendencies kept me occasionally going back.
One of the differences between the Middle East/Central Asia and the West is the availability of decent middle of the night restaurants. It’s quite easy here in our adopted part of the world to head out with friends at midnight to find somewhere to get shwarma or tea. But in the US, things tend to shut down long before midnight. This is a minor but legitimate cause of sadness among those who have experienced the vibrant (and family-friendly) night culture of the so-called Muslim world.
It was past 11 pm and our crew was hungry. *Chris had been hanging out with us all evening. He had come to faith recently while in prison and was now a struggling new believer. He was an Air Force veteran who wore cowboy hats, yet carried a secret affinity for the Turkish language and Middle Eastern culture from his many years of being stationed there. He had met the three of us at church, and my Iranian friends, *Reza and *Saul, hit it off with him right away. They, like many Iranian refugees, had spent years as refugees in Turkey, and they spoke Turkish well. Reza’s English was decent, but Saul’s wasn’t. So Chris took to energetically interpreting the Sunday sermon into Turkish the back row on Saul’s behalf. Yes, it was a little distracting, but I was thrilled to see Chris find a meaningful way to serve when the body gathered for worship.
Together we ambled down the hill toward the diner, conversing in a mixture of English, Turkish, Farsi, and the Farsi-related minority language I had studied. The ladies (my wife and Reza’s new girlfriend) were going to follow us after a few minutes. I led the way as we strode into the diner.
Immediately upon entering we felt the atmosphere of the place tense up. Like in some kind of classic Western, the elderly men sitting at the bar turned and stared. The elderly waitresses paused their dish drying and egg frying and raised their eyebrows. The music from the jukebox was the only thing that made any noise for one very pregnant moment.
Being a young white student with dark brown hair, I was only occasionally mistaken for being of some other ethnicity. Even though I had received lots of stares overseas, I hadn’t experienced this kind of welcome in the US before. But side by side with my Iranian friends, with their darker olive skin and jet black hair, for a second I experienced what it was like to be scanned as an outsider by a small crowd of older majority-culture Americans. It was sobering. I’m not sure what they did with Chris. He actually fit in there quite well, given the cowboy hat and tucked in plaid shirt.
However, acting as if nothing had happened, we made our way over to a booth and sat down, translating the menu for our friends. If you’ve never introduced Iranians to the concept of hash browns, french toast, and grits before, you’re in for a fun challenge. We ordered some breakfast plates with plenty of bacon (as a practical celebration of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean) and settled in for some more conversation and hot drinks.
The ladies soon arrived as well and sat down at the booth behind us. I noticed that the serving staff were eyeing us as we leaned over the bench and talked and laughed with ladies’ table. When the waitress came to take their order, she leaned over and asked my wife, “These men bothering you, hun?”
“No. Thank you,” said my wife with a smile. “This is my husband. These are our dear friends.”
The elderly waitress raised her eyebrows and shot us a skeptical glance, and went back to the griddle.
Turns out the only way Chris knew how to speak Turkish was loud. And before long you could tell the few regulars at the bar were twitching a little bit. I encouraged Chris and my friends to keep it down a little. But we were having a good conversation about their testimonies, and it was hard to contain their excitement.
I felt stuck. I didn’t want to make these older locals uncomfortable, but I was bothered as well by what looked like textbook prejudice against language and skin color. One man made his way out the door – maybe because of us. The ironic thing was that my friends might look like intimidating foreigners, but they were actually very respectful and peace-loving, sitting and smiling and talking about Jesus. The others in the diner might relax considerably if they could somehow know this.
It was then Chris pulled a bold and shrewd move. When the waitress came to refill our coffee mugs, he turned to her and asked in a voice loud enough for the whole place to hear.
“Can you believe it?! This man (Saul) was put in prison in Iran because he chose to believe in Jesus! Can you imagine what it would be like to be arrested for being a Christian? Wow. I’m so glad I know him. Give ’em some more coffee, will ya? Incredible, right?”
The waitress took a moment to process this unexpected information. And just like that, some kind of bubble burst. The waitress relaxed. The whole place seemed to change as Chris’ outburst registered. Surprised myself, I took note that Chris had managed to overcome an atmosphere of prejudice by announcing Saul’s experience of persecution as a Christian. The unfamiliarity and suspicion – and perhaps racism – had been undermined by connecting these strangers to something that ran deep in those older white Americans’ worldview – a valuing of Christianity, at the very least on a cultural identity level.
As I think back on this event, it’s a small echo of other occasions where we’ve seen political, racial, or ethnic suspicion quietly undermined as we’ve been able to share with traditional Westerners about how Jesus is saving Muslims. Yes, cultural and nationalistic Christianity which views “the other” as the enemy runs deep. Every culture has its own equivalent of this, so it’s not just a Western problem. Move overseas and you’ll see what I mean. The good news is that there are some back doors that can surprisingly undermine this common sin among professing Christians, in the West or elsewhere.
Yes, even many true believers feel threatened by those different from them. But for those who are indeed believers, their love for Jesus – and often missions as well – really does ultimately run deeper than this fear or pride. This is simply one of the effects of having a new heart. Their own “Iranians” may have previously been thought of as the enemy, but hearing testimonies of God’s grace from these same enemies tends to break categories for these demographics in fascinating ways. Hearts warm as the common ground of being forgiven sinners is built, and brows furrow trying to figure out how to square this affection with previous attitudes. A good slow thaw is underway.
To this day, 30-something Reza continues to attend a senior men’s bible study – at a diner – leveraging this same dynamic in a way that challenges these grey-haired men and turns them into adopted grandpa-types. He has even started visiting country churches on a rotation in order to serve Jesus in this way! He shows up, turns heads, makes friends, shares about his background and how wonderful Jesus is, and people end up feeling differently about those Far-iners.
We live in an age aflame with controversy about race, immigration, and culture. How are we to help those who are older or more traditional, and who tend to be swept up in the particular prejudicial temptations of this globalizing age? How can we transform the atmosphere of racist diners – or churches – such that there is room for conversation and relationship that leads to dignity and love?
Perhaps by aiming boldly for the love that, for true believers, always runs deeper than love of nation, language, and heritage. Invite missionaries to share at churches struggling with these issues about the mighty things God is doing among those considered political or cultural enemies. Have believers from diverse “other” backgrounds share their own stories of God’s grace. This is in one sense a Trojan horse. It is a tactical, indirect move to tap into a deeper affection that will over time undermine other anti-gospel affections that might seem to dominate a person’s worldview or social media account.
Our world tries to deal with prejudice-prone people by either excusing them or by writing them off as racists and publicly shaming them. There is a better way. Let’s strive for creatively and shrewdly aiming for the deepest affections, and see what miracles God might work.
…and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:10-11 ESV)
*names changed for security