In the middle of a marathon week at school, I sat down for my first round of parent-teacher conferences. In one of my meetings, a mother shared that her family had recently moved back to North Africa from the states. She confided that she was concerned about her children’s safety in U.S. schools as shootings become more and more common. “I think it is safer here,” she told me.
It was such an ironic moment.
Before I came to North Africa, I received many warnings from both my American and Arab friends. They were concerned about terror attacks targeting Americans and about my vulnerability as a single woman. I kept my eyes on the headlines and I read the travel warnings. I almost didn’t come.
“What has surprised you the most?” my friend Ashley asked me a few weeks after I arrived. At first it was hard to put my finger on it, but then I realized—I came here expecting to feel unsafe. The funny thing is, I don’t.
I feel safer walking around the Medina by myself than I used to feel about walking around alone in downtown Chicago. The people I’ve met so far are kind and generous just like my Arab friends in the states. They have been gracious and hospitable even though I don’t speak their language and I’m unfamiliar with basic social norms.
As my fears dissipate, I keep coming back to the apostle John’s words—love casts out fear. In the passage, John explains that we are freed to love others when we abide in God’s love for us. I went searching for some devotional meditations on the passage, and I found a gem from Henri Nouwen. In “From Fear to Love,” he writes:
The reassuring voice, which repeats over and over again, “Do not be afraid, have no fear,” is the voice we most need to hear. The voice uttering these words – fear not!– sounds all through history as the voice of God’s messengers, be they angels, or saints, and of Christ himself. It is the voice that announces a whole new way of being – a way of living in the house of love, the house of the Lord.
Nouwen goes on to say, “Somehow in North America we’ve nearly forgotten what leads to a life of love. We’ve almost sold out our collective hopes of dwelling in God’s house of love for secured borders, security systems, and gated communities.” Unfortunately, today’s political rhetoric is designed to stoke the fire of fear and divide us into teams—Christian vs Muslim, American vs Arab, citizen vs immigrant. We’re taught to fear cultures and people we don’t understand. In his book, Ape and Essence Aldous Huxely writes, “Love casts out fear; but conversely fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth.”
It’s easy to point at people who use fear just like that—grasping for power and security at the expense of love and compassion—but I’m learning it’s best to start with my own heart. Am I abiding—really abiding—in God’s love? What would it look like for me to abide more consciously? Am I allowing his love to permeate my relationships, my posture, and my positions?
And as I find freedom in God’s love, I usually discover my neighbors are not so frightening as I first imagined.