Pillars, Rachel Pieh Jones, Foreword by Abdi Nor Iftin. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2021.
Summary: An account about how the author’s attitudes both toward Islam and her Christian faith changed as she and her husband lived among Muslims in Somalia and Djibouti.
Rachel Pieh Jones grew up in a warm and thriving evangelical church in Minnesota. A lot of love–and some legalism. She didn’t know any Muslims but believed that they were “violent, backward, and just plain wrong.” Yet in Pillars, after a number of years in Somalia and Djibouti, she writes:
“I had a lot to learn about how to love my neighbors and practice my faith cross-culturally. I don’t identify with the label ‘missionary,’ with its attendant cultural, theological, and historical baggage, though I understand this is how many view me. I do love to talk about spirituality–and what fascinates me is that the more I discuss faith with Muslims, the more we both return to our roots and dig deeper. As we explore our own faith, in relationship with someone who thinks differently, each of us comes to experience God in richer, more intimate ways. In this manner, Muslims have helped me become a better Christian, though things didn’t start out that way” (p. 49).
How did she change? It began with some relationships with Somali refugees in their apartment complex in Minnesota while her husband completed doctoral studies. An opportunity opened up to teach in Somalia at Amoud University. This led to an immersion in Somali life, aided by their housekeeper and the guard assigned to them as foreign nationals–for ten months, when all their plans were interrupted when several foreign nationals were killed and they had to grab their evacuation bags and flee on a moment’s notice. The found refuge in neighboring Djibouti. Over the next years, Rachel and Tom grew close to a number of Muslims, entering into shared life, and observing their devotion to Islam
They didn’t become Muslims. They learned a lot about Islam. When urged to pray the shahada, she was able to say, “No, I love Jesus.” She answered a lot of questions about Jesus. She learned how to live among the people. She celebrated weddings and births and the breaking of fasts.
Jones organizes her account around the five pillars of Islam: creed, prayer, giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. Learning how her Muslim neighbors encountered God made her reflect more deeply on her own faith, and fall more deeply in love with Jesus. The shahada, a call to convert, to submit to God who is one is really a call to revert. It reminded her of Jesus and Nicodemus, the call to be born again. The prayers, which she sometimes was able to join some women in, led her to a renewal in her own prayer life–amid a pregnancy, ever present dangers, and the everyday challenges of life. The practices of almsgiving forced her to face how she also was conscious of reward in giving and recounts her experiences of helping a poor refugee establish an outdoor restaurant. She had rarely fasted but fasted along with others during Ramadan and joined in the joyous celebrations of Eid. Learning about the pilgrimage to Mecca brought her to a realization of her own lifelong pilgrimage.
I so appreciated this narrative. It was earthy and incarnational. Jones adopts an open and learning posture, both with her Muslim friends and toward what the Lord Jesus would teach her. She can recognize difference without “othering.” She’s as open about Jesus as she is to learning from her friends, like Amaal, her spirited maid. And over time she is able to distinguish what is American Christianity and what is the core of the gospel of Jesus.
This is not a book for those interested in polemics against Islam. Jones takes us into the lived experience of Muslims in the Horn of Africa and what a real engagement with them can be like with risk, affection, difference, and real learning. We also should remember her learning journey began with the Somali refugees in Minnesota. Many of us are near Muslim communities. We may have Muslim neighbors or work colleagues or health care providers. This is a valuable book both for its exploration of Islam, but also for its model of humble, open dialogue, willing to make mistakes and take risks, to welcome and be welcomed. And it points to what can happen as we engage those of another faith. We not only learn about their faith. We rediscover our own.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.