Rachel Pieh Jones extends a ‘Holy Welcome’ to all of us
She offers a host of inspiring resources
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
In four decades of covering religion in America, I cannot recall a book by a Christian author that so eloquently explains the Muslim faith’s close parallels to Christianity—until I discovered Rachel Pieh Jones’ new, Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus.
Certainly there are many academic texts examining these connections by scholars such as Huston Smith, Hans Kung and Miroslav Volf. From the perspective of Muslim family life interacting with Christian families, there is Victor Begg’s Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, An Immigrant’s Memoir. But there’s nothing else like this intimate memoir of daily life between Christian and Muslim neighbors—written by a Christian and, most importantly, by a Christian woman.
What’s even more startling about Pillars is that it’s a real “page turner,” based on Rachel’s adventures during two decades of living in the Horn of Africa with her husband Tom, an educator, and their three children. In these pages, you’ll find stories about schools, markets, foods, athletic challenges, women’s health, raising children, headline news and even terrorism.
“I knew as I began writing this new book that some American Christians may be uncomfortable with how much I have opened myself to the wisdom and experiences of my Muslim neighbors,” Rachel said this week as we Zoomed an interview from her home in Djibouti. “But I want to emphasize: This book is not about coercion or conversion from one faith to the other. I like to describe this book as an invitation to ‘holy welcomes,’ because that’s the kind of hospitality I’ve experienced among the Somalis with whom we’re living.” (Djibouti is a small country north of Somalia and Somali people live across the entire region. Currently, Tom and Rachel run the International School of Djibouti.)
“This book is my invitation to readers to experience my own sacred story—it’s my holy welcome,” Rachel said. “I want readers to honestly understand the kinds of experiences I have had over the years as I have lived with and learned from Muslims. I’m saying: Come into our sacred space and experience what these five pillars are like for Muslims and for Christians. You don’t have to pray like us, but I think we all can learn from each other.”
The Five Pillars of Islam
The Pillars of Islam form the five major sections of Rachel’s memoir, sub-titled this way in her book:
- Shahada—There is no god but God
Readers who are Muslim, or who have been involved in interfaith connections for many years, will recognize right away that Rachel has not shied away from the difficulty of these pillars for Christians. Even newcomers to religious reflection understand that all world religions have some form of prayer and charitable giving. Those parallels are obvious. Lesser known perhaps is that all the great religious traditions include challenges to fast in various ways. And, of course, pilgrimage is one of the most common metaphors for religious experience.
But the Shahada, firmly declaring the specific Muslim approach to worshiping and serving God? That’s usually perceived as the main deal-breaker for Christians. Of course, it is indeed one of the core differences between the Abrahamic faiths. But please read the first major section of Rachel’s memoir, Shahada—There is no god but God, and you will think much differently about this pillar. Through Rachel’s 50 pages of personal experiences—including her family’s arrival in that region of Africa and the challenges of growing a garden there—you will discover that this first pillar is far more complex and spiritually nuanced than you may guess.
When I learn about your faith, I deepen my faith
Because I am making such a dramatic claim about the unique nature of Rachel’s book, I thought I would ask a long-time colleague to challenge my judgment. Bob Bruttell has been both a university-based scholar on religion as well as a nationally known teacher, workshop leader and organizer of interfaith efforts. In Michigan he is co-founder of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
I called Bob and discussed Rachel’s new book in some detail. He hadn’t read it yet, but agreed that he would—and likely would want to recommend it to others.
“I think you’re safe to say there isn’t another book like this—at least I can’t recall or point to another similar book as I think about it with you, David,” Bob said. “But, I do want to say that these ideas are important to our interfaith work—and that I have been talking about these same ideas in many talks and presentations over the years. In my talks about this, I say: ‘When I have increased my understanding of Judaism and Islam, I have increased my own faith as a Christian.’ I’ve said this many times—and I’ve heard many others say this same thing in interfaith dialogues.”
Bob continued, “We say this because, quite simply, this is true: If you get involved in authentic interfaith work, and you’re someone who already has a faith basis in your own life, then the experience will deepen your own faith.”
I said to him, “I know you haven’t read Rachel’s book yet, Bob, and I don’t want to leave you with a mistaken impression of her book. In these 265 pages, she does address the very hard stuff we all face, including religious extremism and terrorism. She writes about Muslim extremism—and she writes about Christian extremism. She doesn’t shy aware from the life-and-death dangers in our world. And she isn’t trying to obscure the difficulty in forming these relationships. There will always be questions. There will always be points of disagreement.”
“Of course,” he said. “That’s the truth of this work, as well. Let me put it this way: Millions of Americans go to Sunday School. That’s believers’ school. You to go Sunday School to learn about your faith without question. Later, if you begin to question something about your faith, you may begin moving down a road where you become more self-reflective and this journey can deepen your faith. Then, if you come into a relationship with a person of another deeply held faith, through your conversations and experiences you can move even deeper in your own faith.
“One example I like to give,” he continued, “is that, as a Catholic, we have what I thought was a strong tradition of fasting—until I got to know Muslims and began to experience Ramadan with them. My first reaction was: ‘Oh my gosh! They do this for an entire month!’ I’ve said that to Muslim friends. I’m hardly able to do the little bit of fasting I’m asked to do as a Catholic during Lent. So, how are they able to do this? What happens when they do it for an entire month? What can I learn about my own tradition of fasting from my Muslim friends?”
And that is precisely what Rachel does in story after story throughout her book—focusing on one pillar after another.
Meet Rachel And Discover Her Multi-Faceted Work
Although Rachel lives on the other side of the world from the U.S., she is deeply engaged in American life through her journalism and magazine-style writing. She is widely known for her reporting on food, long-distance running and the ongoing challenges of the nations within the the Horn of Africa.
She also is willing to consider requests for appearances with groups where people are interested in discussing her new book. She asks that contacts be sent to rachelpiehjones(at)gmail(dot)com
But wait! Before you email her, get to know her and her work. Order her new book from Amazon, Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus—and while you’re at Amazon, follow her via her Amazon Author’s Page. Authors always are more eager to engage if you are contacting them after having read their work, so that your inquiry reflects serious interest. Perhaps you may want to organize a discussion of her book in your community or congregation, and then you may want to invite her to appear with your group via Zoom.
In fact, Rachel told me in our interview that one reason she devoted so much time to writing this book is: “I couldn’t find any books like this out there, so I wrote one—so I would be able to give this book both to Christian and to Muslim friends and say: ‘Hey, let’s talk about this.’ ”
And—there’s even more! Because Rachel has been so engaged as a writer over so many years, there are many other ways to experience her delightful storytelling and her wisdom about so many subjects.
RIGHT NOW, you can read one of Rachel’s columns related to caregiving. Among her many global interests are coping with cancer. As of summer 2021, her doctors tell her she seems to be free of cancer after treatment for thyroid cancer. She has given us permission to repost one of her caregiving-related columns, headlined: Gifts for those with cancer—and their caregivers.
SHE ALSO gave us permission to republish her earlier column in which she shares with other writers about tried-and-true tips for generating story ideas. That column appears in our Front Edge Publishing blog, headlined:10 Ways to Generate Story Ideas.
YOU CAN ENJOY SO MUCH MORE—Rachel has a lot of information on her personal website, RachelPiehJones.com. In fact, here’s a column she wrote specifically related to the launch of Pillars, an essay titled Are You Afraid of Muslims?
Spend some time looking around her website, which includes lists of recommended stories on several topics close to her heart. Here’s a list of recommended readings on the Horn of Africa, for example, and lists on Running. and Food. She also maintains an archive of some of her best columns over the past decade.
Where should you focus, if you’re first meeting Rachel and her wealth of writing? She tells us that her two current passions in writing are focused, at least in 2021, on Do Good Better and Stories from the Horn. Gateways to these online resources appear on the homepage of her website. Both of them are hosted on Substack, a flexible service that has become very popular with experienced columnists in recent years. If you choose to sign up for these services via Substack, you will find that there are options to pay a fee for deeper access to Rachel’s offerings—and also a free option. If you choose the free option, you will receive occasional columns via email that Rachel sends out to the general public.
Does Rachel’s body of work seem amazing to you? It should. This is a remarkable outpouring of journalism and personal reflection. Why does Rachel work so hard on all these multi-faced media projects?
“Because we need to encourage wider community conversations that cross our cultural and racial and religious boundaries,” she said. “That’s why I hope many Christians will read this new book. I am hoping that they will come away from reading my story much less scared of the Muslims around them. I hope that, after reading my book, more people will engage each other—even if that just starts with saying hello in a welcoming way. That would be amazing. We need to start more conversations that eventually can lead us into sharing about our spiritual lives.”
Care to Read More?
Our own publishing house offers many popular volumes about interfaith relationships.
OUR MUSLIM NEIGHBORS in the memoir of Victor Begg and his family. He came to the U.S. as a young Muslim immigrant from India who dreamed of starting a business, working so hard toward his personal goals that he even pumped gas and sold vacuum cleaners door to door. Victor successfully built a thriving, regional chain of furniture stores. Along the way, he discovered that America’s greatest promise lies in building healthy communities with our neighbors. Available from Amazon.
REUNITING THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM starts where Victor’s and Rachel’s memoirs end. This book collects many helpful resources used by interfaith peacemaker Brenda Rosenberg, whose work over many years has focused especially on teens and young adults. This is an inspiring, nuts-and-bolts resource book ideal for starting your own interfaith group of friends. Available from Amazon.
FRIENDSHIP AND FAITH should be considered a close cousin to Rachel’s new book. Rather than an entire memoir about a single woman’s journey through interfaith relationships—Friendship & Faith contains dozens of real-life stories by dozens of women from eight different faith traditions. Each story tells how a woman dared to cross a boundary in her community—and how she discovered friendship on the other side. Available from Amazon.
I updated the page and this link should work now for the essay about being afraid of Muslims: https://