A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR:
This week, please welcome Adey Wassink, the lead pastor of a thriving church in Iowa City, Sanctuary Community Church, which is part of the Blue Ocean Faith movement of congregations that promote inclusivity. If you already have a copy of the new Friendship & Faith book, by the Michigan-based WISDOM women, then you have seen Adey’s name on one of the first pages. She appears in the opening of the book to help us recommend these 52 inspiring stories to readers.
Now, as the year-end holidays approach in 2017, Adey’s story about this recommendation strikes a timely note for many families—especially the millions of households across America where someone has crossed religious lines. As Adey explains in this story, she grew up Jewish, now is Christian and shares our passion for ensuring that everyone feels welcome in our communities—whatever their faith may be.
By ADEY WASSINK
Pastor of Sanctuary Community Church
Reading the remarkable stories from the women of WISDOM, I was reminded of two of the most fraught and transcendent moments in my life.
I grew up in Skokie, Illinois, a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago that served as a refuge of sorts for Holocaust survivors and their families. One out of every six of my neighbors had numbers burned into their arms. The Holocaust hung over our city like a thick cloud—silent, unacknowledged, but darkening everything.
In spite of this horror perpetrated against us, antisemitism was alive and well. The big gentile country club in the middle of Skokie forbad Jewish membership. At day camp, we learned from other kids that our noses were big and we were cheap. The secluded neighborhood of nice houses in the southeast corner of town kept Jews out (compelling my sister and I to fearfully explore its secret streets in our Jew-concealing costumes every Halloween).
In the midst of all this were our next-door neighbors, Bill and Ria. They were a sweet retired couple who had moved from Germany to Skokie, of all places, before the war. I was just a girl, and so never learned much of their story. But I do know that most of my Jewish neighbors hated them, ignored them, threatened them, feared them. Our neighbors certainly didn’t know Bill and Ria.
And, somehow, it was different for my parents. Bill and Ria loved our family and we loved them. Bill had attended medical school in Germany, and I had life-threatening asthma. So it was Bill who, when I was sick, would come over to our house and put a towel over my head, teaching me to breath in steam from fragrant boiling water. When Bill and Ria’s daughters didn’t have outfits for their small children to wear to school, my parents brought them bulging bags of clothing.
Bill and Ria had the best climbing tree in the neighborhood. It was one of those trees where the branches started low and you could safely climb high and look out over your neighborhood, and lots of kids could be in the tree at once. Mostly the other kids stayed away, but I felt completely loved and safe.
My favorite place was their kitchen. My family didn’t have a lot of sweets laying around because my mom derided all candy as empty calories. But Bill and Ria always had a peppermint ready to slip into my hands when I came through their screen door. And their house had amazing smells that would never be found in my kosher home.
Bacon. I still remember the first time I smelled bacon sizzling in the frying pan. My family had the typical kosher “bacon” that we called beef fry, but I could tell just by the smell that it wasn’t nearly as good as the real thing. So from Bill and Ria I learned resolve—saying “No thank you,” to every bacon offer—and how to make the most of yummy smells.
The neighbors didn’t approve of our families’ friendship with them. But my parents never cared. I have the sense, looking back, that we were all refugees—Bill and Ria having left something behind to come to this strange land and settle in the midst of others, my family, all my Jewish neighbors—and that somehow my parents paid more attention to what united us than to what made us different.
That served me well when, many years later, faith-based differences threatened to produce for me a sad and lonely first Christmas as a Christian.
AMONG THE REFUGEES
This Jewish girl, as a young woman, had encountered Jesus and decided to follow him. I became a Christian and joined a church. I never felt myself to be leaving behind my Jewishness, but my family, while doing their best to understand, were mostly hurt and confused, and many in my community despised me.
Meanwhile, in my church, a small group of friends and I had begun partnering with World Relief to help settle immigrating Indochinese refugees. I absolutely loved it. I mean: I loved it!!!
As a wanderer who had just been jettisoned into loneliness myself, I jumped at the chance to help anyone who tugged at those heartstrings.
So I met families at O’Hare airport, brought them to their apartments, showed them how to use the El trains, drove them to get documents, carried furniture upstairs, held babies, and played with kids. I talked, with those who were interested, about my spiritual journey, and watched with wonder as they showed me the treasured spirit homes that they had carried with them here from afar.
CHRISTMAS AND ‘KILLING FIELDS’?
But my sweetest moment was watching the movie, The Killing Fields, with them on Christmas Day, 1984. I had started the day alone. My Jewish family was not one of those who celebrated Hanukkah as a stand-in for Christmas, so no Hanukkah Bush for this girl! It would be years before I could put an ornament on the Christmas tree with my husband Tom without hyperventilating. My new Christian friends didn’t know me that well yet and so weren’t aware of my plight.
As I was checking my paltry VHS library and ordering takeout, I got a call from one of the Cambodians, a teenage young man: “Adey,” he said, “we know it’s Christmas and you’re probably busy, but if you’re not, there’s a movie we’d like you to come see with us tonight.”
“Okay!” I said. “When and where?”
And so, unsuspecting, I went with my newfound family to see The Killing Fields, a movie about the Cambodian civil war of the 1970s, itself a spillover of the Vietnam War, with the film featuring prominently the notorious Killing Fields of the Pol Pot regime that contained the bones of millions of slaughtered Cambodians. Not exactly It’s A Wonderful Life!
But it was their story. My Cambodian friends, up till that night, had been unable on their own to summon the will to tell me their stories. After they had someone else tell me their story, however, their tongues were loosed. So there we were, not even waiting till dinner or an apartment, but spilling out onto the State Street sidewalk in Chicago’s Loop, with big white movie-quality Christmas snowflakes falling gently on us under a darkening sky, our hair matting down, with friend after friend, talking over each other, telling story after story after story of lost relatives, forced travel, expulsion from villages and homes, harrowing escapes, and the gratefulness to be here, all of us sobbing in a huddle. I felt profoundly privileged.
Their travails reminded me, just a bit, of the little I knew of the story of the first Christmas for Jesus and Mary and Joseph. And it was my best Christmas ever because I was not alone anymore; they had let me know them, and I belonged.
So thank you, women of WISDOM, because you caused me to again remember these stories. You caused me to think of them.You caused my husband and I to recount them again over dinner. You caused me to write them in this column.
WHY THESE STORIES ARE SO IMPORTANT
These precise kinds of stories are so important right now, when voices of strength and privilege are telling us to defend and isolate and protect and deride, are telling us that differences matter more than similarities, are telling us that anxiety should motivate instead of love. These precise kinds of stories have extra potency because they violate reprehensible prohibitions, showing those prohibitions to be pathetic and empty constructs of fear that serve only to restrict joy.
So, as I read Friendship & Faith, I reveled with Raj Chehl as she secreted surreptitious visits with her friends-of-another-faith who her grandmother had forbad her to see. I crossed the mountains of Afghanistan on foot with Parwin Anwar, as she fled persecution, pregnant, with two little ones in tow, and brought out of it to Detroit her passion for multi-culturalism. And I was with Ayesha Khan, newly arrived in L.A., husband busy at work, family across the country, suspicious of others, baby just born, as the recently widowed Libby entered her apartment to provide a brief bit of help with the kids, and Please help! turned to an afternoon of conversation turned to years of family-like friendship.
And Ayesha, like so many of the others, shook loose for me yet one more story from the dusty attic of memory. My husband and I, like Ayesha and her husband, have just recently left family and friends to travel to a strange and distant land—in our case, Iowa. My husband works hard in his training program while I care for our four little ones and a fifth grows in my womb. Our neighbor is Shazia, a young Muslim woman, far from home with her husband and their young children. Shazia and I become fast friends who love each other and laugh, and it is Shazia who takes our children into her home, a profound statement of trust from me and caring from her, when the time comes for Caleb to be born.
It is my prayer that a book like this could contribute to the voices of love and hope and friendship across lines.
Care to read more?
‘Find yourself a teacher … and a friend’
RABBI MARLA HORNSTEN draws on Jewish tradition as well as practical spiritual wisdom in urging readers to explore the stories in this new book. She urges all of us to gain strength from the examples in this book to form our own new friendships.
Just Imagine: No more ‘in’ group and ‘out’ group
MAGGIE ROWE is familiar to regular readers of our online magazine. In April, we published a cover-story interview with Maggie about her wonderful new memoir, Sin Bravely. Because that book is all about Maggie’s struggle to free herself from religious rigidity—she now welcomes this new Friendship & Faith as a vision of what diverse friendships can become. Enjoy Maggie’s column, too.
Got a story to share?
Got a story you want to share with the Women of WISDOM? Want to inquire about a group order of this newly expanded book for your small group? Interested in bringing a WISDOM program to your community? Please, reach out to WISDOM through this “Contact Us” page.