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‘Instead of Fortresses, I Hope We Build Neighborhoods’

I’m an introvert.

I don’t get my energy from others and tend to view strangers who call me with suspicion. It’s just the way I’m wired.

I’m also a natural introspective, so when I encounter some news that overwhelms me, I tend to go inward to ponder things until I’m able to get my thoughts out in writing. It’s just who I am.

I should have chucked my natural introspection to the wind for a few minutes last Friday and dared to become the type of person who haunts my nightmares. I should have cold-called someone I don’t know and offered my support.

I woke up on March 15 to news of the horrific slaughter perpetrated in New Zealand, and, as is my tendency, I dove inward.

Now, look, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think our world needs many more naturally introspective people.

The problem with my natural tendencies this past Friday was I have a mosque four blocks from my house.

In my introspection, it never occurred to me that at least a portion of this community had to be scared out of their minds.

There are times when my introverted introspection is a blessing, and there are times it works against me. This was the latter.

Thankfully, the imam of our local mosque decided he wanted to open a space for folks to talk about what had happened, and he invited some local pastors to come and be part of the process.

There was absolutely no way I could keep calling myself a Christian and say no to that gracious invitation.

So, Saturday evening I walked the short distance to our local mosque and sat down with some of my Muslim neighbors as they processed their grief.

While I’d met several folks from the mosque over the past couple of years, this was the first time I’d been able to get over and meet this community in their space. It was long overdue.

People’s responses were, as you might expect, all over the map.

One young woman, who is probably about the same age as my daughter, shared a conversation with her younger brother.

After watching the news, he asked her, “Why is it when someone who looks like me does this, they are called ‘evil’? And when a white person does it, they are always called ‘sick?’”

That left her feeling speechless and deflated. As one of three white people in the room, it broke my heart.

I didn’t say much during the time. I did say that this attack reminded me that this person did it, in his own mind, in my name. And how, as someone who wore the face of the one who committed this act of evil, I couldn’t denounce it enough.

The imam had mentioned in his invitation letter, and one of the members reiterated the point as we met, that those killed at that mosque were martyrs for their faith.

As martyrdom plays a large role in the Mennonite roots of my faith, I took the opportunity to share the tale of Dirk Willems – a Mennonite man who escaped prison while waiting for his execution, only to turn back and save one of his pursuers who had fallen through thin ice.

Willems’ story, sadly, doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, he was taken back into captivity and executed. What the story does show is a key component of Mennonite spirituality.

They are called to love and serve those who hate them, knowing that doing so could come with a great personal cost.

My last statement of the evening was something I’m going to have to do a better job at myself, “Instead of fortresses, I hope we build neighborhoods.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Allen’s blog, Painfully Hopeful. It is used with permission.

Wesley Allen

Wesley T Allen is the pastor of the Central Baptist Church of Riverton-Palmyra in Palmyra, New Jersey. He is also the Communications Coordinator for the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey.