On the Feast of St. Stephen, Fr. Jason Welle, OFM, continues our reflection series today writing about how his faith grew stronger after a gentle challenge. As we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us be open to the gentle challenge of Christ who constantly makes Himself present to us.

I traveled to the Middle East for the first time as an undergraduate in 1999. Fascinated with Arabic and Islam, I was starting to consider graduate study in theology, but also beginning to hear the first murmurs of a vocation to religious life.

In Marrakesh, Morocco, I met the first friar from the province I would later join, but more importantly, I developed a friendship with a student from a local university, Soufian Barouabi, whose hospitality and candor I still remember well.

 My group of students began our trip with a month in Turkey and upon subsequent arrival in Morocco, found the fervent piety there quite surprising. University students eagerly befriended us to show us around the city and practice their English, but when the call of the muezzin came, they would matter-of-factly stop to pray, then return to continue their hospitality.

Marrakesh

I was thoroughly impressed: meeting the intelligentsia of the future, I saw that daily prayer was unashamedly important to them.

 One night, we stood in the Jamalfna Square downtown and heard the call for Muslim evening prayer ring out from the minaret of the 12th century Kutubiyya Mosque at the market’s edge.

 We had been discussing religion in America and in Morocco, and just before he departed to pray, Soufian asked me a question that still illustrates for me the dynamics of interreligious dialogue.

“So…let me get this straight: you think God died?” Soufian asked.

How do I explain that to somehow who lacks the jargon so common in classrooms of Christian theology?

“Well…Jesus had two natures, and in his human nature he died…” Rather unhelpful for someone who doesn’t use philosophical language of “nature” or “person”… For my part, I got flustered and then grateful. My new friend’s simple question was one I wouldn’t have asked myself in that manner.

We discussed it, he remained unsatisfied, and afterwards, his hospitality continued, even inviting me to his family’s home some days later.

In interreligious dialogue, participants do not know what questions will emerge—but they know that they will leave different. The encounter with Islam forces me to engage questions I might otherwise leave unconsidered—and craft language to address them that my Muslim brothers and sisters will find comprehensible, if not convincing. Soufian fanned a spark in me.

I realized later that in a sense, I arrived in Marrakesh a tourist, a gawker at Islam. I left questioned, challenged, and blessed for it, to live my faith on a different road.”

Coming up tomorrow: “In Gratitude” by Valerie Ellis!

Fr. Jason Welle OFM is a Franciscan friar of the Assumption BVM Province. He currently resides at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington DC, where he pursues a Ph.D. in Georgetown University’s Religious Pluralism program, focusing on Christianity and Islam.

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