Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New partners and friends from Azerbaijan

On Tuesday of last week, the World Affairs Council (WAC) escorted a delegation of guests from Azerbaijan (formerly a state inside the Soviet Union) to Central Dallas Ministries.

I am continually amazed by the opportunities we enjoy here to meet fascinating new friends, literally from around the world!

We enjoyed lunch and what turned out to be a three-hour conversation about poverty relief and the challenges of economic revitalization.

Azerbaijan has a population of approximately 8 million. Of these, 65% live in poverty. One million are refugees who have flooded into the nation because of the war with Armenia. With Iran on the south and Georgia and Russia to the north, Azerbaijan is an important gateway to the Middle East.

The group who visited with us numbered 12, including one translator and the host person from the WAC. All but one of the ten national leaders were Muslim. We enjoyed a lively conversation, to say the least.

As our time drew to a close, I felt myself regretting that my new friends would be leaving so soon. My experience with them impressed me in many ways. Here are just a few of my lingering impressions:

1) These were very gracious people of deep faith and amazing courage. They wanted to understand us and they wanted us to understand them and their challenges.

2) Their faith was extremely important to them, and it was very clear that they respected us for our faith as well. More than once they took pains to make clear that their understanding of religion was all about bringing people together and not tearing people and nations apart. It struck me that any effective conversation with this group or others like it would always need to include the faith dimension.

3) They wanted us to know that they did not believe in terror or terrorist attacks. "Nothing is ever settled by shedding blood," one remarked, as all nodded agreement. They expressed hopes that the United States would soon end the war in Iraq, a conflict that serves no positive purpose from their perspective. They also asked what our opinion was of nations that harbored terrorists or supported states that did.

4) They shared with us their desire to see life improved for all of their people. They shared with us that the U. S. denies them the aid their nation needs, while supplying assistance to Armenia, the nation that invaded their country and displaced a million refugees. At the same time, they expressed appreciation for America and its people. They consider themselves to be our allies.

5) They quoted the Quran frequently in regard to the poor and to their understanding of the responsibility they had to care for them with compassion. One of the best ways to express love for Allah is to serve those in need. They loved the fact that at CDM we find ways to involve low-income persons in leadership and program development.

6) They expressed the desire to begin an on-going, international conversation with us once they return home. Of course, we agreed. The Internet is wonderful!

7) They reported on their experience the night before when they attended a Dallas Stars hockey game. One gentleman told us that he yelled so hard for the Stars he had almost lost his voice! I loved the casual and natural way our conversation played out.

8) They asked us about Native Americans and where they might meet some of these first Americans. When I produced a number of Native American artifacts, they went wild! They took photos and talked about those who first lived in this place. I explained that I kept these items around so that we would never forget our national heritage of oppression, invasion and injustice. Humility is a good thing for individuals, communities and nations.

When they had gone, I sat in my office and reflected on the visit for quite awhile.

In spite of our remarkable diversity, we are all basically the same--we want the same things, long for the same freedoms, work on the same problems and seek the same peace.

Getting to know one another seems the key to progress, the doorway to hope and a better day. I look forward to keeping the conversation going with these wonderful people.


Justin said...

Doesn't that country have some pretty serious human rights abuse problems?

Unknown said...

You mean, like executing people for crimes committed as children? Or torturing any people we can rationalize as enemies in a war against a word (terror)? Or intimidating voters?

I'm sure their country does some pretty horrible things - all countries do - but we still need to support the people and organizations that are trying to help their people.

Larry James said...

My understanding is that the war with the Armenians has resulted in what they refer to as a Muslim genocide. Armenia has taken over 20% of their nation. But all of this is not relevant for this post. None of these people have been involved in anything but trying to secure the benefit of their freedom from the former Soviet Union. Very peaceful and wonderful people.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Larry, your post made me think of an interesting piece I heard (in part) on NPR yesterday. The basic idea was that politicians are making a big mistake when they refer to violent, extremist Muslims as "jihadists." That's because jihad simply means "struggle (in behalf of God)".

So when Muslims hear someone denounce "jihadists" it sounds like they're saying, "We oppose anyone who struggles (even non-violently) for God. For many Muslims, jihad means struggling against selfishness, for example. In that sense it corresponds to a Christian's wrestling with sin.

The guests interviewed in the piece made it clear that determining what is and isn't a valid, Quranic, understanding of jihad would need to come from Islamic authorities. But the whole thing made me realize how far we have to go in the basics of communication.

Larry James said...

Frank, great insights. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Did you take the opportunity to preach the gospel to these people who are lost in a false religion? What is the point of this "dialogue" with people who worship a false God?

Larry James said...

Anonymous 10:56 PM, thanks for your post.

First, they don't worship a "false God." Do a bit of research on Islam. Allah is also the God of Abraham and Jesus. So, we are not talking about a different God with Muslims any more than we would be with our Jewish friends.

Second, they know a lot about the Gospel and Christians. They have been through a genocide at the hands of people who believe in and profess to follow Jesus. So, our approach was very welcoming and we were there to understand them and their needs.

I think the Jesus I follow would have been very pleased.