Halfway up a mountain and in desperate need of a sugar boost, I discovered the sweets in my rucksack pocket were ‘haram’ – the word used by Muslims to describe that which is forbidden by God. I decided not to eat them, as 12 out of 13 of my companions could not have shared them with me, and, to the delight of my children, they have come home with me.
I could have eaten them and no one would have minded. But somehow it felt inhospitable. I would rather go without, than have something others cannot share and enjoy.
Over the last few years, as we have seen the Places of Welcome network grow, and as I have experienced amazing welcome from people of all faiths and none, the idea of hospitality has become more and more central to my thinking about faith.
Hospitality is pretty topical at the moment, although the tragedy of the people drowning in the Mediterranean is fast becoming yesterday’s news. But the extreme reluctance of rich nations to offer any kind of home to the poorest people on the planet shows us how easily the practice of welcome can become squeezed out by fear that there is not enough to go around. Or perhaps by the fear that our welcome may cause us to change.
And maybe that fear is well-founded. The welcome Birmingham has given to thousands of people over many decades has caused the city to change – for the better. But I am sure there are many things that could be better if we, as a city, were prepared to change a little more. I find it quite shocking to hear that Muslim women in town, during prayer time, often have to pray in the fitting rooms of a department store. Or I am surprised at the limited choices people have if they want to eat in a restaurant that serves halal meat and does not serve alcohol in our city centre.
After we had climbed Snowdon, we piled down to a cafe I have known for many years that serves steaming mugs of coffee and warming food for hikers. But when I arrived with my Muslim friends I looked at it with new eyes. I knew pork would be on the menu but I did not realize it has recently started serving alcohol. Nor had I thought how awkward it was for people to buy food in a place that did not recognize their needs. The staff and customers could not have been more welcoming to our group in their manner, but the menu made it clear that Muslims were not expected to eat there.
A few members of the group played it safe with jacket potatoes and cheese, others settled for chips while a couple made a few enquiries about the oil and discovered they could go for the fish, chips and peas meal. I imagine that hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim people visit this corner of Wales every year – I know of two trips that went from Birmingham that weekend. It wouldn’t take much to add a symbol to the menu to show Muslims what they can eat without having to ask – it is already done for vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies. And suddenly the welcome would be simple and without awkwardness.
That would be welcoming without any change – just tweaking. But for those of us who come from a faith tradition that has food, hospitality and freedom at its heart, I am not sure it’s enough. It’s the approach taken at some interfaith events where the pork pies and sausage rolls are opposite the halal chicken sandwiches and samosas. At others, like a training event I was at last week, one meal is served which was described as vegan, kosher, halal and delicious – a Middle-Eastern mezze of falafel, tabouleh and hummous.
It’s interesting to learn the specifics of someone else’s faith, but it brings deep joy when we find those ideas or beliefs that resonate with our own, or deepen our understanding. Knowing about festivals and rituals helps us to be informed about each other, but discovering a shared insight or motivation builds deep friendship and trust. Our conversations about faith turn from being a buffet into a common meal.
Sometimes it’s giving up sweets that seal a relationship. Sometimes it’s just letting someone know they are expected. Sometimes it’s digging deeper for resonances and wisdom. Sometimes it’s simply tweaking your menu. All these kinds of hospitalities will change us, but only for the better.
Written by Jessica Foster
This article was first published on Jessica’s blog.