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The Bookshelf, August 2019. Doing Good, Adoption, Somali poetry


Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire








I’ll let her words speak for themselves, here is some of her poetry:

Home, by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay…

Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help, by Larissa Macfarquhar

I loved this book. As a person who often feels the urge to help and who makes what others see as drastic choices (though not even close to as drastic as the people in this book!), I was curious. She writes about the lives of people who are not widely known and who have made incredible, sometimes questionable, choices in the name of doing good. And, she examines the entire enterprise of do-gooding (doing good?) and explores the idea of it being harmful, instead of helpful. The book goes beyond a critique of things like the White Savior Complex or Helping Without Hurting into WHY some are compelled to do good and WHY that might be problematic. The title is based off a philosophical question along the lines of: if your child were drowning and five strangers were drowning, which are you morally obligated to save? The one or the many? And what does your answer say about you and your values and way of being in the world? Fascinating.


The Faith of Other Men, by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, published in 1963

This book explores several different faiths and makes a valiant attempt at seeing them from their own perspective. Which of course is ultimately impossible, both for an outsider and to try and impose one perspective on things that have such wide interpretations even from insiders. But, it is fascinating and I enjoyed his respectful position.

Many Thorns, Yet Still Roses, by Jessie Gallaher

This is about a couple who adopted a sibling set of five, each of whom came into their family with significant development, health, and trauma issues. It is a book to read if you or someone you love has made a similar choice. It isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for a well-written book. For one thing, she uses too many exclamation points(!). Also, I find the cheeriness a bit grating, but I’m learning that I like dark more than I’d like to admit. Also, it is just plain too long. As a book. But, that said, I still highly recommend this book if, like I said, you or someone you love has made a similar choice. I have kids like this in my life and because I love them and the family they are in, I want to be educated, informed, compassionate, empathetic, and not a burden or a pain or a snooty know-it-all.

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What are you reading?

A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God


This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

Muslim Strangers Who Remind My Family to Love People Well

When comments like Trump’s about keeping Muslims out of America are headlines and people think these sound like reasonable ideas, I don’t know whether to scream or cry. If ‘Muslims’ kill Americans and therefore should be kept out of our borders, what about teenage boys who attack elementary school children? Should we keep all teenage boys out of America? What about pro-life people? Since a man who claimed to be pro-life killed people at an abortion clinic, should we keep everyone who claims to be pro-life out of America?

Below, I have written about people who showed me how to be a good neighbor, how to love well. When I was a stranger, an outsider living in a foreign land, these people, all of them Muslims and all of them people I have never met before or since, served me and my family. I am forever grateful…

muslim strangers

My three-year old daughter stood in front of a Barbie Doll in the Carrefour at a mall in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. She gently caressed the packaging. I wasn’t going to buy the doll. We lived in Somalia at the time and had already overspent our budget on necessities like diapers and food items.

An Arab woman wearing a full niqaam, the black face veil, pulled the Barbie box from the shelf. She gave the box to my daughter and pressed a wad of cash into her chubby little fists. She smiled, I could see it in her eyes, and said something in Arabic, I will never know what it was. But I also never forgot her.


We were landing, finally. The end of an exhausting thirty-five hour plane journey back from Africa to Minnesota. My toddler started to scream. She couldn’t leave her seat and refused all the distracting toys I offered.

The flight attendant, an elderly gentleman, passed us in the aisle. “I know what to do!” he said and ran, ran, to the front of the plane. He came back with a handful of Snickers Bars and M & M packets. She calmed down immediately.


Again in Dubai, several years later. We were eating in a Chili’s restaurant, a huge treat since we now lived in Djibouti and there were no American restaurants like this. Again, the toddler started to act up. She wanted to run around the table, she wanted to cry, she wanted to leave.

One of the waitresses came to the table, scooped up my daughter, and entertained her for the rest of our meal.


I was driving to school to pick up my twins from first grade. The car got a flat tire. I gathered up the jack and prepared to change the tire when suddenly two men appeared. The temperature soared over 100 degrees and they refused to let me help. They changed the tire, wouldn’t accept a token payment of thanks, and wandered off.


My daughter and I walked through our neighborhood to a birthday party. She carried a wrapped gift and on top of it were several pieces of candy, taped to the wrapping paper. A group of girls strode past us and one of them snatched the candy from on top of the gift.

At the same moment, a car filled with men drove by. They saw the problem and immediately stepped in on our behalf. They protected us from these aggressive girls and defended our dignity.


In Somalia, a woman with a cleft lip* (see comment below by Rach) sold limes in the market for a living. She grabbed my hand as I walked past, pointed at my daughter, and gave me three limes, refusing to be paid. She touched her lips and blew a kiss at us.

In Turkey, my daughter dropped the bag she carried and inside it was her souvenier – a belly dancing outfit and some candy. A storekeeper found it, saved it, and still had it hours later when we returned. He soothed her tears.

In Somalia people brought us holiday treats when it wasn’t their religious holiday but they knew it was ours. And again in Djibouti.

In Djibouti, at the candy stores, Arab shopkeepers insist on offering me free samples and overfill my bags.

I could go on, there are so many stories of the kindnesses of strangers. I don’t have time to tell of our close friends who have protected, defended, served, and loved us. We are not refugees but we are foreigners, living in foreign lands. And these are just some of the people who have welcomed us well.

Thank you.



Waad mahadsantihiin.

When I move back to the United States and am again in my own homeland, you are welcome to my home for dinner.

Red Hot Rage

I once wrote an essay about what I learned from Muslim prayer rituals that enhanced my personal prayer life. I submitted it to a Christian magazine and received the response that, “There is nothing for Christians to learn from Muslims about prayer.”

I was furious. And really, really sad. I couldn’t have cared less about the article being rejected, I can handle rejection just fine. But the sentiment? The exclusivity and loss and inherent disrespect? I was shocked and then realized that this was essentially what I see all around the world. Division. Borders. Fences. Me versus you. Us versus them.

Today Marilyn Gardner of Communicating Across Boundaries and the author of Between Worlds deftly and beautifully and forcefully challenges us to knock down those dividing walls and to enter relationships.

Red Hot Rage, by Marilyn Gardner

Many of our close friends are Muslims. Several have been dear friends since college years. These friendships have continued through marriage, children, international and cross-country moves, and now middle age. One couple are especially dear to us. We have stayed in each others homes, had deep, late night talks, and discussed everything from raising children to faith. We are honored to be their friends, to share conversation and meals with them.

They are faithful Muslims, taking their faith seriously in a multicultural, pluralistic country. We are Christians also taking our faith seriously in the same setting. Though the faith differs, the struggles are similar allowing us to relate on many levels .

At one point while visiting we began talking  about their neighbors. Did they know them? Were there neighborhood children that their kids could play with?

They paused and then relayed to us that they had attempted to befriend the family next door. The family had four children and were often seen playing outside. They said that there had been little progress in connecting their kids. Every time their little boy went outside to play with them, he ended up being excluded from play. His mom continued to encourage him, telling him to keep on trying, but this without success.

A few months later our friend ended up seeing the neighbor in the community. He mentioned the desire to have their son play with his children. At this the neighbor stopped him and said. “We are born again Christians – we don’t socialize or let our kids socialize with people who don’t have the same beliefs.”


At this point in the story, our friend was calm and matter of fact, saying that at least he now understood and wouldn’t push the issue.

I on the other hand was boiling in a red, hot rage. I was beside myself with anger at these neighbors.


How dare they use their ‘Christian’ status as an excuse for bad behavior. How dare they exclude our friend’s son under the label ‘born again’? How dare they misuse the name of Christ under the clothing of bigotry and prejudice?

I wanted to march next door and ring the doorbell long and hard. I wanted to scream at them that we too were Christians and this family had been dear friends for years. I wanted to scream at them that they were “white-washed sepulchers. Pharisees of the worst kind.”

But I did none of those things. Because a gracious Muslim couple who had far greater love than me had let it go.

They had simply decided they would not push themselves into a situation where they were not wanted. They continued to live as cohesively as possible next to a family that outright rejected them with no second thoughts, no remorse, definitely no repentance.

It has been several years since that time and there are still times when I want to hunt that family down. I have thought many times about this event and God has reminded me of it at points when I wear my own Pharisaical robes, when I misuse the name of Christ and act in ways that hurt and break relationships.

Being in our world but not ‘of it’ does not give license to meanness and prejudice. Holding our truth claims close, and giving them high value is good. Using them to justify bad behaviour is a dishonor to the very truth that we claim.

Our friendship continues to grow and flourish – we count it as a gift from God. Each time we see them, faith holds a place in the conversation. Why wouldn’t it when it is as important to them as it is to us?

And I’ve learned to think more kindly toward that family next door. If your faith is that weak that connecting and offering friendship to those who don’t believe as you do could hurt it, then it is weak indeed.

If I could sit down with them, I would gently challenge them that grace is a miracle, that a gospel that can’t reach out to a neighbor is a small gospel.

Because this Jesus who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors, women with multiple husbands and demon possessed people; this Jesus who reached across the great divide between heaven and earth, offering his very life for us is surely big enough to reach across a yard.

Read more from Marilyn on her blog: Communicating Across Boundaries or click here to check out her book.

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