At the beginning of Ramadan, the 30 days of fasting for our Muslim friends, we woke up to a flurry of text messages from our friends in North Africa. Although they knew us as Jesus followers, they wished us a ‘Ramadan Kareem’ (a generous Ramadan) because we were good friends and we had celebrated many of our feasts—Christmas and Easter—together in our North African apartment. Unfortunately, we were no longer in North Africa, having made an emergency trip back to Alberta a few days earlier for medical reasons. We were heartbroken to be missing Ramadan, not only because it is a spiritually important time to show our friends Jesus’ love, but because we love our friends and were dearly missing them.
We didn’t always love Ramadan. When we first arrived in North Africa in 2012, our expat friends warned us about Ramadan. They would say things like, “It is the least productive time of the year.” “Everything opens late and closes early.” “The taxi drivers are grumpy and the shop keepers are sluggish.” Consequently, we anticipated the month with worry and apprehension.
Although Ramadan felt economically unproductive, we soon realized it was, more importantly, relationally rich. Our North African neighbours are intensely proud of their Islamic heritage and quickly invited us, the new foreigners, to Iftar (break the fast) with them. We gladly accepted these invitations, only realizing later that these were made out of politeness and few foreigners ever accepted such invitations.
On the appointed day we made a point to fast and pray in preparation. Half an hour before sundown our friends picked us up and we crammed into the back seat of their car as we raced to beat the call to prayer, which indicates the end of the fast. The first hour was filled with voracious eating and drinking, the next with quiet recovery, and the rest of the evening with laughter, games, and conversation intermingled with more eating and drinking lasting late into the night. We wouldn’t return home until midnight or later and later and our friends would still complain that we were leaving too early.
Soon we began to host our own Iftar, inviting the men that worked in our building to a meal we prepared especially for them. This led to reciprocating invitations to visit them and their families in their homes. We were invited to one Iftar for 500 people where a good friend fed his whole neighbourhood and seated us at the table of honour.
We discovered two amazing blessings when we learned to anticipate rather than dread Ramadan. First, our friends discovered how much we loved them. Privately, in their homes they would ask, “Why are you different than all the other foreigners?” And often, before we could answer, “We know it’s because you truly love God and you love us too don’t you?” Second, after we celebrated with them, they were excited to celebrate Easter and Christmas with us, trying turkey and mashed potatoes, and giving us a doorway to share about the relationship with Jesus that makes us so unique.
This year we learned another way to celebrate Ramadan: via WhatsApp. Although we are across the world from each other, we were able to send messages, pictures, videos, and even video chat as they celebrated. We trust God is using our insufficient Arabic, vast physical distance, and our love to show His love to His beloved people who do not yet know Him fully, but will one day soon.