Commentary: The Power of Unusual Friendships

Nigel Heywood

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On the road with the Imam and the Pastor

On 15 March 2019, the peace of New Zealand was shattered by the massacre of 51 people in the city of Christchurch, at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. The shooter was a 28-year-old Australian man, described in the media as a white supremacist linked with the alt-right extremism that has been growing globally since 2015. 

In the wake of this tragedy, our friends at IofC New Zealand proposed a tour by two renowned peace builders from Nigeria, Pastor Dr James Wuye and Imam Dr Muhammad Ashafa. Once bitter enemies who led youth militias, the two have fought in open combat against each other’s armed networks, and Pastor James has lost his hand in battle. Yet, through a process of deep reconciliation, they have been able to work together, traveling the world to spread a message of peace.

Their ‘unusual friendship’ is the kind that scholar Marc Copin envisaged could bring power for change - when two people from adversary groups team up to work together, speak, teach and intervene in places of conflict and violence.

As I travelled with them on their seven-day New Zealand tour, the two men joked about converting each other and who was losing their memory the fastest. In all their travails (both have risked their lives in peace work) and travels  (to more than 70 countries) the two have become deeply bonded, knowing and caring for each other in their total commitment to build peace. What continually stood out for me about both men was their love and willingness to do something radically different to break the cycles of violence.

Tolerance is not enough

In countries like New Zealand and Australia, we pride ourselves on being multi-cultural. Our secularism allows us to coexist side by side without too much interaction, as long as everyone is peaceful and we all have jobs. This almost neutral exchange between groups is seen as ‘tolerance.’ Our everyday lack of engagement across diverse lines of belief, ethnic backgrounds, social classes, wealth, age, or anything that sets us apart from ‘the other,’ has left our communities vulnerable to the politics of division, fear-based media and the social isolation of groups and individuals, which all meld together to create fertile ground for loss of hope or extreme responses. Our neutral, disengaged ‘tolerance’ has consequences that are dangerous, and 15 March played this out to a horrific and tragic conclusion. 

The work of the Imam and the Pastor is not about making us all one homogenous religion or culture, instead it directly faces the challenge of how to create strength out of diversity. Their trust building work within different communities is an answer to extremes, whether they be about white supremacy, ethnic tensions, the rich/poor gap, or religious differences. These extremes are real and dangerous, but the Imam and the Pastor in faith believe love and trust provide a powerful and transformative alternative for everyone.  

The role of faith-based communities

As we attended a hangi (meat cooked over hot coals in the earth) provided by the Maori Muslim brothers at Linwood Mosque, and a neighbourhood barbecue at Al Noor Mosque, and as I stood at the back of the mosque during prayers, I wished more people of other faiths could experience the connection and friendship I felt from these two communities in recovery. It was hard to imagine that where these people bowed in prayer was where one angry man had killed so many, so quickly.

I wondered if Christian families could come and help care for the Muslim families who had lost their loved ones–often the money-earner of the family. Instead, this kind of care is happening through more secular organisations like Red Cross and Rotary.

While these do great work, I began to feel that volunteering is one step removed from building deep vulnerable friendships within a grieving community. What would it mean for another faith-based community to do that? What could grow out of that love?

Imam Ashafa and Pastor James were calling us beyond the easy answers of our good and well-intentioned organisational or theological responses, to the deeper actions of transformational faith. The call of ‘love your neighbour’ is the most radical and disruptive response there can be to extreme isolation or violence.