One Sunday morning at my Evangelical Covenant church, the tech team projects a video interview with an Iranian woman who came to Boston for an education and ended up finding Jesus. She encourages us to reach out to those around us, because you never know when someone might be ready to hear about this hope she now has in Christ. I have tears in my eyes by the end as I think of Zahra.
Zahra and I met this spring at a Cambridge community playgroup I attend with my twin three-year-old boys, Kyle and Tasman. She’s here from Iran with her two young boys while her husband studies at Harvard. One day, at a playgroup shortly after I watched the video at church, Zahra asks me what else I do with my kids during the week. I tell her about the library story time and the boys’ dance class. Then I tell her about church and the moms group I attend there on Wednesdays.
“Church?” Zahra chirps at me like a startled bird.
“Are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” I say.
She smiles and nods.
“You are Muslim?” I ask, trying not to gesture to the hijab that outlines the olive skin of her face.
“Muslim? Yes,” she says.
I get the sense that that’s all she’s willing to share, so I don’t press it. I don’t know whether it’s taboo to talk about religion in her culture.
We join our kids on the playmat, tapping on toy drums and building block towers, and I think of the curt way my neighbors react when I talk about my faith. It’s thrilling to see someone come to know Jesus, and I’ve prayed for God to work in their hearts, but outwardly, I’ve been trying to listen more, to focus on learning from others. And I wouldn’t want Zahra to shirk her background. But then again, I figure that if there are Jews for Jesus, then why not Muslims? The video message at church makes me bold.
“Want to come to my moms group at church this week?”
Her face brightens. “Yes,” she says and then adds a “thank you” before her smile gets cloudy with doubt. “Do I need a car to get there?”
“It is on the bus line,” I say, trying to think of where she lives. “But I have room for you and your kids in my SUV and would be happy to drive you.”
“Oh, yes?” She brightens again. “That is nice. Thank you.”
We make the arrangements, and I await Wednesday morning with mixed feelings. I hope that she’ll be able to make it and that she’ll be comfortable. The group isn’t just a social hour, after all. It’s not as serious as a Bible study, but we are following a curriculum. We will talk about God and how we can parent in a godly manner.
When the day arrives, I feel excited. I grab my keys and prepare to load Kyle and Tasman into their car seats a little early so I can swing by and pick up Zahra and her sons. Then I see the text: Sorry, Caroline. Can’t go today. Have migraine.
It shouldn’t be a big deal, I tell myself. I need to find a way to get past it when plans fall through. I’ll try again next week.
But Zahra continues to have migraines. Then she has doctors’ appointments. I worry about her. I pray for her. I ask if there’s anything I can do for her. When she says no thank you, I try to insist, as I often get the feeling that people are reluctant to ask anything more of me when they learn the schedule I’m juggling with four kids. But as I recently told another mom in my church group, I find that it’s through my kids that I can serve the world, it’s through Kyle and Tasman that I can reach people in the community. Children don’t divide themselves up in the same ways adults do, I told her, so if we make a point of talking to the parents of our children’s friends and classmates, we are almost guaranteed to reach someone outside our own bubble. This type of effort is not glamorous, but it’s real work that can build bridges between regular people.
That spring, I follow my own advice and find purpose in connecting to the women in my community. I am busy connecting through playdates, birthday parties, discussion groups about early childhood education, the Christian after-school program I cohost, book clubs, and invitations to my neighbors for our family’s Easter dinner. But I sometimes find myself thinking of something my friend Rebecca said. She remarked that compared to the United Kingdom, it often feels like we aren’t allowed to talk about religion here. When I look around my kids’ school, I see hijabs and Orthodox cross necklaces and cafeteria menus designed to cater particular faith requirements, and yet these markers haven’t allowed me to get to know the other families any better.
As badly as I have wanted to be seen and known, I wonder whether the moms I pass in the hall might have the same desire. I wonder whether there’s a way we can share about ourselves more deeply, as I don’t think I’m the only one being asked to sweep my faith under the rug. I realize that I want something more for my kids. And I want something more for the women around me.
My bold idea is to host an interfaith tea party for moms from the school. It feels dangerous to tackle this on my own, so I cajole two friends to act as cohosts. One is a white Catholic woman who is married to an Indian Hindu man; they are unsure of the faith in which they want to raise their two children. The other is an Iranian-Indian woman who is married to an Afghan man and raising their two children in the Baha’i faith. Like me, they are nervous about inviting people to talk about religion and how they practice it in their homes, but they are resolute. They want to promote understanding, inclusion, and diversity in our community.
In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, we comb the spring calendar for a date that avoids religious holidays like Easter and Passover and Ramadan and Baha’i New Year. We also don’t want to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath and or to plan an evening event, just in case some guests bring wine and unintentionally alienate our Muslim neighbors. The answer seems to be Sunday afternoon—late enough in the day so churchgoers with lengthy services or fellowship times can attend. In the end, we choose the Sunday afternoon after Easter, only to realize that despite our best efforts, we inadvertently picked the date of Orthodox Easter.
I begin to unpack my formal china. There are the dishes with the English Old Country Rose pattern from our wedding registry, as well as my eclectic collection of teapots. The formal teapot from the china set is my crown jewel, but there’s also the blue-green pot that a childhood friend gifted me from Chinatown in San Francisco. There is the hand-painted green pot my sister brought back from Bulgaria and the burgundy pot from my mother’s kitchen. There’s the white pot from Dan’s aunt, and lastly, the large pot that was sculpted to have a quilted texture and then topped with a ceramic pineapple—it’s from Hawaii and meant to signify welcome.
On the afternoon of the tea party, I arrange platters of food in my kitchen and living room. I place the corresponding teacups next to each pot. I heat extra water to have on hand in an insulated carafe. I scatter discussion prompts over counters and end tables with suggested discussion questions like, What faith do you follow? What does that look like in your home? What appealed to you about this gathering? Would you be interested in participating in an interfaith group at school where we can ask questions or post events that are occurring in our religious communities?
My cohosts arrive in a rush, having picked up last-minute food contributions. They fumble through my cupboards and drawers, looking for serving utensils and platters.
“You’ve done so much! This looks amazing! What can we do to help?”
I tell them to sit on the stools at the counter. I tell them that seeing them sitting still will help me relax. I notice that my Baha’i friend has done her eyeliner the way she does when she wants to feel more like a woman than a mom. It works. She looks like a supermodel.
“Do you think they’ll come?” she asks.
We exchange a look, and we hope.
We had nothing to fear. Only nine of the forty mothers that we invited ended up attending, but I was blown away by how they generously shared themselves and their stories. We didn’t eat most of the food that day or use the conversation prompts or drift into the living room. Our guests arrived, introductions were made, and then they leaned in. They spoke so much, each taking a turn sharing and then asking questions about each other, that I never even introduced my own faith. I created the space and refilled teacups, but these women did the rest. Perched on stools or resting against a countertop, they wanted to talk, to share, to ask respectful, thoughtful questions.
How does your cultural and immigrant background and native language make it difficult to find a place of worship here?
How does your faith differ from your spouse’s, and how does that influence what you teach your kids?
What are the differences between your denominations or your sects, and how did you choose yours? Do they all believe Jesus was actually raised from the dead?
Why do Jewish people live so close together in community?
How do you decide whether to wear a headscarf?
What do the Baha’i believe, and what is the religion’s history?
What does it mean to be Unitarian?
Does Hinduism really have hundreds of gods?
It worked. The women felt seen and heard. And I want more of this. I want us to keep talking about what matters.
A few days later, Zahra sends me a text inviting my kids and me to play at her house, an urgent request because she and her family are leaving in a month to go home to Iran. I jump at the chance.
But when it’s time to leave our house, my kids don’t want to go. They have questions of their own:
Where are we going?
Who are these people?
How old are the kids?
What will we do there?
I feel a power struggle coming on. I grab my bouncing, nearly tantruming four-year-old son, crouch down, and hold him by his shoulders. Calmly but firmly, I tell him, “If we don’t leave now, we will be late. And if we are late, then this mom will wonder whether we are coming, and her kids will be looking for us, and I don’t want to let them down. I don’t know them very well either, but we are going to find the house and meet them together.”
And then I hold my breath. I hold in that breath all the hopes I have for Zahra and her family and for all the friends and acquaintances I have been praying for and witnessing to and serving and also for anyone God should bring my way in the future. I hold in my breath the excitement I feel about being the church and advancing God’s kingdom and the hope that it won’t be thwarted by the selfish nonsensical motives of a small child.
Then Ezra’s shoulders relax beneath my hands. He looks at me and says, “OK.”
Victory! The next five minutes are a flurry of finding socks and shoes and snacks and the diaper bag and five water bottles and a bucket of sidewalk chalk and bottles of bubbles and a spiky purple kickball. And Kyle and Tasman’s lovies. We finally set off—Kyle in one seat of the double jogging stroller, his blanket in the other, three kids free-ranging on foot, and one mom pushing the stroller.
“Where is it?” Tasman asks at every corner.
After walking about half a mile, the kids are flagging. I need to pull a rabbit out of the hat here to keep us going.
“Which one is their house?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Ezra, mommy doesn’t even know where we’re going.”
“Yes, Bess, but I have directions. We’re on an adventure to find a new street. We’re going to find clues to know we’re on the right track.”
“Clues?” Bess seems excited now.
“First, we have to find the street.”
“I see a sign up ahead!” Bess points.
Ezra raises his head, a prairie dog, surprised and alert—“Where? Where?”
“Good job, Bess. That’s their street. Now, have you learned about even and odd numbers?”
“Even numbers are numbers that can be divided equally into two groups.”
“Right. And even numbers are on that side of the street and odd numbers are on the other side.”
“Mom, what number are we looking for?”
“If you divide sixteen into two groups you get eight in each group.”
“That’s right, Bess.”
And so we arrive at a block-length apartment building, a string of townhouses divided into flats. Zahra greets us warmly at the door, and my children scatter up the stairs and into the family’s apartment, only to be led on a tour of the building by Zahra’s two sons, who show us how all of the units are connected beneath by a labyrinth of staircases that leads to a large communal laundry room, some storage space, and a moderately sized playroom with assorted play kitchens and books and a treasure trove of toys.
As I try to settle in, I find I have trouble understanding Zahra when she speaks. Our conversation is stilted. I feel the need to be extra polite and enthusiastic, to show my best self and my kids’ best selves to this woman who seems to see me as a representative of this country and a neighborhood she wants to know better. My kids are falling down the stairs and getting lost in the building’s maze, and I can’t relax.
I present Zahra with a gift of dates I found that day at Trader Joe’s, wondering if the treat might remind her of home. Her eyes light up, and she adds a plateful of the fruit to a table already elaborately laid with gourmet-looking rice dishes, what she calls an afterschool snack.
“Would you like some tea?” she asks me.
Zahra manages to balance a tin tea kettle over a stove burner before we need to run after the kids who have now discovered an outside staircase off the back deck. “They can play in the backyard,” she explains with a wave of her hand as the kids run amok with scooters and tricycles on a gravel driveway and patchy lawn.
Every time I have to chase after a disappearing child, up the outside staircase and back through Zahra’s bedroom or down through the basement bulkhead and up through the winding staircases, I pass through Zahra’s kitchen and see the flames freely and wildly lapping at the kettle. The water boils and whistles an urgent melody to accompany the atonal nature of the kids’ chaotic explorations.
It’s not my job to tell her how to make the tea, I tell myself as I herd the kids back outside, where I’m introduced to two other mothers, one Russian and one Indian. They welcome me warmly and encourage me to sit beside a square wrought iron table, even though it’s clear there aren’t enough chairs for everyone. Then they bring out their own offerings. By the time Zahra descends her outdoor staircase once more, balancing a tray with four cups of scalding hot black tea, the table is laden with olives and dates and cake and a savory rice dish and, of course, the graham crackers that I brought along, and I’m being encouraged to find a plate and eat my fill, to take a mug of tea.
I am blown away by the beautiful discord—the chaos of the children’s play and the calm of mothers who are actually eating real food and chatting with each other, celebrating everything they have to share.
I take a sip of Zahra’s tea from my glass mug. “This is the most delicious tea I’ve ever tasted,” I tell her, surprised that I could like it scalded, a far journey from the milky Earl Grey I’m used to.
“It’s saffron,” Zahra explains. “It’s from my home. My sister and I pick it.”
By the end of our visit, I am exhausted by the balancing act of parenting and absorbing so much difference. And I am grateful.
“Come back soon!” the mothers call out to me. “Come back tomorrow!”
There is no crescendo to the night, no deep conversations about faith. It’s not what I might have imagined or orchestrated, but as I press Kyle and Tasman into the stroller, I wonder if I am beginning to learn and grow. I now see a world of color and complexity, a beautiful place that makes me uncomfortable and wears me out, a city that is filled with God’s people, my family.