Twelve years ago at this time I was living in France and working for my church as a missionary. One night pretty early on, a nice American couple in our congregation invited my companion and I over for dinner. The wife promised familiar food and I was really excited about a night of my head not exploding from trying to understand all the rapid fire French around me.
We had a perfectly lovely time and it felt nice to talk to people who could related to some of the things we felt homesick about. Then they started talking about their upstairs neighbors-a Muslim family that they sort of jokingly but sort of not thought might be terrorists. They told us a couple of stories-a knife dropped onto their patio from upstairs once, and those people sure have a lot of visitors and meetings in their apartment-and we politely listened and rolled our eyes after we left but it left a sort of nasty taste in my mouth.
We had some extra time after dinner and before we needed to be home so we decided to knock on a few doors in the building since that is pretty much what missionaries do with any extra time. After plenty of slammed doors we found ourselves at the apartment directly above the American couple. A nice looking Middle Eastern guy answered and said he would love to talk about God with us. He quickly told us that he was Muslim and not interested in converting but he was chatty and we were tired of rejection so we spent a few minutes visiting with him. He was new to the area and it came up early in the conversation that he was pretty sure all his neighbors assumed he was a terrorist because his family was Muslim. I can still clearly remember his frustrated face when he said, "I have a wife and a baby! Do I look like a terrorist to you?" He did not, if fact, look like a terrorist to me. And sadly, he was not the only Muslim I had a conversation with in my 18 months in France and Switzerland who told a similar story.
Being a missionary means hearing a LOT of people say say a LOT of stupid things to your face about your religious beliefs. People told us we were members of a cult, that our religion was just a sect, that we were secret polygamists, that our leaders were evil and trying to control us. People will say things with such authority, as if they know better what you believe than you do. We had people quit letting us come over because they read horrible things on the internet about "the mormons", or their friends warned them that we would brainwash them if they joined us. I knew that people in France weren't going to know much about Mormons but I was still so shocked and disappointed at how ignorant and hateful people could be about something they really knew nothing about.
So although I respect that everyone gets to have their own opinion about some of the current political hot buttons, I feel that same sense of shock and disappointment when I hear much of the public conversation about who should and shouldn't be able to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. It wasn't so long ago that there was an extermination order out for my very own ancestors because people didn't trust what they might be up to.
Flying back to the United States after a year and a half abroad was amazing. We flew past the Statue of Liberty before landing at JFK and I cried. I loved my time in Europe and I met amazing people, but I'm delighted to be an American. To me this is a country of freedom and of hope and of respect and of understanding. A country where we all get to believe what we want, and talk to God in the way that we want, and gather with like minded folks in the places that we want. I feel like if we all really believed that and acted that way, it would be the very best kind of memorial to those who died nine years ago today.