Understanding one another is a gift that we need to keep giving
I first met Reza Nekumanesh in 2001 when he was a student in an Early Christianity class that I taught at Cal State, Fresno. It was really a wonderful class—not only the kind you recognize in retrospect, but one that we knew at the time was special. We had a Buddhist, an atheist, a Sikh, a Deist—and those were just the outspoken ones. We also had many varieties of the Christian faith present.
Reza, a devout Muslim who in 2004 made his pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca, was profoundly respectful of our material (and of me: to this day he insists on calling me "Dr. Johnston")—more so than many Christians. Since he was from a Persian family, our conversations helped me understand how my ancient material continues to be processed in the world today.
Reza always wore his head covering (kufi) and used the proper honorifics for the names of Jesus and the Prophets. He is a devoted family man with seemingly endless energy for his various roles. His wife is a decorated administrator, and we did some bonding over the fact that we were two men fiercely proud of wives more celebrated than ourselves. Their two children are the center of their family life.
I saw Reza the next fall after the World Trade Center attacks. Knowing his peaceful nature and some of the difficulties our Near Eastern students had faced on campus, my first question was whether he had been confronted about his beliefs or ethnicity. In his typical fashion, he shrugged it off—these were the vicissitudes of the world.
I believe our Cal State campus became the poorer when Reza graduated: he was a constant presence, affable and full of comity as he cruised around campus on his scooter. I took as much joy in congratulating him, a student from another department, on graduation that year as any of my own mentees. It is a great joy when students teach you as much as you do them.
My wife and I went through changes in the next years, as her health finally returned after a bout with cancer, and Fresno Pacific University offered jobs that fit our academic and spiritual beliefs much more closely. One afternoon, returning to our old haunts at State, we stopped by a new Halal restaurant across the street from the campus. To our delight Reza had bought it. Cal State had a good intellectual and mensch in their midst again.
Reza is beginning to think of furthering his education, and is more than willing to consider our small Christian college. Our school's interest in comparative religions would obviously profit by his presence, though we have yet to determine if our individualized program will work for him. Colleagues who teach about the rise of Islam are eager to use his knowledge in lecture visits to engage the students further. We are often told that most of the Muslim world is Sunni. Although Reza's family is of the Shiite persuasion, a mere layman's knowledge of Iraq shows that the Shi'a perspective is a useful one to understand.
I value all of my conversations with Reza, and a recent one will provide a useful microcosm. We spoke about how a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie makes Islam accessible in a way that no academic treatment can. An attempt to understand the experience of our fellow human beings is a gift we need to give each other. We spoke about how Muslims work hard to bring their historical practices into the present day, just as any faith must; for example, in a religion practiced all over the globe, when does the first lunar sighting of Ramadan come? Christians and Jews can easily point to similar modern world issues.
As we spoke to Reza that pleasant weekend afternoon, in and out of the Zoe Grill came college students, old friends and new customers. A group of Reza's fellow Muslims sat at a nearby table, as a young man was meeting some friends of his wife-to-be, and the young man worked hard to impress them with his wit and potential. All of us who have dated and gone through these courtship rituals could identify. In the welcoming atmosphere of his café, as at Cal State, Reza Nekumanesh has helped to make this old world smaller and less divisive for all of us children of Abraham.
W. Marshall Johnston teaches ancient history and classics at Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren university in Fresno, Calif.