Who will slaughter the ram?” In the Muslim Bagirmi tribe this is not just a logistical concern. An animal must be slaughtered a certain way, facing a certain direction, while a certain Muslim mantra is pronounced over it: “In the name of Allah.” Otherwise it is not “halal”, it is unclean.
My wife and children and I were spending six months in a Bagirmi village of Chad to learn the Bagirmi language. I thought an Easter feast would be a good way to connect with our neighbors. People always come for food, and they don’t mind hearing our Bible stories as long as they don’t feel like I’m trying to “change” them. So I bought a ram, organized some friends to prepare the meal, and practiced reading the Easter story in Bagirmi.
Then I walked through the village, stopping at every group of men sitting together on mats by the road, and I invited them and their wives to the feast. One man was particularly concerned: “Who will slaughter the ram?” Knowing Muslim custom, I had already arranged for the ram to be properly slaughtered. But I was eager for a thoughtful conversation, so I feigned: “What does it matter?” He replied: “If you slaughter it, there’s no problem—we know you are a religious person. But if your friend Julien slaughters it, we won’t come.” Now I was shocked. It is true that my friend Julien is not Bagirmi, nor is he Muslim. He is a faithful Christian with a flawless reputation in the community. He is kind to everyone, always helpful, and openly fears God—something that Muslims usually respect. And he certainly knows how to slaughter a ram the “right” way. I was completely bewildered: “Why won’t you eat a ram that Julien slaughters?” Nothing could have prepared me for his reply: “Julien is black.”
There is a long history behind that statement, “Julien is black.” Of course, they are all “black.” My family were the only white people in the whole region. But in the minds of my Muslim neighbors, “black” is associated with “pagan,” nonreligious, southerners. The Bagirmi converted to Islam in the tenth century. This makes them part of the Muslim Umma, the world-wide community of those who follow the prophet Muhammed. They keep the Muslim prayers and they fast. In their minds this makes them infinitely superior to their non-Muslim “black” neighbors to the South. In fact, until as little as a century ago, the Bagirmi preyed on the southern tribes, raiding their villages for slaves and food. They would slaughter all the men and take the women and children as slaves. They had a right to, so they thought: those people were pagans.
Times have changed. Missionary efforts during the twentieth century have produced a sizable Church among the southerners. Additionally, 20th century wars in the south drove many of those southerners to the North, to settle in territories that were previously only Muslim. Now there is a southern Christian population in nearly every Bagirmi village, albeit in separate neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. Former slavers and former enslaved, living side by side. Julien is one of these southerners, a member of an exiled Church, living out his faith in Christ in a Muslim town, yet despised in spite of his best efforts.
“Julien is black.” Like a blow to my missionary consciousness, that statement awoke in me a new sense of our calling in Chad. We read in the Apostle Paul’s letters that the gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down cultural and ethnic barriers to create one holy people for God, united in love. Julien and I are one in Christ. The Bagirmi respect me as a white westerner of means, but they despise him as a southerner. I told them: “There is no difference between Julien and me; we are both followers of Jesus.” They tried to argue with me and justify their disdain for him. This only gave me further opportunity to tell them about God’s love for all people equally in Jesus. They remain unconvinced, but the Lord used their perspective to open a door for the gospel. And he gave me a moment of clarity on how I can contribute concretely to demonstrating the gospel in a Muslim town: to show love and esteem for those who belong to Christ, despised by their neighbors, but holy, blameless, and pure in the sight of God.
Here as everywhere, the Church does not look very holy, blameless, or pure. Now we live in another Bagirmi town. We have built a house and are figuring out how and where we fit in the local community. There are Christians here as well. They speak a southern language that we do not understand, but we have attended church in an effort to have good relationships with them and encourage Christ’s body in some way. It is not always easy to esteem these Christians. They struggle with many remnants of their pagan practices. Drunkenness, witchcraft and abuse are rife. To our Muslim neighbors, and often to us, they still look rather pagan. The scenario recalls what the Pharisees must have thought of the drunks, sinners and prostitutes that hung around Jesus. But we know that Christ’s Spirit is at work among those called by his name. Has not the foolishness of this foreign group of Christians been placed in a Muslim land to shame its self-righteous wisdom?
Our nearest neighbor is a young Catholic woman, Marie. She comes to our well for water and has enjoyed listening to me tell Bible stories. My Bagirmi friends began to scold her one day for taking the liberty of coming in our yard and pumping water. I told them: “Leave her alone. She is my sister.” They looked at me, bemused. I pursued: “I attended her baptism just last week. She and I are family in Jesus, along with all who believe in him.” They laughed nervously and left her alone. How I long that Marie were their sister, too!
Nathanael S. and his wife serve Lutheran Brethren International Mission as missionaries to the Bagirmi people of Chad.