To Chiara, with love

A Muslim interfaith activist remembers Chiara Lubich, founded the Focolare Movement, on her tenth death anniversary, March 14, 2018

By Zain Awan

New Delhi: Chance encounters, sometimes, change the course of your life and take you to a new journey altogether. The March of 2013 was special for me in that sense. I was introduced to the Focolare Movement (The Work of Mary), and little did I know that my life would change in more ways than one.

It was essentially huddle for the inter-faith dialogue, at the end of which I was given some papers about the movement. One handout had the face of an octogenarian European woman with small and sparkling eyes that spoke and smiled through the glasses. That glance pierced my soul and got seeded in my heart, as if welcoming me to a new and a better world. She was Chiara Lubich.

Then a young teacher, Chiara consecrated her life to God in 1943 amid the gloom and doom of the World War 2. Chiara placed God at the center of her life and in the process, earned several admirers, who would meet regularly in the war-torn Italy. And soon Focolare (Italian for hearth) was born. Decades later, the movement has millions of followers, dedicating their lives to the poor and to unity with all people.

In the words of Chiara, it’s a community “in the image of the Family of Nazareth, composed of consecrated and married people in the midst of the world, all of them given totally to God, though in different ways.”

Chiara and Muslims

So what does a Muslim have to do with Chiara Lubich or the Focolare Movement and vice-versa? How can Islam, a monotheistic religion, embrace the preaching that place Gospel at the center? It’s in this tension of civilization, stems the dialogue of civilization.

The Focolare advanced on Muslims in the 1960s. A decade later, strong bonhomie was forged between the Christians and the Muslims in Algeria, which led to a Muslim-only Focolare community. This new phenomenon snowballed into not only blurring the division between the Islam and the Christianity, but also pipped down the cruelty of the civil war.

As the winds blew across the globe, more and more Muslims started drifting towards the Movement.

In the summers of 1997 ‘a historical page was written’ on the unity between Islam and Christianity. Leader of the American Muslim Mission, Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed, invited Chiara to Harlem Mosque in New York. Dressed up like a Hajjan (a Muslim woman on a Haj pilgrimage), Chiara urged Christians and Muslims to work shoulder to shoulder.

Thousands of people, in awe, listened to Chiara as she spoke from the altar of the Mosque, dedicated to human rights activist Malcom X, who in 1965, was killed while addressing a crowd of hundreds.

“God is a witness that you are my sister. I am your friend and will always give you a hand,” announced Imam Mohammed amid thunderous applause. A common objective was born: to create a world of peace.

Chiara and Me

I was both intrigued and interested in knowing more about Chiara as I drew closer to the Focolare community in the years following my maiden interaction with the peaceniks of Chiara.

In 2015, I was invited to participate in the movement’s United World Week, a conglomeration of young people from across the world, who, through dialogues, discourse and cultural activities take a pledge that a united world is possible.

My journalistic profession takes me to places, often lodging me in the grandeur of luxury hotels, bringing out the glamour of breaking news. But the experience of United World Week was different. It introduced me to myself. Without any inhibition, I stayed in a Catholic seminary, and lived like a priest-in-the making with one sole purpose – taking Chiara’s baton further, committing myself to a united world.

And there wasn’t any dissident, of a Muslim living in a Christian seminary, from my Catholic brothers and sisters either. After all, “Lose everything, even the attachment to holiness, so that you aim only at one thing: to love,” Chiara once had said.

It was this love that formed the bedrock of my further and deeper interactions with the Chiara’s followers, often delving into the spiritual aspects of life sans any barrier of religion. One such experience happened last year, when I was spending a week near Rome, in Rocca di Papa- the beehive of the Focolare Movement.

I wanted to attend the Sunday Mass at the Vatican. As a Muslim, I had some apprehensions in even disclosing my desire to my Focolare brothers and sisters. Will they understand my long-cherished desire? What if am not welcomed at the Vatican? What if am not allowed to enter the St. Peter’s Square?

With this flood of thoughts, I set out to Rome with Ana Miranda, a Focolarina. As we approached the security barrier of St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, my heart skipped beats- What if the security apprehends me – a Muslim? Should I, a Muslim, go ahead and listen to the Pope? Suddenly, it was time for me to put into practice what I had learnt living all these years with the people of Chiara. The Focolare Movement opened my heart and mind to seek unity with people. If it was not for Chiara’s teachings, I would have never taken the leap at the threshold of St. Peter’s.

Few days later, it was a role reversal of sorts. It was Friday and I had to proffer my prayers. Not familiar with the city, Jean Paul, a Focolarino, picked me up from near Rocca di Papa and drove me to Moschea di Roma (The Mosque of Rome). The journey was arduous but not without undertaking an inner one.

As Jean and I entered the mosque, we were directed to do Wuzu (the ablution). As I started purifying myself, I found Jean performing the Wuzu too, all with a smile on face. This was the face of Focolare, a Cathloic doing an Islamic ritual, a moment that Chiara would have loved to see, the Harlem Pact in practice.

As I sat down to proffer Namaz (Muslim prayer), I broke down. A strange energy overtook my emotions. Here was a Catholic, who brought a Muslim man to mosque for Friday prayer! I cried profusely as I thanked God for that day of March 2013. Here was one movement, in whose lap I could rest my head and cry my heart out. Jean, looked at me silently- understanding my emotions and pretending he had not seen my tears.

One Regret, One Relief

Zain Awan
A thought often disturbs me. I could never see or meet Chiara. If I was destined to be a part of the Focolare family, why did God do so rather lately? A solace – scriptures say, we can meet great personalities like Chiara Lubich, through our deeds and by living their values and teachings, even as they look at you from up there or from a photo on a handout, with their smiling eyes penetrating your soul and life.

(Zain Awan is a journalist, who lives and works in New Delhi. His areas of interest are politics, international affairs and social issues.)

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