My sister Ali and I decided to test the level of prejudice that exists in my small Texan city by dressing Ali up in a black hijab and visiting public places. We chose to visit a Christian bookstore first because Ali and I are both Christians, and we wanted to see how fellow believers would treat someone of an opposite religion. We decided to visit Lifeway Christian Store.
To be honest, Ali and I weren't quite sure how the store clerks would respond. Would they ask Ali questions? Would they counsel her? Would they be eager to show her around the store as an opportunity to be a witness? We were fairly certain that the workers at the Christian bookstore would hold very little prejudice... I mean, the Bible teaches us to love everyone. Why would there be prejudice in a store that sells Bibles?
For this experiment, Ali and I went together as friends, bumping shoulders and holding arms and talking quietly amongst ourselves like teenage friends would. I wore a Christian t-shirt that said "Jesus Saves" boldly across the front. Ali wore her black hijab.
When we first entered the Christian bookstore, smiling and acting as friendly and approachable as possible, no one approached us. No one greeted us from the front desk, as is customary for stores like Lifeway. No one asked us if we needed any help. Ali received a few discreet stares from customers, which we expected. After all, a Muslim girl walking into a Christian bookstore is a strange occurrence. The looks weren't glares. However, we received no smiles and no greetings from anyone at all.
As we entered the store, a young female worker walked in front of us. We both lifted our heads and smiled at her, and I said, "Hi," but she nodded quickly at me and didn't even look at Ali once. It was like the young woman was afraid to acknowledge Ali or even offer her a smile, for fear of how Ali would respond.
Ali and I meandered about the store for a little while, browsing through books for about six or seven minutes before a man finally walked up to us and asked me if we needed any assistance. "Do you sell the Quest Study Bible?" I asked, quickly thinking of an opportunity to interact with a stranger. The man nodded and led us to the Bible aisle, never once giving Ali a word or even a glance. He completely ignored her. He told me a little bit about the Bibles available and then walked away.
Ali and I were stunned.
You'd think that a Muslim girl walking into a Christian bookstore would be considered an excellent opportunity for Christians to witness or at least to act as positive examples for Jesus Christ, but absolutely no one would look at her. She was completely ignored.
Later, when I asked Ali if anyone acknowledged her whatsoever, she replied, "There was one lady. She wasn't a worker- she was just a customer- and she actually smiled at me. We were in there for about thirty [or] forty minutes, and she was the only person that smiled at me. Isn't that sad? That's sad."
After a few more minutes of skimming through the Bibles, I left Ali alone in that aisle and walked up to the front desk. I asked if they carried "The Way of the Master" by Ray Comfort. One of the female cashiers asked, "What's that about?" The same man who had directed me to the Bibles earlier said, "It's an evangelical tool." The look on the woman's face was priceless when she blurted, "Ohhhhhhhhh...." as if everything made more sense after that.
I finally decided to purchase "Crazy Love" by Francis Chan, and Ali went to the front desk with me, standing quietly at my side as I purchased the book. "Do you need anything else?" the male cashier asked, looking only at me.
"No thank you," I replied. The man said nothing else.
As Ali and I left the bookstore, still no one dared to look her in the eye or speak to her even once.
We piled into my car in stunned silence, shocked at the strange response we'd received from the workers at the bookstore. Ali wasn't given dirty looks, but no one smiled at her. I was treated kindly with smiles and words, but everyone seemed intimidated by Ali's presence, like she was an alien from a foreign planet who might bite if someone dared speak to her.
"[This] was very weird," Ali said after being asked about the experience. "People would avoid me, and whenever we talked to them- or whenever Emily [talked to them]- they just kind of talked to her. Even though I was standing right beside her, they didn't really look at me. It was just really strange; almost kind of disappointing because Lifeway's actually one of my favorite stores. I thought they would have been more of a shining light for a Muslim girl like me."
"What was your overall impression of this experience?"
"[I'm] kind of disappointed," Ali replied, shrugging her shoulders sadly. "And actually, to be completely honest, I think my reaction would probably be about the same. I would be scared to talk to someone, you know, just because I don't want to offend them. Maybe they just don't know [where] to draw the line. But this is something that I will definitely use."
It's true. Perhaps people avoid Muslim women entirely out of fear of seeming offensive or acting like they're staring, but feeling ignored can feel just as awful as feeling stared at, as Ali experienced while at Lifeway. She told me, shaking her head with wonder, "When that lady smiled, I just felt like a regular person, which is really weird. I think we just need to acknowledge different people more."
While I'm glad that Ali received no dirty looks while in Lifeway, I'm disappointed that she received only one smile from a customer, no greetings, and no kind words. Jesus was an example to Christians when He spoke kindly to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus was a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans were total enemies, a lot like some Muslims and Christians are today. However, Jesus was kind to the Samaritan woman. He spoke to her and treated her with love and mercy, despite their differences. We should use Jesus's actions as an example of how to treat those who are different and who believe different things than we do.
The biggest lesson I learned while visiting the Christian bookstore was that while I shouldn't openly stare at people who are dressed differently than I am, I need to be sure to smile at them and show kindness. There's no better way to be an example for Christ than to act like a loving and kind friend to anyone and everyone. I'll be sure to deliberately smile at everyone- including Muslims- from now on.