Goshen College 2008 graduates Rebecca Fast and Paul Shetler
Why would U.S. Christian college students travel to a country like Iran which is perceived as unsafe for
Americans and hostile to the U.S. government?
Goshen College 2008 graduates Rebecca Fast and Paul Shetler went to understand better what the country and Iranian people are like and ended up finding the unexpected: sweet lemons, bitter oranges and a warm welcome.
The two, who anticipate future international work together after they are married, joined 10 others for a 15-day learning tour, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in late December and early January. From the moment they arrived, their expectations were challenged.
In contrast to the fear and suspicion of Iran that some U.S. leaders encourage, Fast and Shetler instead found a country that offered unexpected hospitality, an acceptance of U.S. citizens and an understanding and appreciation for Christianity.
From meetings and conversations over tea to abundant gifts, hospitality by the Iranians struck the visitors immediately. “We were overwhelmed by their warmth and generosity,” said Fast, a social work major from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. “We were often greeted with,‘Welcome to our country. We are so glad you are here.’”
They also noted the hospitality that the country has extended on a broader scale. Situated between two current wars that the United States is engaged in – Afghanistan and Iraq – Iran has taken in more than 3 million refugees from Afghanistan and many from Iraq with little international aid or acknowledgement.
Both Fast and Shetler have had many opportunities for world travel, and are familiar with the negative way Americans are perceived in many countries. Fast, as a Canadian, usually faces few problems or negative response. Iran is very different though. The first time when the group introduced themselves, Fast received a colder response. “It brought me down a few pegs,” she said. Iranians appreciate Americans for being more devoutly religious, like themselves, than Canadians or Europeans.
“One of the impressive things was to see the full range of political opinions among people,” said Shetler, a history major from Goshen. “It isn’t a monolithic anti-American society. There is a full spectrum of opinions, including supporters of President Bush.”
Iran is a country with a primarily Shiite Muslim population, in contrast to Sunni Muslim, which is more common around the world. And it is a crime in the country to convert to Christianity from Islam. That said, Fast and Shetler were surprised how knowledgeable and appreciative Iranians are about Christianity. “They have a high respect for Christians, as practicing religious people,” said Fast.
Iranians also have a lot of awareness about Christian beliefs and holidays. Because the group arrived just after Christmas, when they were at a bazaar, a seller said to them, “I forgot to wish you a Christmas greeting,” and then gave them a Christian holiday discount on their purchases. They also received Christmas cards from staff in hotels and restaurants. “Christianity oddly provided a point of commonality and connection when politics and history seemed to divide us,” said Shetler.
These contrasts to their initial expectations were what marked the entire trip for Fast and Shetler. The two odd fruits that they found – sweet lemons and sour oranges – came to symbolize Iran’s unexpected contrasts for them. “Iran is incredibly nuanced and complicated. The people of Iran defy stereotypes. And Iranians will not be pigeonholed,” said Fast.
Other examples of that abound. On one hand, the country is considered an “Axis of Evil,” but on the other, the police use neoncolored feather dusters to control large public gatherings instead of guns. “I felt the safest in any country I have traveled in,” Fast said.
On a Friday afternoon, Fast and Shetler noticed that while there was a Friday prayer service with heated political rhetoric from the government on one side of town, on the other side of town there was a mass gathering of people listening to poems by Persian love poets. And in the city of Shiraz, there is a place called Palestinian Square that has on its four corners: a mosque, a synagogue, a church and a bank. “Nothing in Iran is as simple as it seems,” said Shetler.
“Just when we thought we were beginning to understand Iranian culture, there was an exception. We just started to look for the contrasts,” said Fast.
Even what was one of the most difficult parts of the trip for Fast – as a woman, having to be covered in four or five layers of clothes, called the hijab, with only hands and face showing – proved to be complex. She had prepared herself for this expectation, but as a Western selfconfident woman, she found the requirement very difficult. “I have never experienced such warmth and welcome, or been less harassed as a woman than in Iran,” Fast said. “The challenge though was the loss of voice I experienced for a significant part of my time in Iran. I didn’t expect to have my self-esteem affected, but it was.” The laws also included that women and men couldn’t touch, so handshakes with male hosts weren’t allowed.
As difficult as wearing the hijab was for Fast, she also pointed out ways that Iranian society gives women surprising opportunities. For example, 63 percent of students in higher education are women. And Fast and Shetler found a feminist section of a library at a conservative Islamic seminary.
MCC has had a unique presence and relationship with Iran since 1990 when the organization responded to an earthquake by providing material aid. The organization has hosted numerous such learning tours over the years. The learning tour spent time meeting with organizations and governmental groups, touring historical, cultural and religious sites; and studying about Islam at a religious institute in the city of Qom.
When they are asked why they as U.S. Christian college students traveled to Iran, Shetler replies, “I hoped that we would get an intimate enough portrait of what is happening there to be able to speak with integrity about Iran and Iranians, and to humanize them for people here who only get to know Iran through the media.” What he found is that “Iranians want to be treated as neighbors and respected, not defined, by their government.”
With the U.S. government talking about potentially taking military action against the country, Fast believes that personal relationships between Americans and Iranians, and between Christians and Muslims, are key to better solutions. “Personalizing Iran and the Iranian people is fundamental to building peace,” she said.