I'm reposting my review of Pillars, by Rachel Pieh Jones, now that the book is actually out. I read an ARC back in February, and now you can read it too. After the review, you'll find last night's book launch, livestreamed on YouTube. Rachel was there from Djibouti, and we also heard from Abdi Nor Iftin, the Somali-American author who wrote the foreword, and amazing author Barbara Brown Taylor. Along with the moderator, Annie Metcalf, they talked about the book and the issues it raises and took questions from the audience, and Rachel even gave a short reading from the book.
Book #8 of 2021 was Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus, by Rachel Pieh Jones. Rachel's last book, Stronger Than Death, was terrific, and that link is to my enthusiastic review. It's a biography of Annalena Tonelli, an Italian humanitarian who fought TB in the Horn of Africa and was killed right after Rachel herself moved to Africa. Here's the first line of that book: "On October 5, 2003, in a country that didn't exist, Annalena Tonelli performed routine checks on tuberculosis patients."
In my review of Stronger than Death, I commented that I loved how Rachel brought in her own story into Annalena's. That personal connection was, for me, a highlight of the book. So I was really happy to read this new one, where Rachel explores her personal experiences in Somalia and Djibouti even more. The book is organized around the five pillars of Islam, Shahadah (Confession of Faith), Salat (Prayer), Zakat (Almsgiving), Ramadan (Fasting), and Hajj (Pilgrimage). Basing her descriptions on extensive reading but also on many years of experience living surrounded by Muslims, she explains how these practices affect people's lives, and how she has learned from them in ways that have deepened her own Christian faith.
What I love most about this book is Rachel's refusal to accept easy answers. She and her family have been through many difficulties in their time in Africa, but they have also made Djibouti home, after being suddenly evacuated from Somalia. Rachel's love for her adopted homeland and its people shines through, but she doesn't gloss over how challenging life is there, either. And she rejects clichés at every turn.
Here are some tastes:
"Before leaving the United States, ten months earlier, I had flippantly remarked that the safest place for a Christian was in the center of God's will, how it was better to move across the planet to a potentially hostile location than to spend three days in the belly of a whale. . . . Later I would understand God's will as an inherently unsafe place to be. It hadn't been safe for Jesus; it led him straight to torture and death. God never promised safety, no matter how I craved it."
"I tried to have a garden in Somaliland, which is how I did just about everything there - a whole lot of effort and tears, and two beans and a miniature cucumber to show for it. On my knees in that sad little garden, my fingers caked with the earth of a place I was trying to transform into hoe, was where I figured out what a disaster life in the Horn of Africa was going to be and where I realized what a massive mistake I had made. . . . I wanted it to display metaphors of faith and spiritual life - and I didn't mean metaphors of failure, weeds, and fruitlessness. I wanted beauty and miracles, nourishment and one seed dying to produce a harvest. I wanted to bite into a fresh green bean and delight in what I had nurtured into being. I wanted it to come through my own fingertips, out of this thorny, rock-strewn soil, and I wanted success the first time I tried. Instead, my garden was an utter failure."
"I used to take Jesus' words, 'You will always have the poor with you,' as something vague. Somewhere, out in the wide world, there will always be poor people. Once I knew poor, hungry, homeless people, and struggled to know how to respond, I saw the words as a threat. You will always have the burden of figuring out how to deal with the poor, and you will always fail in your response. Then, I grasped his words as a call. ...My Somali friends, had they read Jesus' statement, may have seen it as a promise. There would always be opportunity to give, there would never be the risk of living with unabashed greed."
If these passages find you reaching for a highlighter, you will love this book. I recommend it if you want to know more about Islam, but also if you are interested in life as an expat in general, particularly in countries with few resources. I recommend it if you are interested in thinking more about Christianity, and about how people can have relationships with others who believe very differently from themselves. It's deep, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. It's based in profound relationships with friends Rachel clearly loves, relationships she doesn't try to pretend aren't sometimes awkward and difficult.