Breaking Rules

June 19, 2017

“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:36-39 (NLT)

Pulling my car onto the shoulder of the gently curving road encircling the soccer fields of our local park, my eyes scanned the fields containing of dozens of players, searching out my hubs. My children bounced gleefully in the back seat as I pointed him out on a far off field, warming up with some of the guys as they kicked a soccer ball back and forth. 

"Do you guys want to go say hi?" The words had barely left my mouth before the doors were thrown open and my kids sprinted around fields, always angling toward their dad. There is nothing quite as sweet as the bear hugs Aaron gives, and our kids know this. I smiled as they launched themselves at him into a fierce three-person hug from full sprint and lingered for a quick hello after a long day apart before turning around and beginning the sprint back. 

And while this might sound like the normal experience of any woman married to a man who is passionately passionate about the sport of soccer, the fact that every other player on the fields was Somali was a visible reminder that this is different. This is a quiet, new habit for my family in a community that has had its racial and religious tensions laid bare this past year in ways that are raw and incredibly hard. Our community's struggles with race, culture, and religious differences have left my husband and I pondering how to engage our Somali community through genuine friendship in ways that are quiet and authentic, with no political undercurrents or strings attached.   

Our new thing started three weeks ago. As I walked into our spare bedroom, my eyebrows quirked upwards at the sight of my hubs decked out in his soccer gear bent over his soccer bag as he searched for shin guards. His grin was infectious as he told me that he was planning to jump into a game of pick up soccer with the Somali guys he periodically spots playing at the park two blocks from our house. 

Telling him to have fun, I wondered at this bold move, remembering "The Rule" Aaron had been told years ago as he played soccer with a diverse group of international men: Somali men can jump into pick up soccer games with others, but no one jumps into Somali pick up games unless they are Somali. 

I'd often been present as Aaron drove slowly by the soccer fields in the years since The Rule, commenting on technique and how talented the Somali guys on the field seemed to be, the longing to join in clear in his voice. 

We obeyed that rule for far too long, thinking it was a rule from within the Somali culture, a norm that would be offensive if broken. I'm ashamed to admit that we allowed someone's made up rule to dictate our actions for years without critical thinking or seeking out where the rule came from. We allowed an artificial boundary to interfere with our best instincts, allowing a segregation based solely on race and culture to exist without intentional action on our part to ask why or, more importantly, to tear down that unnecessary and hurtful divide sooner.  

Do you know what happened when my husband asked to jump into the Somali soccer game that night? He was greeted with generosity and warm invitation. Soccer is a common language spoken the world over, and it's familiar rules and customs smoothed out differences until they become just another bunch guys kicking around a ball on a soccer field in Central Minnesota, no different than a thousand other games of pick up soccer being played around the world that night. There are hot heads and cool cukes, guys who dive at the slightest bump and guys who will spend 10 minutes arguing about with the informal referee about a call. Aaron immediately recognized the soccer culture he has missed and longed for, reveling in the camaraderie of the international soccer community as the language barrier and cultural differences faded into an unimportant background. 

That evening of rule breaking turned into a pivotal moment in our house.  Aaron returned home slightly winded and sore, grinning as he told me that he played a great game of soccer with guys literally half his age, delighted that he had earned the nickname "Coach" both because of his age and because his years as a soccer coach couldn't help but resurface. The majority of these young guys are self-taught, and this blossoming friendship is good for all involved: Aaron has discovered a group of talented, passionate soccer players - something he has missed intensely after we moved to Central Minnesota 15 years ago - and they get an informal soccer mentor who can make gentle suggestions to refine their techniques and skills that comes from coaching experience. Aaron now regularly jumps into Somali soccer games and obvious differences are fast fading as relationships slowly build. 

Loving our neighbor requires thoughtfully reconsidering which rules we have been obeying without thought, rules that ought not to be rules because they serve only to keep us from meeting one another.  

It is so so simple. Why do we allow it to feel so hard?  

If this stirs your heart but you, like me, can't kick a soccer ball to save your life, I've discovered a lovely Somali restaurant and would be happy to accompany you for lunch for your first foray into the Somali mall in which it is located. The food is delicious, the people warm, and I always leave with a happy tummy and a heart filled to overflowing at their gracious hospitality. 

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