When fostering a child who is of a different faith to you, the learning curve is steep and broad. There are all sorts of requirements that will need careful thought and consideration.
There are dietary requirements to cater for, places of worship to suss out, festivals to diarise, customs to familiarise yourself with and all manner of core beliefs to get to grips with. Understanding the psychology of a particular religion and its cultural nuances is critical to understanding your child at a holistic level.
As Christians, we’ve found this element of fostering our Muslim child both fascinating and challenging, often in equal measure. Undoubtedly, learning about Islam has helped us to understand our foster son, Muslim friends and neighbours better.
It has helped us to understand the beliefs and tenets that shape who they are. As we have gained knowledge, we have established a platform on which to pray for our foster son, Muslim neighbours and the Muslim world as a whole.
As Christians, we have a set of beliefs ourselves and, at times, we have been both encouraged and challenged by the tenacity with which our foster son holds on to his faith. It has helped us to be intentional about the way in which we live out our faith: quietly but determinedly striving to show love, mercy, grace and forgiveness. (Not always successfully I hasten to add!)
The most difficult aspect of supporting our child spiritually has undoubtedly been during Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of prayer and fasting which takes place across the Muslim world every year. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and therefore of critical importance to most Muslims.
When talking to our foster son, it’s clear that life in his home country changed significantly over Ramadan and life had to revolve around this month of prayer and fasting. People’s work and sleep patterns would change to allow them to cope with the lack of food and water during daylight hours. He describes joy and a sense of spiritual togetherness and celebration at Ramadan and afterwards during Eid. It’s a picture that I can relate to completely.
But of course, he’s now in the UK. Ramadan for our foster son nowadays quite often appears to be something to be endured as he battles to manage school, homework, after school clubs, exams, work experience and quite often hot weather and longer summer days.
It seems to me a double-edged sword: it is a duty that brings the familiar and a sense of belonging but it also brings into sharp relief everything he has lost and all that has irrevocably altered. It has often seemed like an opportunity for control in a world over which he has none.
It is a time when the loss and trauma are intensified through hunger and tiredness and the isolation of fulfilling this important pillar in a Christian household. And yet there is a beauty in his devoutness.
Many Christians fast as a means of worship and prayer; for many this is a weekly practise, for others it’s something they do less regularly or in a more structured way, at Lent for example. For me, Ramadan has become a time of intensified prayer for our foster son, for his future, for his family, for his healing, for a good and fruitful life in the UK.
And, of course, for us as a family. Ramadan can put enormous pressure on a family who does not observe it but who wants to facilitate it faithfully and respectfully. We have been conscious that it has felt joyless for all of us in previous years. And yet faith, for me, has to hold joy, alongside the sacrifice and struggles.
And so Ramadan is also an opportunity for us. An opportunity to be intentional about our faith whilst supporting our lad in his. Every day we’ll be faced with the choice between joy and the slog of duty. I can prepare a meal at 10 o’clock at night with a smile and determination to celebrate the breaking of his fast with good conversation and lightness of spirit or I can do it with a sinking dread of a sad, tired and irritable teenager sitting across from me at the table.
I want to choose joy. Every day, I can choose to observe the restrictions our lad is labouring under and be jarred by them or I can look for the beauty in his obedience and be inspired by it myself. I want to choose inspiration. Every day, I’ll have the choice between a sort of despair and an opportunity to demonstrate patience. I’ll aim for patience.
And if all else fails, I know there’s something we’ll all look forward to: a huge slap up meal at the end of Ramadan with new friends and new hope and a new realisation that you can choose love. One day at a time.