Molly Barker went viral this week, her Facebook post shared and liked by thousands – in Charlotte, Somalia and London, in Uganda, Australia and West Virginia. As I write, it continues to ricochet around the world.
Lacking sarcasm, sports teams or cute animals, this post is not your typical attention-getter – just a photo of Barker and Osman Ali, accompanied by Barker’s description of meeting him in the Minneapolis airport. It has nothing specifically to do with the holidays, but it strikes me as a perfect holiday story.
In November, I wrote a profile of Barker and the Red Boot Coalition, the nonprofit she launched last year. Its aim is to heal America’s political polarization by encouraging people to listen more and judge less. She’d been visiting a Red Boot chapter in Minnesota and was preparing to fly home Friday when she noticed Ali.
He was in prayer, kneeling on the airport carpet, facing Mecca, his forehead touching a scarf he’d placed on the floor. As part of the Red Boot philosophy, Barker tries to reach out to people with different life experiences. She waited until he finished, then, as she writes in her post, she approached and posed a question:
“I live in Charlotte, NC and just haven’t sought out this kind of conversation. Can I ask you about your prayer? Will you tell me about that?"
Ali, who’s from Somalia and lives in London, is an accountant who works with the World Bank and United Nations. He’d been visiting family in Minneapolis. He gamely took a seat next to Barker and explained that he prayed five times daily. He explained that he carried a compass so he could always face Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
They kept talking, and Barker finally popped the question she often asks these days:
“What do you think about everything that’s happening in the world?”
He mentioned he’d been in America when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump advocated blocking Muslims from entering the country. Barker’s post continues:
“I have my opinions,” he said. “But if you got to know me, you would know that I am just me. I am a good person. Human like everybody.”
I started crying...I don’t know why. I just did. I apologized for crying. I wanted to embrace him but I didn’t. I just cried and it was okay, I think.
“There are the extremes,” he said. “There is Trump and there is ISIS...but neither of these speak for the millions of people who live in between.”
He told me about a “sermon” he heard today at a Muslim gathering in Minneapolis. The speaker was talking to the crowd about the importance of showing people like me...the side of their faith not often seen in the media...to be open to encounters like the one we are having.
“You seem like an open person too,” he said.
We smiled at each other.
Barker’s a Facebook regular. She often attracts comments. But after tagging Ali in this post, she realized she’d tapped into a new, much wider audience. “The minute that happened, bam, it was all over the UK, Somalia, and really entered into the Muslim world,” she said.
“This American nailed it,” a London man commented.
“Distance doesn’t matter but what matters is the openness and communication you have with the person next to you,” said a commenter from Uganda.
“May the ‘millions of people who live in between’ defeat the two extremes with kindness,” wrote a man who attended the University of Minnesota.
As of Friday, Barker’s post had about 63,000 likes. It had been shared more than 16,000 times.
I asked Ali via email how a ban on Muslims entering America would affect him. “I would not be able to visit my elderly parents, which are very important in my life,” he said. He’d been visiting the U.S. this month to give a paper at an International Consortium on Governmental Financial Management conference. That would have been out, too.
Barker has offered to treat Ali to a meal if they can arrange to meet up the next time he travels this way. He responded that he’d like that.
Ali says he’s been “blown away” by the huge response to Barker’s post. In a Facebook comment, he said “it reinforces my view that there are plenty of peace loving good hearted people in this world.” He never mentioned the Americans who would turn him away.
Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271