Effie Caldarola

Effie Caldarola

Although I’ve purchased plenty of groceries in a lifetime, last week was the first time I searched for halal meat.

My Ignatian faith-sharing group is once again sponsoring a refugee family, and part of our welcome to them — besides a furnished apartment, bus passes and friendship — is a well-stocked kitchen. The resettlement agency, Lutheran Family Services, gave us an extensive grocery list, and I was tasked with the shopping. Included on the list for this Muslim family was halal lamb, beef and chicken.

When I was a kid growing up in Nebraska, I’d guess you couldn’t have found halal meat in Omaha to save your life. Today, a Google search reveals plenty of places in this city that sell halal products, and several restaurants that prepare it. If you don’t think the country is rapidly changing, check your local listings.

In case you don’t know, “halal” is an Arabic word that means “permissible.” The method of butchering is important — God’s name is invoked and very sharp knives make the process humane. The animal must be conscious, the throat slit. Pork and certain cuts like the hindquarters are not permissible. The animal must have been fed a natural diet without animal byproducts, and is bled dry, as Muslims do not eat blood.

If it sounds a lot like kosher meat, it is, and apparently some Muslims will purchase kosher in a pinch, a fact I found comforting.

I visited the only halal shop selling fresh meat — the others all sold frozen. However, entering the store, I encountered two large meat cabinets, completely empty. Fresh meat, I was told by the young man behind the counter, arrived on Thursday. I was shopping on Monday.

But he did have some frozen chicken, so I left with one scrawny chicken and little information on where to go next. Google led me to a shop just a few miles from my house. This time, I called first to check availability.

When I arrived at the tiny store, a woman in a traditional head covering was chatting animatedly to the proprietor in a language I didn’t recognize. When she left, I told him I was the person who had called needing halal meat for some friends.

After piling up ground beef, stew meat, and lamb on the counter, he looked at me — into my blue Irish eyes — and asked, “Your friends?”

Perhaps he couldn’t imagine me going home to throw some halal lamb on the grill as I popped open a Guinness. I explained that I was buying food for some refugees, future friends. He nodded knowingly. Omaha has many refugees, although in some parts of town they’re invisible.

He told me he was originally from Lebanon. “I’ve heard it’s very beautiful there,” I said, wanting to say something. “All of God’s earth is beautiful,” he replied. “It’s what we do with it …”

Before I left the store, I purchased some imported date cookies that had Arabic writing on the packaging. Perhaps the sight of a familiar pastry would be reassuring, I reasoned.

Later, I chuckled at how preposterous this sounded. If I were fleeing from a refugee camp where I’d been sequestered for two years to a country where I didn’t speak the language, how much comfort would an Oreo offer?

Still, I realized, we do the little things we can. The cookies were an offering of hospitality and hope from my group to this family. When Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” he didn’t issue any big guidelines. He just asked us to try.