Tag Archives: islam

Rural Religion 2: The Desert

There’s an old joke that those who decide to major in psychology in college are looking to fix their own psychological problems. Similarly, I took up a religion minor because I was looking for religion.

Looking at my undergraduate transcripts, I took courses in Buddhism and religions of the Far East, Islam and Judaism, religion in contemporary literature, and philosophical approaches to God, in addition to the community college’s intro to philosophy and the comparative religion class. It’s almost as if I had a phobia of Christianity, the religion with which I grew up, and the very basis for the university I was attending. Instead, I wrote papers on the role of Satan in Islam and Judaism, and became familiar with the story of Job and the very few times the adversary is mentioned in the Qur’an. I visited a reformed synagogue and a mosque in the suburban-looking parts of Philadelphia. I remember taking my shoes off and listening to the white-bearded soft-spoken imam, who had an English last name and said he was from Pittsburgh, talk about his faith to the class. He said we could have some Hershey kisses on our way out, and when my professor asked if there was any significance to the chocolate, the imam looked surprised and exclaimed simply, “Everybody loves chocolate!” After we left, I thought about returning to the mosque on my own time. But I never did.

Nor did I return to the Lutheran church where I’d sung in the choir and played in the orchestra. I was in choir and jazz band at college, so with my musical niche filled, I no longer had a reason to attend. Some of the rituals there had resonated with me, but not the constant references to Christ, the human-god whose divinity could not be proven, or to a God that can intercede in our daily human lives and to which we can pray and will be heard. To me, God was the unseen, incomprehensible force that somehow created the universe, gravity, life, and made sure we all didn’t collapse in on ourselves. I never really doubted that. But since I was old enough to do so, I doubted that God really cared about us humans. Our cosmic insignificance, after all, was staggering. I saw no reason for such imperfect, destructive beings as humans to deserve any attention from such a powerful being. So I slept in Sunday mornings when I was home, and when I went back to campus I had dinner ready for my roommates when they returned from Mass.

Once, though, I was feeling a little off, like some part of me was missing. It wouldn’t be the first time I experienced this feeling. And it felt like going to Mass was the right thing to do. So I went to Mass, to the red-carpeted chapel in the basement of the building where business classes were held. I saw students, usually confident and popular during the day, rising from their wooden chairs with bowed heads, reciting “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” I saw them gather together at the altar, reverentially, looking for some sort of healing. And though I couldn’t go up to the altar and partake, just being there and observing made me feel as if whatever turbulence was in me had been temporarily calmed.

I started asking questions of my religious friends, who obliged my inquiries about faith versus good works, papal infallibility, and transubstantiation. I noticed that a particularly devout friend, was quick to point out alternative, sympathetic explanations for other friends’ seemingly selfish behaviors. I heard of how the students loved the chaplain, the Christian Brothers who taught Spanish after living in rural Latin America, the priest who taught philosophy.

But it didn’t come to anything. When we graduated and moved to Chicago, I enjoyed Sunday mornings when my husband went to Mass and I had the apartment to myself at an hour where I wanted nothing more than time alone, and quiet. Sometimes, on the occasions when he asked me if I wanted to go with him and I inevitably said no, he gave me a look, a little half-smile trying to cover up sadness as he simply said “okay” and put on his coat. He started staying at church longer, and I started having more time in the mornings for myself. Then when the night before Easter came near, I agreed to go to Mass and watch him initiated officially into the church. I remember walking alone up to the church, in newer, smaller clothing to fit a newer, smaller body that I still hadn’t quite accepted as my own, unsure if my skirt was too short, or if I belonged there among the brown and black faces, if I was intruding on a ritual meant only for them. But the man next to me shook my hand and said “Peace be with you” just as everyone had done at the Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania and at the Mass at college, and the priest joked with my husband when he called him up in front of the church to be baptized and receive the Eucharist. Though I had to work on Easter, I made a fancy salad and chilled soup for two before I went in to my afternoon shift, and I filled the rice cooker and salad spinner with fake grass, Cadbury eggs, pineapple rings, painted eggs, Peeps, and socks.

We got engaged shortly after that, and when we moved to New Haven we started attending Mass semi-regularly at the chapel around the corner from us. My fiance/husband wanted a church wedding, and I liked the priest that guided us through the pre-wedding counseling, even though I felt that some parts of the process weren’t needed for a couple that had been together for eight years, three of which were spent living under the same roof. I agreed to raise any children in the Catholic faith, happy to give them the same opportunity I’d had: knowledge of religion, open conversation, and the completely freedom to accept or reject. Thinking of how I connected to the rituals at the church, and how I felt welcome at the coffee hours after the services, I made the comment I might eventually become Catholic anyway. I arranged to have off on Sundays at my retail job, partially due to the hassle of the reduced bus schedule, but it also allowed me to go to Mass.

However, when the library job required me to work every Saturday, I had to give my Sundays back to retail. I started spending Mass checking the time on my phone for the moment when I could duck out, as quietly as possible, and catch the bus. It was not ideal, to say the least, and it didn’t last long before I gave up on trying to catch half the service and spent my Sunday mornings getting ready for work.

The wedding came and went, as did the honeymoon, as did Christmas, where the three days I could get off from my two jobs went by way too quickly for me to see enough of my family in Pennsylvania. I quit doing the ESL volunteer work I had done in the fall, since I could no longer fit it into my schedule, and ultimately, because I couldn’t overcome the nagging feeling that I was an utterly poor teacher. I extended my loan deferments. I edited the desperation out of my cover letters as best as I could. I counted calories and ran in the dark. I researched the ACA tax penalties for not having health insurance, and sent terse emails of neglected maintenance issues to the property management company. I lugged groceries down the sidewalk alone after work, once having a paper bag fall apart while crossing a four-lane road to get to the bus shelter, scurrying to the sidewalk and watching helplessly as cars swerved to avoid my leaking half-gallon of soymilk. On nights when work was particularly stressful, I made a few cocktails.

And something was creeping in, some emptiness that I didn’t want to quite call “depression” – it didn’t have that sagging feeling of my teenage years – but for which I had no other name. I felt like I had lost something, but I didn’t even know what it was. Sometimes, I would buy a potted plant at the grocery store that made me smile on rough days, though I felt guilty for spending the $4 on little roses and daffodils that would eventually die. And moreover, that little flower wouldn’t fill up that hole in myself that I tried to ignore. Eventually, my facade fell in a frightening, self-destructive private moment where I had to acknowledge that something was wrong with me. And that I didn’t know how to fix it.

The feeling stayed with me, usually a little thing barely visible in the corners, sometimes completely silent, and sometimes causing me to just suddenly throw up my hands and say “it’s all fucked anyway” and do something self-destructive for the next few hours, or the rest of the day. It followed me when I changed apartments, changed jobs, got a car, got a better car, hit all those success markers for which I’d strived and thought would make it go away. It stayed with me when my husband was living abroad for nearly a year and I came home every night to an empty apartment in the dead of winter. It stayed with me on Sunday mornings, the only morning I had when I usually didn’t have to get ready to work at one of my two jobs, or when my husband who worked from home would go to church and I would have some precious alone time at my most productive hours of the day. It was there when I took a solo trip to Pennsylvania and ran a few miles along a route on the Appalachian Trail I’d always wanted to follow and never did when I lived there, my mind on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s still there today, usually quiet, sometimes not.

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This week.

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I have no one word that can accurately express exactly what the last week has been to me.

First there was… whatever happened Monday and Tuesday. I don’t even remember. Writing a ton, I guess, and reposting something on cervical cancer and how women of color are disproportionately affected, and coming out on Facebook to defend Planned Parenthood as somebody who uses their services and has gotten cancer screenings from them. I joined my local state park’s association and got in touch with people doing cleanups, and donated to my cousin’s March of Dimes fund for her adorable son. Then I found a news article buried somewhere on the internet rumoring that Trump was going to sign an executive order to ban refugees for 120 days. I spent the night furiously looking up my representatives’ contact information so I could ask them what they would do to protect and welcome refugees in my town, and what they would do about Connecticut’s sanctuary cities. And about what IRIS needed.

Wednesday I could barely function at work, between hounding my representatives and checking the news every 2 minutes to see if the executive orders went through, and posting entreaties to my Facebook friends. I despaired. I got angry with people who didn’t seem to care that people’s lives might be at risk, or the parallels between the terrible refugee situation we had during World War II and the current rhetoric. Some people online were still talking about alternative facts, and I was worried that the dozen or so refugees I knew… scratch that, it’s more like 20 refugees… would be deported and sent back to a place that wasn’t their home. I learned that the currently settled refugees were safe (for now), but realized that students and friends in academia would be barred from leaving, or at least coming back into, the country that was their workplace and home. And I started wondering what the next step in extreme vetting would be, seeing that refugees already undergo extreme vetting.

This is not justice.

My anger has not abated through the last few days. Through seeing the National Parks Service’s alt-Twitter account materialize, and protests that spontaneously formed at JFK Airport and other airports throughout the country yesterday, where attorneys showed up with handmade signs scrawled “immigration lawyer” in English and Arabic. Through hateful posts on Facebook from people who themselves have been radicalized. Through realizing how illegal, unconstitutional, and un-American it is. And how un-Christian the ban is, and then realizing how many religious conservatives were remaining silent through it all (all of them, it seemed). I did my RCIA readings on the topic of Christian morality and found them timely. I bought a megaphone on Amazon and I played sad songs on guitar until 2 in the morning.

Today was a day of action, though, as I feel so many future days will be, and I let my anger propel me to good actions. I did the church thing and again found the readings resonated with everything going on – the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 that steer one’s moral life, the first letter to the Corinthians that states ‘God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.’ Initially I read that as a reflection of our political climate wherein populists revolted against the “elite” in the Democratic party, and then as a call for me to humble myself before those who don’t feel the same outrage. Maybe it speaks to how our whole democratic system has been pulled upside-down in a matter of days. There are a few ways to read that.

In the afternoon my husband and I went with another student up to Bradley Airport outside Hartford and joined a protest that we found out about the night before, organized by CAIR. Hundreds were in the arrivals section chanting louder than I’ve ever heard before.

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No hate, no fear, refugees / Muslims / immigrants are welcome here.

This is what democracy looks like.

Build a wall, we’ll tear it down.

No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.

There were a couple “We the People” posters with the star-spangled hijabi, and a girl who was wearing her own.

After the protest wound down and I talked to a librarian from western Mass for a few seconds, it was back home to fuel up, then back to New Haven for a benefit concert featuring a bunch of Yale musical groups. We couldn’t make the vigil beforehand, but we heard the turnout was massive. As for the concert turnout, Battell Chapel was at capacity with more than 1100 attendees and standing room only by the time we arrived.

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The talent in this room was amazing. There was a quartet who performed video game music (!) and I had to explain to my husband, who has probably never played an RPG, the greatness of composers like Nobuo Uematsu. I smiled straight through their performance. There were combined choirs who performed peace song medleys, a capella groups, a solo guitarist who used distortion and sampler pedals to perform original works, choirs that performed moving pieces that reminded me of my favorite songs during my choir days, a fun song with a clarinet and electric violin, and an accompanied choir that did “No One Is Alone” and may have involuntarily caused me to cry, because, Sondheim. Didn’t help that I was singing along, though…

The money they raised was astounding too, roughly $14,000 that will benefit IRIS. After the performance, I read from IRIS’ Facebook page that their 5k Run for Refugees a week from now is at capacity, and they’re trying to have a second heat in the afternoon to meet demand.

Maybe we’ll survive the next four years. But only if we keep caring, keep fighting, keep giving, and keep loving.