Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.

 

A Room of Ten: Interfaith Immersion

I’m going to do something weird,” Malak whispered to Katie, her bunkmate for our six-day interfaith immersion trip to Chicago. Malak slips into her cotton prayer robe, its royal blue flower print covers her head, her arms to her wrists, and hangs to her feet. She begins her prayers, facing Mecca, alternating positions of standing and then prostrating herself with her forehead to the floor while silently praying in Arabic. When she finishes, Katie, a Christian, intentionally takes a moment to say, “I don’t think it’s weird, Malak. I think it’s beautiful.”

I wasn’t sure what would come of this interfaith immersion trip. I’d never led one before. But I knew I had a good group—three Muslims, six Christians, and one Naturalist, all living and learning together in one large hostel room stacked full of ten bunk beds. During the week we visited a variety of religious communities. We listened to Father Pfleger whoop at St. Sabina Catholic Church, gazed at the“O Glory of the All Glorious” in the dome of the Bahá’í Temple, soaked in the_SCN5122 smooth sounds of jazz worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church and sat in meditation at the Shambala Center. We giggled embarrassedly with the Sikhs when we didn’t know what to do with the pudding they put in our hands, dined on delicious Turkish food provided by our hosts at the American Islamic College, and swayed to the undulating music of the Hare Krishna chants and drums. Each experience was unique, each community welcoming and willing to answer our many questions. But it was the conversations on the bus, subways, and sidewalks in between these visits that made the experience meaningful.

After a long, full day on Monday I called my husband to say goodnight. Laughing over the phone, I described why I was so exhausted. “I’ve spent the whole day trying to explain the Trinity to our three Muslim students while also trying to navigate the Chicago subway,” I told him. “So, I got us lost multiple times and I’ve decided the Trinity doesn’t really make much sense.”

_SCN5087While worshipping at Fourth Presbyterian Church, I was confronted by an awkwardness I hadn’t felt before. When I realized communion was being served, a debate quickly began in my mind as I thought through what I wanted to do in this worship moment. This was my church and my sacrament. Should I go forward to receive it, leaving my Muslim and Naturalist students behind in the pew? Would they feel awkward and unwelcome? At first, I decided I would skip communion to sit in solidarity with those who were not Christian. But as the service proceeded I realized that later in the week I would be the Christian observing a Muslim prayer service—and I would think it odd if my Muslim friends refrained from participating in their service for my sake. That was their thing. This was mine. So I went forward to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Later, when I was the one sitting to observe the Muslims in prayer—the men in one line, the women in another, standing shoulder to shoulder, all their movements in sync—tears welled in my eyes. I’d observed Muslims in prayer before, but these weren’t just Muslims. This was Malak, and Mirna, and Hind—my Muslim students—three of our room of ten. Here they were doing their thing. And it was beautiful.

At the end of the week, we packed up our bags, leaving behind rumpled blankets, sheets, and trash cans full of shopping bags and snack wrappers. Left behind in this mess, though, was also a quality,_SCN5068 an air, that something holy and heavy happened in that space. In a day when religious tension is globally at a six year high, we need more people to have such positive interfaith experiences—experiences through which the “other” suddenly has a name, and a story, and a path that often intertwines beautifully with your own. We knit together a new kind of community in that room of ten; a community where religious difference does not prove to be divisive, but rather mutually enriching; a community full of human grace.

 

*Special thanks to Jem Jebbia and the Interfaith Youth Core for helping us plan and coordinate this trip!