Stories from Morocco, or Remembering My Encounter with the Muslim Faith

With all that’s been said about Islam lately, I thought I’d take a moment to republish something I wrote after returning from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to local churches and a local rotary club in Tennessee:

Act 1. Arrival.

When I first arrived in Morocco, we were taken by bus to the beach town of Mehdya where we stayed for the first week as part of our training. I remember being incredibly nervous. I remember thinking, “How did you end up here? You’re living in a Muslim country now.” But for the first week, I was still incredibly sheltered, as all the Moroccans we encountered spoke fluent English.

Then, after a week of training, we were sent to a nearby beach town, called Kenitra, where we were tasked with the responsibility of buying our own telephones in Arabic and to simply have a walkabout experiencing this new culture. There’s nothing quite as scary, let me tell you, as walking around a strange world that’s vastly different from your own and thinking, “Get used to this, because this is the world you live in now.” I will never forget walking around in the medina of Kenitra – the streets that smelled of cinnamon and ginger and cumin filling the air. The street was bustling and busy and loud, men shouting prices in Arabic, everyone staring at you obviously curious why this white person was walking around the street in their country and what in the world did he want? I am embarrassed to say that some of my first thoughts were driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism. My first thoughts walking the streets of Morocco were not, “Wow, what a beautiful country,” though I wasn’t far from that. My first thoughts pertained entirely to my safety. I was nervous, awkward. I checked over my shoulder constantly. I thought things like, “It would be so easy to take us Peace Corps folk out with a car bomb or a suicide bomb. Or a gun or a knife.”

It took me a long time to break myself of these concerns. After I moved to Sefrou, a larger town in the Middle Atlas, I would walk to my Arabic class each morning, a thirty-minute walk across town alone. Now, I’ve traveled the world before. Been through all of Europe. Seen most of Israel. Even seen a lot of America. But I’d never really done it alone. So, it was normal, even wise, to be conscious of your safety. But to expect a terrorist to come around the corner – something about that tendency bothered me. And it really started bothering me after I met Fatima.

Peace Corps asks that volunteers, during the first few months of their service, live with a host family to help improve language and cultural integration. So, my first few months of life in Morocco were spent with Fatima, Mohamed, Youssef, Marouane, and Khalil. One woman, five men. And let me tell you, Fatima ran a tight ship and nobody questioned her authority. It occurs to me that it’s worth saying at this point that no matter what culture, no matter how patriarchal, Fatima had figured out that women really are in charge, and her way of managing “her boys” (including me) challenged all my assumptions about the way gender roles play out in Islam.

Perhaps what was more impressive were Fatima’s first words to me when she met me. They are the only English she knows: “Hello. I love you. And you are my son.” What was more impressive was the way Fatima – and really her whole family – didn’t just say those words to be words, to make me feel more comfortable. They lived them out in everyday life. When I got sick, Fatima sat by my bedside and brought me warm milk (why she thought warm milk was supposed to make me do anything other than vomit, I’ll never understand, but I know she was trying). Each night after I got back from Arabic class, Fatima sat with me while she made buttons for a djellaba, and we reviewed what I had learned, practicing our language together just trying to make sense of what the other person was saying.

The more time I spent in Morocco, the more people I started meeting who were like Fatima. And the more I met people like that, the more I started to question this terrorist motif we have in America that makes the word “terrorist” synonymous with “Muslim.” I’m well aware that “the plural of anecdote is not data;” but our lives are merely a myriad of anecdotes, and within them are often the powerful stories that need to be told.

Act II. Driss and Hassan.

That leads me to my second act. One of my jobs as a volunteer was to teach English. Now, it’s worth saying that not a lot of people in Morocco speak English. Yes, in recent years, English has become more important to know, but people pick it up there the same way many of us pick up Spanish and “know” words like “burrito” and “taco.” But we don’t really know any Spanish, a lot of us. This is changing in America the same way it’s changing in Morocco that people become bilingual (or in their case, tri-lingual), because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second (or third or fourth) language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.

As part of teaching English, I was able to get to know several English teachers in my community. One of them, Driss Layaadi, became a dear friend over my two years. Now, perhaps what is most interesting about Driss is just how much he loves English. I’ve met English teachers in America who didn’t love English the way Driss loved English. And I say this without the slightest tinge of exaggeration when I say that Driss was more fluent in English than I am, even though he found this impossible to believe. And I can say this with some certainty because he would occasionally have me read his papers or approach me with spelling or vocabulary or grammar questions I could not answer without an English book and a dictionary to help me. I can say this because he would use words like “devastated” or “post-colonialism” or “modernity.” Needless to say, Driss was an incredibly smart man living in the desert when he should’ve been in the university.

I think, in hindsight, it was the fact that Driss was fluent in English that made it possible to have such a meaningful friendship with him. When your Arabic is at third-grade level, it’s hard to attain a very meaningful friendship with someone your own age unless they speak English. Driss let me cross the barrier in an open and comfortable way to the point that even though he was Muslim and I wasn’t, we could openly discuss religion and politics and could even disagree with one another in a civil and loving way, something I’ve learned is apparently nearly impossible for people to do these days in our sad world of social media Facebook arguments about guns or whatever.

One day, I was walking down the street, and this kid – nice kid – walks up to me and says, “Hey, so are you Muslim?” I gave my typical response, which was either “No, I’m a Christian, but I fast and I pray” or, “I have my religion, and you have yours, and that’s that.” Or, sometimes when the conversation moved in the conversion territory, “No, I will not convert to Islam, because if I did, my mother would cry. But I respect all religions.”

So, one day, I’m walking down the street, and this kid starts in with those questions, and I was giving my usual stock responses, and the kid said, “Well, you know, you’re going to burn forever if you don’t convert. Your prophet was a liar.” [I should add that this kid didn’t mean this harshly. He was never anything but nice to me. And whenever this happened, and it did happen sometimes, people were usually blunt but simultaneously caring and loving. My unwillingness to convert didn’t change our relationship. I mention that because that’s different from my experience in America when people have tried to convert me to their own denomination in the Bible belt. My relationship with those people was not the same afterward. It was as if they were more interested in being right or in “gaining a crown in heaven” than they were earnestly concerned with my salvation. I’m one of those people who believes you should preach the gospel at all times and, to paraphrase a quote misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, never use words when actions are better. For Moroccans, they just off-handedly made those remarks because they felt like they should, because they really did care, and when I wasn’t willing to convert, they didn’t love me any less.

So, back to Driss. Naturally, I told Driss about this kid who had tried to convert me. His response: “That’s just incredulous. I want to tell you something. Most people here don’t realize this, but many of us know that our Prophet Mohammed freed a Christian slave and later married and loved her. She had been a gift to him from one of the Christian churches in Byzantine.” [I do want to make a side-note that after Driss told me this story, I looked it up. Maria, indeed, was a Christian concubine sent to Mohamed who bore one of Mohamed’s sons, Ibrahim. It seemed from what I could tell that whether Maria was freed or given similar respect as Mohamed’s other wives was hotly debated by scholars. But on some level, that didn’t really matter: Driss believed the story he was telling me and it was part of the narrative that drove him to be the person he was – a person who loved people of all faiths.] His point was this: those silly kids you met don’t know what they’re talking about. As Muslims, we’re supposed to love our neighbors just like Christians are supposed to love theirs. Driss went on, for example, to explain to me that it is illegal to convert anyone in Morocco; that Mohamed had a deep respect for Jesus, who is born of a virgin and is the Judge during the end-times in the Qu’ran; and perhaps most importantly, that jihad is not a physical holy war as it’s made out to be by extremists or the modern media. Rather, jihad is term that translates to mean “struggle” or “difficulty” and is more closely related to the idea that each one of us deals with our own personal struggles that we constantly face, and if we hope to seek heaven, we’ll persevere in our inner struggle. This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible: God “wrestles” with Jacob at the Ford of Jabbok in Genesis renaming Jacob to signify that he has “striven” with God. Israel, like Jihad, is term that really implies “perseverence with God.”

This point of view was reinforced not long after my conversation with Driss when my boss, Hassan Qarabach, came over one afternoon with a repairman to help me fix my broken refrigerator. [I should add, it was my third broken fridge, and never again in my life will I have anything but a top-notch fridge if I can help it.] As the man started working on my fridge, he started asking me all these questions, “Are you going to fast during Ramadan?”

“Yes, I fasted during Ramadan for all thirty days,” I told him.

“Do you pray or go to mosque?”

“I pray, but I don’t go to mosque, because I’m Christian.”

“But if you pray and you fast, why not become Muslim. It’s very important to convert.”

“Shut up,” my boss interjected finally, “Why don’t you convert to Christianity instead of trying to get him to convert to Islam. Shut up and do your job.”

On multiple occasions, when someone was trying to convert me, this happened. A man like Hassan came forward and saved the day, a man I should say I regard as both well-educated and highly devout. Come to think of it, the more devout and more educated people I met were almost always more welcoming and kind and eschewed all forms of religious harassment. In fact, one of my last train rides in the country, I sat next to a man named Hicham who wore the Islamic robe, had a long, black beard and was studying to be an Imam. He called me his “brother” as a Christian, and a few weeks later emailed me a link to scholarships you can get if you’re interested in inter-religious dialogue.

These were the people I was scared of those first few days. I confess, on September 11th, I was a high school senior. I was angry. I was ready to go to war. To the images of Muslims abroad burning the American flag rejoicing in the streets the day the towers fell, I angrily said to my Calculus teacher, “They may rejoice today, but tomorrow, we’ll obliterate them.” She looked at me and nodded her head in full agreement. We were all Islamophobes on 9/12.

But something wasn’t right. These people I kept meeting in Morocco again and again loved America. They weren’t about to wave a flag and burn it. They did not support, even slightly, what had happened to us a dozen years ago. By and large, they were the opposite of everything I expected. I expected anti-American sentiment. I was met with hospitality and love and mint tea and couscous. I was given invitations, practically begged to spend the night. The love extended me put the Christians I know to shame in their ability to show love. I was told again and again how much I was appreciated.

So, where were the terrorists? I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our own faith (let alone others) that we’re more likely to cling to stories that aren’t true. To replace the truth with those lies. Midway through my service, I read about a sociologist who interviewed several “retired” terrorists. He had actually focused on a group of Moroccan terrorists who were originally from the town of Tetuouan and who had attacked several trains in Spain. He found in his studies that most of the people who come to extremist forms of Islam are not particularly religious before they join the movement. They are, instead, usually poor, uneducated, and desperate. They will look to anyone who can give them hope. So, if somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I know you may have to die for this cause, but you’ll get your virgins in heaven,” or whatever, well, if you’ve got no money, no education to think otherwise, and no hope, the guy may have just put something on your table that might give you reason for living. Or for dying. We see this with people who turn to violence right here in our own country constantly: when you lack education, opportunity, and outlook, violence isn’t all that far away from anger.

This particular sociologist further demonstrated his point when he interviewed nearby school children in Tetuouan asking them who their heroes were. Four answers consistently came up: a Moroccan player for the Barcelona soccer team, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator movie had just been released), Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden, the latter two tying as “heroes” for Moroccan youth. Now, how could that be? A world-famous terrorist and a man who was the leader of the free world, complete opposites, tying among Moroccan youth for their “heroes.” The sociologist had a simple explanation: people will listen to anyone who gives them hope, regardless of religion or politics or any other factors. Thus, while Islam plays a role in forming the thoughts of terrorists, say, the same way Christianity may have some weird role in forming the thoughts of Westboro Baptist Church, neither Islam nor Christianity could be fully responsible for the actions of those groups.

So, where was I left? Did anti-American sentiment exist in Morocco? Well, yes. I knew of one twelve-year old, for example, who was named Osama – great kid, I hear, really funny – but judging by the way his father acted, it would not be a surprise for me to find out who little Osama was named after. But anti-American sentiment is not to be confused with terrorism. We can’t go around equating someone who doesn’t like America’s policies with terrorism any more than we can equate a radio show host who makes a racist statement with the KKK. They aren’t the same thing. And we have to be careful about making those big leaps. I kept telling myself that over and over, that I couldn’t jump to thinking that just because someone might not like my government’s choices didn’t mean they didn’t like me. Or Americans, generally. Nor did it mean that they automatically supported what had happened on September 11 or in Libya. Do I think there were some folks who did? Sure. And Osama’s father might have been one of them. But little Osama was not. Little Osama was someone who just wanted to play or perhaps to learn English from a Peace Corps Volunteer – who was probably a joy to be around, like any Moroccan or American kid.

And at the heart of what I’ve learned is this: there are bad apples in every country and every religion. But one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch . . . girl. And in fact, most bad apples aren’t even in the apple family. Some are oranges masquerading as apples. And some might be crab apples, but that’s still a long ways from Golden Delicious.

Act III. Hamza.

Hamza

This is Hamza Mahjoubi, my eighteen year old host brother. In this picture, I think Hamza is seventeen, just a year or so away from graduating high school and following in his older brother – Omar’s – footsteps of going to college in Fes. He is the nicest kid I have ever met.

One day, he saw me at his school in one of the teacher’s cars and rushed up kissing my cheek excited – the standard way of Moroccan greetings, like the French. I had a friend with me, and Hamza didn’t hesitate to invite both of us to lunch that very day. I always loved how this high school kid who probably needed to be more focused on his high school Calculus or who probably had plenty of better things, more interesting things to do than hang out with an American who could barely speak his language nevertheless went out of his way a number of times to make sure I was comfortable and happy, to check in on me. To be welcoming. One night when it was way past bedtime, we all stood around dancing for a full hour to music I was playing, and I don’t think I ever saw Hamza happier. When I told him I wasn’t going to convert to Islam, that was fine with him. He needed me to be his friend far more than he needed me to be his religion. Politics and religion may be important on some level, but they shouldn’t be tools of harm that get in the way of family or friendship.

And that’s how most Muslims are: they’re really . . . a lot like us. They’re just family people. They don’t hate Americans; most don’t even hate the American government, though maybe they should. They don’t want to fight. They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, as I was crossing the Atlantic by boat in fact, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that Hamza had died. Bleeding in his kidneys. The farther I got from the Kingdom I had come to love, the harder it was to actually picture Hamza no longer there. When I left, he was still alive, and everything I left behind stays in my memory just like it was, untouched, unharmed, un-aged. Could I imagine some awful medical complication, something I know he could’ve avoided had he the medical care we have in the First World, stealing his life? No. I refuse to let that happen so easily. Hamza may be physically gone, but he’ll go with me everywhere I go, everywhere I take him, because for the rest of my life, whenever I hear someone make a comparison between Islam and terrorism, I’ll think of Hamza. A good, innocent kid stolen not by the evils of a few people who have warped a religion for their own purposes but stolen by a poor health care system. I’ll think of how different our world could be if all our energies were focused just a tiny bit more on improving education and roads and health care and rights for women and children and eyesight for the visually-impaired and friendships – friendships with people who are incredibly different from you, friendships with people you might once have thought were enemies but a little openness and kindness taught you otherwise.

Imprisoning Fear with Faith

Being a Tennessee boy, when I first moved to New York, my biggest fear was – and in some ways still is – New York City traffic. I’ve managed to get around the City a few times now, though, and while it still leaves me tense at moments, I’m more annoyed by it than I am afraid. It’s like I up and told myself at some point, “Well, Philip, this is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do.” Of course, by all means, I have every reason to be terrified. In the United States last year, there were over 32,000 fatalities from motor vehicle incidents, and this year is shaping up to be much worse. But, y’know, we do it anyway. It’s a risk we’re not only willing to take; it’s kinda just understood we’re supposed to endure that risk to get where we want to go.

Lately, my social media has been flooded by the claim of risks and the fears from them. Some are rational; most aren’t. But what strikes me as truly strange is the number of fears that seem to be completely disconnected from their claimed risks. That is, we’re willing to risk our lives on the roads of America or on its streets, but we’re not willing to allow in vetted refugees, mostly women and children, because of the possibility that one or two could be dangerous and slip through the complex, lengthy process? We’re willing, if not even eager, to risk the lives of our young men and women in uniform to fight and kill strangers in a strange land for the sake of “making America safe” (which it turns out is a lie we were told, as our foreign wars had the adverse effect of creating ISIL instead of stomping out the “evil-doers” of terrorism), but we aren’t willing to do anything – anything at all – to combat domestic dangers that stem largely from poverty, a lack of education, mental illness, or the ease-of-access to guns. I could get on that soapbox and stay on it for the rest of this blog, but there’s enough of those points floating around social media already.

Instead, I guess I just want to make note that we are absolutely terrified, it seems, of everything. No, really, everything. We’re scared to be honest with each other. We’re scared of our relationships and the future of them. We’re scared of not being good enough or of being forgotten or neglected or wanted. We’re scared of our job security. Or of never finding a job. We’re completely frightful of change, especially of long-held traditions that have had little, positive impact since they were started. We’re scared of not changing, which is funny, because we feel damned if we do, damned if we don’t. We’re scared of what we know and what we don’t know and even of what we don’t know we don’t know. We’re scared of people who look different from us and the ways our power dynamics seem to be shifting as our society grows more multicultural, and we’re scared to admit that’s the root cause of our anger. We’re even too scared to admit that to ourselves. We’re scared to admit anything to ourselves – let alone anybody else, especially if its authentic or too real. We are riddled with fear, you see. Absolutely consumed by it. Oh sure, we might have a moment of clarity here and there, but the manner in which fear aborbs its way into our every day, into the nooks and crannies of even the most mundane thing? Is it any surprise we’re terrified of Syrian children? We’re scared to death of ourselves!

I practice (or try) to hold myself to something greater, to what I call God, that “intuition of the universe,” that “Ground of Being,” because I believe fear doesn’t get the final say. And aligning myself to faith instead of fear is the only way I’ve ever known how to combat what actually does terrify me. It is not an easy practice, and I call it a “practice,” because I am afraid and can only really confront those fears by constantly claiming out loud what they are, chaining and imprisoning them in honesty rather than allowing them to chain me. I am not always successful at this endeavor. But I believe in it enough that when I see, in social media, all the ways in which we’ve allowed fear to tell not just our stories as individuals but our collective story as a society, I am immensely sad more than I am fearful. Sad because I’ve experienced personally what it is to order your life in a way that says, “This is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do” without letting fear guide whether or not it should be done, without even letting fear be part of the conversation. How, I wonder, might that change, well, everything we choose for ourselves or for our society?

Naked Tree: ‘you’ll always remember what grew out of decisions that death can’t steal’ -rvotolato

and the leaves now
have undressed the trees
on this island of islands,
bare and brazen,
but not afraid
of the winter’s whisper,
of the threat of her howl,
while the whole damn world cowers,
the trees now
are rooted in sand so deep
they found soil
beneath soil,
beneath soil,
beneath the leaves of their past,
this is how you greet winter,
with the warmth of exposure
and with freedom, unmasked.

Caught in the Fog

This week there was a fog that covered Shelter Island for an entire day. It was light enough that standing in the middle of it, the warm colors of the autumn leaves blurred together a little like the yellows and reds of a Van Gogh. The distant trees on a small hill could’ve been any mountain in the Smokies of East Tennessee. Or, that is to say, had the fog been a little thicker, I might’ve questioned what world I’d woken up in. Forty feet out into the Peconic, there wasn’t a bay anymore. There wasn’t the sight of the North Fork I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these past few months. There wasn’t even any water. Just a white, endless haze lingering for what seemed forever. Haunting. Beautiful. And unlike every low-hanging cloud I’ve ever experienced in my life, this one didn’t lift.

Fog

On Tuesday, scallop season opened, and as luck would have it, I had a free ticket (worth some $22) to a local 41st annual scallop dinner. As I’d never had scallops before, this seemed like the right way to be introduced to them: caught that very day there in the waters by my home. The dinner – hosted by a Methodist Church in Cutchogue – was so well-attended that there were three seatings over the course of four hours, and I heard-tell of people traveling as far as two hours to come to the meal. One couple at our table, in fact, had driven around from the South Fork (or, perhaps making their meal a $60 meal, taken the two ferries through Shelter Island) to get there.

The dinner conversation was pretty standard for what you might expect being seated with strangers. You know, the usual questions people ask you about what you do and where you live, the best ways to prepare scallops, etc. A woman across the table, on hearing about life on Shelter Island, asked about the local post office, casually dropping the name of the Postmaster (who is really quite wonderful). [As no mail is delivered on Shelter Island, the Post Office becomes a kind of hub for islanders to meet-and-greet and gab on about the weather or whatever else, and though I’ve only introduced myself to my Postmaster once, she has remembered not only my name but my P.O. Box, as well. And that makes the place feel incredibly warm and inviting.] It wasn’t until the end of the meal that the woman inquiring about the Postmaster revealed that, in fact, the Postmaster was her daughter.

At another point in the meal, having said that I lived in Morocco for awhile before moving to New York, a woman sitting next to me mentioned that you can pick up Ras Al-Hanut, a Moroccan spice, at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and the gentleman across from her mentioned that he’d lived in Morocco working at Port Lyautey at the Naval Air Station there in the early 1950s and that a friend of his had been a Flight Mechanic in Casablanca during World War II. Small world: so was my grandfather. Another couple yammered on about how bad this winter might be, yet another about how much the East End has changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.

Stories. All of them containing pivotal little moments – when someone’s daughter became the Postmaster or when someone found themselves on African soil or when there was the one winter way back when no one has ever forgotten. Those were the stories being told. Within them, I knew, a thousand layers, not only to what was told but to how it was told, to what was left out, to what had been forgotten or intentionally kept quiet be it momentarily or forever. Lately, I’ve been painfully aware of the way our lives are constructed by the stories we tell, even the brief ones to strangers over a warm meal. And I’ve been painfully aware of what’s contained within those stories: the hellos and the goodbyes, the questions of roads not taken or frustrations over the ones that were. And we seem desperate, clinging in a way to determine what our story should say or how it should be told – the thousands upon thousands of decisions that could make or break our story, whatever we wanted it to be. More than that, we sometimes seem so caught up in the book cover or in how well it could sell that we don’t actually just live it and see where it goes.

But that’s all because it comes back to the fog. We’re plagued by that fog more than anything else. The one that some day may not lift. We’re plagued by the questions that arise in it, by the unfamiliarity of it, by how hard it is to find anyone else – let alone ourselves – out there in the haunting yet beautiful abyss. The questions of the fog cripple us from living our story. But the thing is, the ferry still runs in the fog. In the distance, you can hear the foghorns, the bells tolling, the gongs striking. The little birds you couldn’t see through that white haze you could nevertheless hear playing, fishing, flapping their wings unconcerned over the lack of visibility. The fish rippled through the waters, their world unaffected. And those of us upon finding ourselves in the middle of the fog kept on walking discovering the beautiful autumn leaves were still very much visible – that right here, right now, right where you are trudging forward without seeing perfectly clearly what’s ahead… that might still be good enough. There might yet be plenty of beauty in that. We might find ourselves as someone else’s foghorn or playful bird or unconcerned fish. We might find that we can, in fact, embrace the fog and live to tell the story after all. And if not? Well, at least the scallops were fresh.

Turkeys: ‘St. Geppetto, Patron Saint of Puppets, pray of us!’ – emorris

I watched the light fall thru the trees
and felt it’s warmth there gracing me
before the bitter winter begins
the breeze for now will embrace me,
and all along the water’s edge,
old oak, spruce, and apple saplings,
struts the wild wise fowl who forage
Toms and hens, the turkeys prattling
with much to say and mostly grumbling
I hear and love their bests and worsts
though for all the nonsense they are mumbling
I smile with my Thanksgiving thirst.

Seasons of Transition, or Autumn on Shelter Island, or Rummaging through Other People’s Stuff to Know Where You Belong

AutumnShelter Island is brimming with the colors of autumn. The trees are surrendering their leaves eagerly, and gold and crimson paint the landscape against a still-green grass. Needless to say, I am mesmerized by it, caught up in an awe that leaves me wandering around the island – quite literally – as though I’ve been transported into a dream, a surreal landscape of colors made only in the movies. Now that the summer residents have vacated, the island emptier and quiet, there’s a kind of freedom to everything, and watching the leaves fall doesn’t tell, as autumn often does, of the impending winter with all the deadened silence it promises. Instead, there’s the sense that the leaves are just doing what it’s time for them to do and are glad that now is their time. Even the trees that are already bare don’t seem cold and sad to me the way they did in other climes. Here, it just feels so much more like a kind of invitation, as though they’ve shed their heavy fur to better stretch out and feel the breeze against their naked skin. And this process is happening all around me at once. It’s as if the breeze has whispered to them all, “Now, now! Become light!” And to be in the midst of it is thrilling and humbling.

I started drinking my mother’s Russian tea again and am eager to carve pumpkins and warm up some apple cider. The cooler air doesn’t yet freeze: it just invites other reasons to bring about more warmth in other ways. As I’ve taken to exploring more of the island, I’ve wanted to see every tree I could and feel and smell the sea-breeze anywhere it might blow. And it’s lead me down some interesting paths:

One such path, in fact, has been to venture to estate sales on the island, and this past weekend took me to a four-story house overlooking the Heights. From the top floor, you could see the little peninsula – Jennings Point – where I live and beyond it all the way to the edge of the North Shore where Long Island Sound stretches to Connecticut. Strangely, I was more taken with the views from the house and with the house itself than I was with what was in it, but everything was for sale. I guess that should be obvious given that it was an estate sale, but I’d never been to one, and it felt sudden and intense like the changing leaves. Just somehow sadder.

Asbury

Nothing had been moved. It all sat exactly where it had been when it was last used (some of which may have been a very long time), and the only difference was that a tag had been added claiming what it was believed to be worth in dollar amount and not in sentimental value. I wondered whether estate sales were ever happy events? Wasn’t the natural conclusion that someone had died? And so much of their stuff, the things they’d held dear perhaps, was now just a reason for someone to make money to be able to buy more stuff or pay off what was already owed. The words of the Teacher, that “everything under the sun is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:14) were on my tongue but were held within. Outside the leaves were still rushing to the ground to make a happy, final journey, and I hoped much of this story and the many stories the stuff therein lent to an equally happy end.

But as I wandered around peering into room after room, I realized that without those stories, the stuff felt flat to me. I kept thinking that if someone told me about the grandfather who carved the wooden giraffe in the corner, I’d just have to have it. Or if I overheard a conversation about the old trunk in the middle of the room, I’d long for it, too. A few months ago on my first yard-sale outing, I came across something that looked like a clock but one that counted high tide and low tide instead of time, and as I looked it over, a gentleman in his 70s smiled and said that he’d made it himself, carved the wood by hand. It wasn’t pride that he spoke; just the assurance and hope he conveyed that something handmade would have the right home. I smiled back and told him that my grandfather had done a lot of woodwork, too, and I bought the little clock on the spot. Stories extend the impermanent; the better the story, the longer the permanence of a thing will last.

All of that is to say, my mind lately is so heavily-focused on things that last amid major change, on the movement from old to new and seasons doing what they must. But how can you tell a leaf from a tree if they had the same roots? How can you know what of the past isn’t just a dusty tradition but is something that belongs?

I am not from New York, and this is something my southern drawl, faint though it is, reminds me and my coworkers of daily. And yet, I pride myself on the little accomplishments – on learning how to correctly pronounce “Lawn Guyland” and maintain that pronunciation each time I say it. For as much of a belonging as I feel I have gained here already, there’s still much acclimation I have ahead of me, acclimation borne in the task of determining what belongs and who I am to make that call. My job right now, in fact, is deeply tied to this question as I prepare a new season of camp, one that will impact some 700 people directly and countless others along the way.

Part of being so “new” to a place is to learn how to dissect, understand, and respect the cultural differences of that place and how you either fit into it – or don’t. And, along with that, what to do when the fit doesn’t happen as nicely as you might wish it did. As a Peace Corps volunteer, the first six to nine months of my life in Morocco were devoted almost entirely to this aim, the process of adjustment, and so it’s interesting that in a culture where I speak the same language, eat pretty much the same food, and share the same nationality, I can still find myself needing to “adjust” to a different kind of culture shock, the kind where, say, a four-story mansion leaves me feeling likes the leaves rushing to the ground outside but still wanting to know what my place is in waltzing about ooing and aahing at the beautiful view. Peering across the Peconic Sound at my home from a mansion in the Heights was eye-opening to say the least —

PharmacyI have come to feel strongly that in order to do my best job, to be my best self, I have to have a very clear understanding of the vision that’s been laid before me. It’s important to me how I worded that, too. Note that I didn’t say “my vision,” though I hope to shape the one that’s long been a part of this place. To have vision is more than merely peering selfishly into the future to foretell the best possible outcome or how to get there. It requires understanding the past in all its flaws and with all its greatest triumphs. And in looking backward and forward together it requires remembrance, something that is markedly different from simply “remembering,” which is a cerebral process, but remembrance is instead an action, if not even a kind of ritual that moves from the cerebral recalling of a narrative toward the acting it out. Vision takes the “stuff” cluttering our homes and hears the old stories, but, instead of leaving the stuff to gather dust, picks it all back up again and makes a space for new stories to stand alongside it. That is, vision is wholly utilitarian. And it requires community. A vision for yourself is dead. It’s not merely a fallen leaf. Those grow back or replenish the ground. Vision without community is dead at its roots. Vision with community knows how to decipher the leaves from the trees. It celebrates change not as an end but as part of the regrowth process. But not every leaf will understand that’s what’s happening as it falls or will grasp the beauty of the process, and that’s why change is sometimes so much harder than it should be; that’s why vision, which includes change, demands seeing the whole picture: not merely the leaf but the tree; not merely the tree but the ground and the roots below; not merely the roots of one tree but of the many they’re connected to; not merely the many root systems but the whole of the forest and its ecosystem.

Walking around the little downtown of Shelter Island Heights, I ended up in Dering Harbor just off Bridge Street on the 114 between the North and South ferries. A car pulled up and the window rolled down, “Can you tell me how to get to the ferry?” someone asked. I pointed them in the direction and assured them they were on the right road. Another car. Same question. And another. Somehow just walking down the street, I joked to myself, I must look like a native. I must seem like I know where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t. None of us really do. Even when we are natives to an area. But I’m gaining the ability slowly but surely to look back and know where the roads I’ve traveled lead. I’m looking forward and pointing out the best route I know for now. Isn’t that all any of us can ever really do? At least until the time comes that, we too, will happily fall from the tree to replenish the ground, and the whole season will celebrate what’s come before and what’s coming after.

Stories from Hershey, Pennsylvania, or Why the Church Needs Camp

On the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, there was a light mist just gracing everything. It was probably remnants of Joaquin, the hurricane that teetered and tottered over whether or not it was really going to make landfall, but out here, in God’s country, hurricanes are not on anybody’s mind. There’s something simple to life here, and I mean that in every positive connotation the word “simple” can offer. Grass that grows the way it did when this was still a “frontier,” cows grazing like the mist was a good bath, barns and silos that are actually painted red like barns you see in paintings. The whole landscape is just that, an American painting, really. Which is, I should say, not what I was expecting out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. I think I was picturing something more industrial, like what I imagine Scranton to be. I had expected dull, white factories against a backdrop of rusted train tracks and trash blowing on the street. Instead, the factory here is a magical place where little girls turn into exploding blueberries, bubbles can make you fly, and everybody has a golden ticket. Okay, maybe it’s not that glamorous. But I won’t lie: there was a faint smell as I drove into town of smoking chocolate. Maybe I just imagined it, but I will always claim that’s what I smelled.

I got roped into (which I also use in the most positive way possible) a “transformational leadership conference” of United Methodist clergy and lay leaders from ten conferences across the Northeast Jurisdiction of the church. About 700 people in sum. There’s something about a group of church leaders coming together that makes it feel a bit like a synod or council with major decisions being made, but really, the general consensus of the gathering seemed to be this: the system is broken, the church is dying, what do we do?

Why is it dying? Why is Methodism dying? Everybody had a different, good reason! To name a few I heard while there: churches want to be nurtured rather than reach out and do good work in the world; the lack of prophetic voices (i.e. voices speaking out about injustices) renders the church irrelevant; dysfunctional conferences that make [financial] decisions that benefit the few rather than the many; an unwillingness or inability on the part of leadership (or the congregation) to be vulnerable and honest within their respective ministries; too many selfish decisions that lacked empathy or the reminder that the church is communal. I’m not sure people left the conference empowered or not? They certainly left with more clarity about how much is broken. And every once in a while, someone offered a tidbit, a “morsel” might be a better word given our location, of advice, but there was deep grieving shadowing over it.

In some ways, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I am not United Methodist, though I work for the church as a camping professional. I do not serve a dying congregation. Or any congregation. And the people I do serve are a relatively transient population (though I would argue that the impact we have on their lives is anything but transient!). In a weekend of lamentations, what I heard out of these conversations left me thinking that what everybody yearns for is that their church would be more like camp. And is that any surprise, really? All weekend, as I met people and mentioned off-hand that I worked at a camp, the response was almost always: “That’s how I got into ministry – when I was working as a camp counselor, etc.” Ah, yes, the good old days. So what went wrong?

Church Camp offers a sacred space where kids and staff, alike, are invited to be vulnerable, to be themselves, because the very basics are that God loves you for who you are. The Church encourages secrecy and shame in an environment of judgment and distrust. Church camp brings strangers to the same space and in only one short week forges them together as a trusting family. The Church brings strangers together each week and keeps them, for the most part, as strangers in what is a very Americanized, individualistic experience. Church camp calls kids and staff to be better, even in their disagreement and discord, than they might be anywhere else: to live honestly and speak truth to power if necessary – but in a way that seeks unity within the community. The Church fails to be a prophetic voice in the world, and when the church is living righteously (or thinks it is), it does so in a way that creates deep division built mostly on a false sense of moral superiority.

Of course, speaking of moral superiority, I’m not being entirely fair: church camp is the church, which should not be forgotten (and too often is by people like me). And for my very general statements that “church camp is x” or “the church is y,” I’m sure there are plenty of failing camps out there and plenty of successful churches, too. But when the United Methodist system, generally-speaking, has high hopes that our camps will produce future Methodists, it shouldn’t feel so much like “church” and “church camp” are two separate entities. And it seems backwards to me to expect our camps, many of which offer thriving experiences for unchurched youth, to prepare kids for the very mundane, awful world of a Sunday morning, dry church experience when they and we know that something better is out there. Why should they waste their time on a place where they will not be connected – to people or to God? As I said in an email to a seminary president I met this weekend, “And so it is: millennials have this amazing experience at camp, then return to their dead churches filled with fake ostentation, and they make the right decision to leave.” Who can blame them?

In the course of Christian history, you’ll find mostly campers. Jacob camping at the Ford of Jabbok and wrestling with God. The Tent of Meeting housing the Ark at Shiloh (i.e. the first “temple” where God resided, indeed, was a kind of camp). Moses and God’s people wandering in the wilderness and given manna from heaven. While they camped. Jesus, the peripatetic Jew, camping during the transfiguration or resting and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place apart from the city. And it wasn’t just the ancient world. Fast-forward to the dawn of Methodism and you guessed it: more camping. The Wesley brothers camped at St. Simon’s in Georgia. The circuit riders and early revivals of American Christianity: campsites. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this camping thing – this simpler way of life the way the endless stretch of grassy fields near Hershey, Pennsylvania feels simple and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, what the church needs is not for camps to produce churchgoing Christians but for churches to produce camping Christians. Maybe, just maybe, if Christianity – or at least Methodism – is to survive beyond the next fifty or so years, things better start looking a whole lot more like camp than they do in their current state.

Driving back to New York, I left at the crack of dawn to avoid city traffic and hugged the Hudson River on the Jersey side just as the sunrise glimmered off the skyscrapers. It was like I’d figured out exactly when New York City sleeps, but it was also surreal seeing the empty street the closer I got to the George Washington Bridge. I thought about how busy this place would soon be, ghost-town though it was in this brief moment. The people from the NEJ conference would soon be returning to their cities, their charges and ministries, likely still filled with lamentations and worries and asking, “What am I going to do?” As for me, I headed back to camp, where I live and work. And I hope they’ll join me there.