Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

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.

Peace Corps on Shelter Island?

FerryAt the risk of sounding like I’m boasting, I’ll avoid any overuse of the words “idyllic” or “bucolic” or “precious” to describe the little island I recently moved to on the Eastern end of Long Island. But it’s hard not to have this strange overwhelming sense of awe when I drive around Shelter Island – a land without streetlights, a land without postal service to your home, a land with no speed limits over 35 mph. It’s… a different place.

Between Long Island wine, the Hamptons, or some of the homes on Shelter Island that are on the market for millions of dollars, there was a part of me at first that felt deeply out of place. My last exciting adventure took me to northwestern Africa, and though it’s been a few years since, the images of a developing country are never far from my mind. And they are even more evident in the midst of some of the wealth I encountered moving to the “not-exactly-but-almost” Hamptons. That is not to badmouth people who have come into wealth by any means. It’s just to say that it’s been a somewhat jarring experience to move to such a place from, well, the kind of poverty you might expect to encounter in a Peace Corps country. No surprises there, I guess: going from one extreme to the other is always going to be jarring.

And yet, maybe that’s why this next sentence is going to sound so insanely ridiculous: Shelter Island is more like Peace Corps than just about any other place I could imagine moving to in America. But maybe not how you think.

The first reason why it’s so much like Peace Corps here is transport. Like Morocco where I lived in the Peace Corps, you often find yourself limited to travel by certain hours. Shelter Island has a very reliable ferry system, but the fact that it shuts down between midnight and 5:45am could leave you stranded on the island or on the mainland. When there is no bridge or tunnel, you have to plan everything around the ferries. And in bad weather? You could find yourself stuck on the island for a few days at least. That does two things: it creates a tight-knit community on the island but it can also make you feel isolated at times. I can’t begin to tell you how similar that was to my life in Peace Corps.

The next thing is the wildlife. My first morning waking up in my temporary little cottage in the woods (still with a seaside view), I woke up to deer, turkeys, and chipmunks running around outside. Deer are heavily populated on the island, having swam here across the Peconic. But it was really the turkeys that took me back to Morocco. So much of the experience of Peace Corps made you feel like you were backpacking, always communing with nature in some way or another. That is very evident to my life currently. And there’s plenty other sea life to enjoy: whales and sea lions in the winter, ospreys and seagulls everywhere.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been Peace Corps if it wasn’t meaningful work. I am working on Jennings Point at Quinipet Camp & Retreat Center where we do spiritual and environmental education and run both summer camping programs and retreats for very diverse groups. The work we do impacts people in real, meaningful ways, and that’s something I needed to be doing, something I see myself devoting my life to one way or another.

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So, to some Shelter Island residents, it might sound a little crazy to compare the place to a developing country in Africa, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s those very characteristics that drew me to this wonderful island sheltered between the North and South Forks of Long Island. It’s those characteristics that are why I’ll stay.

St. Simons and Seashells by the Seashore

On the coast of St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of southern Georgia, you’ll find Spanish moss dangling off the branches of the old oak trees, dolphins and manatees gliding about in the waters as the sun rises, and a rich history tied to John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who both spent time on the island at nearby Fort Frederica. There they camped and worked as ministers before their involvement with the Methodism movement really took off, and that’s where I got to
spend my week last week “camping” with a national gathering of camp and retreat leaders as part of the United Methodist Church.

St. SimonsI can’t say enough for how beautiful the island is and probably always has been; the way the sunrise peaked through the Spanish moss and graced a nearby chapel was captivating indeed. And a few days were warm enough outside for a picnic or a nice stroll by the water. To waltz around on the island was a reminder to me of how much I crave knowing a place. Like my grandfather’s farm or my little house in the olive orchard of Morocco – I savor what a place is from its history to how I experience and come to love it. I fear a day where there are no longer places we can do this, sacred places apart where we can step out and still see our natural world. So, when I do get a chance to grasp hold of something removed from our fast-paced, technology-driven, world of false connections, I find that important. And there by the waters of St. Simons, a few deep breaths went a long way to rejuvenate me and make me feel, well, human again.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good grassy field or a mountain here or there, but at the end of the day, I think I’m drawn mostly to water. It’s rhythmic, eternal, powerful. One of the speakers at the conference asked us whether we wanted to be a swamp or a river: dead still or moving forward, and I spent much of my week thinking about that metaphor – about the different kinds of waters I’ve swam in or swallowed up or sat and stared at for hours. An island is a good place to be if you’re thinking at all about the power water can have to transform a place or a person. There’s a reason John the Baptist washed cleaned repentant people in the Jordan. It’s a little like that Carnival Commercial that was played during the Super Bowl where JFK speaks about the calling of water and the way we’re called to the sea; after all, we are made up of the same concentration of salt water:

But maybe what struck me the most was what can come from that mighty force with its current and creatures swimming about just feet below the choppy surface. A great sea can leave many gifts in its wake. When I was a kid, I spent nearly every summer with Mom and Dad walking the beaches of Fort Walton hunting for seashells. Then, we’d collect several of them, bring them home, wash them up, and put them in a jar like the spoils of a great treasure hunt. I was reminded of that at St. Simons this week when I saw cases of conch shells, sand dollars, and starfish – all sizes, shapes, and colors. Why is it, it seems then, that the greatest shells were found a generation or two ago? I don’t remember the last time I was able to find a sand dollar; I feel like the largest conch shells I’ve ever seen – the ones where you can hear the ocean if you hold it up to your ear – seem to be missing from the many trips I’ve taken since I was a kid. My grandmother left a whole case of them behind fragile glass as if to peer in and wonder what universe they’d come from while the shells I’ve found scouring the beaches since then were mere remnants of another time, just a few broken pieces away from being sand.

Fort Fred

I think we sometimes do the wrong thing with the little gifts that wash our way. We ooo and aaah over them and then encase them behind glass, as the world is depleted of its natural treasure. We store them away like they belong in a museum. I’m half-tempted, though, to grab a jar of shells and dump them back into the ocean where they belong. I’m not sure if that metaphor really makes sense or if I even want to explain it rather than just letting it be whatever it is, but I’ll say this much: in my own life with the many gifts I know I’ve been graced, I’m not sure I’ve always used those gifts in the right ways or in the right place. I think I’ve sometimes oooed and aahed at them or wanted to put them behind glass to admire them without actually letting them be what they were really meant for. And that leaves the beach barren, cold, full of remnants. At St. Simons this past week, I think I finally got a sense of what I might need to do with all those seashells. I think I heard my calling back to the sea. And that’s something I would hope we were all able to find.

God [Bless] You

A week or so ago, on my way to the metro in downtown St. Louis for a ride to the airport, I was stopped by a man who begged me to buy him a meal. I don’t usually offer anything to beggars, partially because I don’t have anything to offer and partially because I worry that doing so creates systemic problems of dependence. Every once in a while, though, empathy gets the best of me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him all that I had at the time – three bucks. “Three bucks?! I can’t do nothing with that! Give me some more,” he demanded, and I walked off a little stunned.

[Before going any further, I should pause to make two worthwhile notes: The first is that my last experience with begging happened in North Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer where, for the most part, if I handed someone the equivalent of 6 cents American (50 cents in Moroccan dirham), they usually responded with, “God bless your parents,” and moved on. While North African beggars could be persistent until you told them a phrase in Arabic that roughly translated, “God ease your burden,” I never carried fear of beggars there. After all, it would be pretty strange to come across a Moroccan beggar who had a knife, let alone unheard of to come across any Moroccan carrying a gun unless they were a soldier. So, maybe it’s because of the reality of that fear and how different life is in America, or maybe it’s some kind of inherent racism you’re bound to be born with if you were raised in the south, but I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I’m an incredibly privileged white dude who was carrying out these conversations with poor, black men (one of whom I stereotyped to be gay) in an area with a history of violence, and to say my fears weren’t fueled by stereotypes isn’t owning up to those realities. So let’s start there.]

Burned by the lack of gratitude at first, I gave a rather forceful “no” to the next beggar that asked. And even though I knew it wasn’t fair to carry the stereotype from one experience to the next, I had a tough time shaking the shear chutzpah of the man who demanded more after seeing my wallet empty. In response to my “no,” the next man glared at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, God bless you, then.”

No one had sneezed. He said, “God bless you,” I heard, “God has blessed you, and yet you do nothing.” I heard, “God blesses you but curses me.” I heard in his tone not the word “bless” at all but the word “curse,” and in the tone, I realized just how interchangeable the two words are. So many blessings, so many curses, all right before us and many are one in the same. The curse of being privileged is the real risk of forgetting or misunderstanding what it means to be blessed in the face of those who have endured so few blessings.

There’s a scene early in the Book of Job where the blameless Job has already lost nearly everything that matters to him. His children are tragically killed and now even with failing health and “boils” showing up all over his skin, he scratches at them to remove them one-by-one with a pottery shard. His wife looking on kind of mocks him in 2:9, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die.” In the English of this text, the word “barech,” or barak, is translated as “curse,” but – and here’s the interesting part – it also (and more frequently) means “bless.” In the Hebrew, much the way “God bless you” was spoken to me on the streets of St. Louis, the antithetical “curse” was what was meant. It gives you a good picture of the tone of Job’s wife: “Yeah, sure Job, everything will be better if ya just keep scraping off all those boils like that. Why, you should just bless your maker who’s given you this abundance of awesomeness and go on ‘living.'” Needless to say, I bet Job’s wife and I would’ve gotten on well.

Because, in a sense, Job’s wife hints at a deeper meaning that there is no blessing without a curse. Nor is there a curse without a blessing. That’s kind of how I read the whole Book of Job. I don’t like to think of Job [spoiler alert] being rewarded in the end with a new family and riches all as a result of his faith so much as it is a recognition that life is bound to deal out this endless cycle of blessings and curses all meshed together for which anyone might endure regardless of what they’ve done or who they are. To walk the streets of St. Louis, no less the streets of Morocco, is to encounter that two-sided coin, of which everything is, and to live in the tension of never really knowing which side of the coin you’re giving or receiving. And even when the answer is almost always “both,” that doesn’t really clear a whole lot up. Though privileged, I am not a person without trials or temptations or without my own baggage constantly being schlepped around with me. So too, I do not know the in-depth, personal trials of those who walk the streets hungry, wanting, faced with desperation. Have they known what it is to be cursed? Surely to God and sadly, and yet, I suspect, they’ve known better than I what it is to be blessed at times, as well. The great challenge of this stupid, beautiful little life is to see not merely each other’s blessings nor simply each other’s curses but to lovingly accept the painful beauty of both.

Bad History and Poor Choices in the New Jesus flick

Several years ago when Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ hit theaters, I was a sophomore at Wabash College, and there was a riveting discussion panel about the film particularly concerning whether or not the film was anti-Jewish. Average churchgoing folks felt strongly that the film portrayed anti-Roman sentiment but wasn’t in any way anti-Semitic. Those of us who had studied the text more carefully knew better. We could see there were dangerous extra-biblical, artistic choices that – whether intentional or not – gave credence to the notion of Jewish deicide. That’s the charge that the Jews and their ancestors were responsible for the death of God. And it’s precisely that charge that’s lead to an untold amount of violence against Jews over the past two thousand years.

So, when Son of God, the newest crucifixion flick, hit theaters, I was excited to watch it not only to see how the past decade or so has changed how evangelicals approach the story but also to see iconic shots of Morocco where the movie was filmed. In fact, most of the movie was filmed outside of Ourzazate in southern Morocco, a ten-hour bus ride from where I lived two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. As such, watching the movie was, to me, less a leap back to the first century and more a leap back to two years ago, and in that sense, I very much enjoyed the film.

So, too, I was pleased to see that there have been some serious strides made in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, nearly praises the film even calling it an “anti-Gibson” film. The producers and directors went out of their way, he says, to consult Jewish and Christian scholars, though Foxman still worries that the film had several historical inaccuracies that were “unfortunate,” and I couldn’t agree more on that point.

Other bloggers have been even kinder. Paul Anderson, a professor at George Fox University, writes that the film has a diverse cast and furthers inter-religious sensitivity (emphasis mine):

First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because many were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian, but other races were also represented. In the brief overview of Jewish history, Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar — one of the wise men. Joseph of Arimathea is black, and as the filming was done in Morocco, the presentation of Mediterranean townspeople worked very well in service to a sense of realism in the narrative. I also liked the way that inter-religious sensitivities are shown. In one particularly gripping set of sequences, Jesus is praying to God in the Garden, Caiaphas and Jewish leaders are blessing the Lord during the Passover, and the wife of Caiaphas is praying to her gods in her own way. All are sincere in their faith, yet they also come at the issues from different perspectives.

For whatever positive strides this film makes in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue, I felt that it raised new concerns as a film shot in a Muslim country with Muslim actors but with the intention of being sold to a largely Islamaphobic audience. With such a large number of evangelicals bemoaning that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” (as if having a Muslim president would be a terrible thing or as if being secret about your faith weren’t an oxymoron), is it not absurd to see those groups packing stadium seating to watch a film about Jesus where at least half of the cast are a racial group these people fear or despise?

If that’s not bad enough, the character of Satan, played by the same Moroccan who played Satan in the miniseries “the Bible”, was completely cut from the film because of concerns that he “looked like Barack Obama.” So, let me just get this straight: You have a film being made for an evangelical Christian audience. The evangelical audience, by and large, despises Muslims (and those who they think might secretly be Muslims). The person you cast as Satan is Muslim. Most of the other major characters in your film are Westerners. You shot the film in Morocco and used Moroccans as your extras because you wanted to portray something historically accurate to your film, but history was less important when it came to Jesus’ skin tone or that of his disciples?

I’ll grant you that the Mediterranean was a diverse place, but I also found Mr Anderson’s choice of referring to Joseph of Arimathea as “black” somewhat strange given that the actor is a Moroccan man named Noureddine Aberdine (it’s possible Prof. Anderson was intending to refer to the actor who played Simon of Cyrene who was of darker complexion; however, that actor was also Moroccan). North Africans are most often considered Caucasian and more specifically are usually of Arab, Berber, or Arab-Berber descent, so I do wonder whether there might be some need to change the race of minor actors or actresses to feel better about claiming the film offers an “interracial presentation of characters.” That it does. But it places minorities in lower roles, or as Satan, and then delivers it to an Islamophobic audience. That’s troubling to say the least.

So maybe this film is, indeed, one step forward for Jewish-Christian relations, but if that’s true, I fear it might be two steps back at the same time.

St. Louis, Baby Ramsilicious, and Making Memories

Just got back from a nice little trip to St. Louis to see an old fraternity brother and his wife. The weekend was packed with museums, great food-and-drink, and nostalgic conversation. It’s funny, really. When you see someone you haven’t seen in a while, and it’s like everything just falls back into place as though a year or two was just a few days. That’s a bit cliché, I realize, but I think it’s humorous how I might walk down a St. Louis street with my friend Patrick and imagine we’re back at Wabash, or I might walk through Cambridge with Avery, and at any given moment, I’m worried about falling through an uncovered manhole, just because that was a danger we had to watch out for in Morocco.

When those memories come flooding back, they’re usually ephemeral for me. It’s more like they drip instead of flood. Like, for half a second, my mind flashes back to a very vivid image, but the image doesn’t stick; it’s not something I can turn over and chew on. More than that, the past is less something I can imagine, as in picture, and more oft than not, it’s something I only feel: a happy moment or a sad one all thrown together into a few milliseconds of colorful images somewhere in the fleeting recesses of my mind. I sometimes wish it would play like a movie, but it never does, and I wonder if I’m unique in this or if this is how everyone experiences remembering the past. Because when I say that I “remember” something, I really mean I have words that recognize that I was there, but to hold onto the memory is incredibly difficult, especially to hold onto it exactly as it was.

I guess that’s why we take pictures and videos, really, but I don’t think photographs can capture the raw emotion of a memory, or it’s rare that they do. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that watching an old family video or looking at a picture doesn’t feel as real to me as how I imagine it to have happened, even if I know my memory has distorted it and made it different from how it really was.

RamsA few days before heading off to St. Louis, I had lunch with my friend Sarah along with her toddler, Ramsey, who I lovingly call “Ramsilicious.” I’ve been pretty skittish around babies for awhile, probably in part because Moroccan children were so mean to me but also because I find it so difficult to imagine having one of my own. I haven’t figured out if Ramsey has grown on me because she’s constantly smiling and laughing or if it’s just because she’s still so darn cute even when she’s not, but I’d murder anyone who tried to hurt her, and I told Sarah today that I have every intention of making sure she doesn’t listen to crappy music! So, when lunch ended the other day, and Sarah asked me to carry Ramsey to the car, she sneakily snapped a photo of the two of us just about the time Ramsey started crying over having to get in the car seat. It was my first time to hold a baby, ever. And in that sense, it’s something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

And yet, when she was finally settled in, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m not able to remember anything before, like, the year I was in the first grade. Ramsey will not remember being held or loved on as a toddler. She won’t remember having her diaper changed or doing whatever else it is that babies do. By the time she’s five, in fact, she’ll probably have forgotten what all that was like. I mean, maybe there are some weird folks out there who do remember what it was like being a few months old, but I’ve yet to meet any of them. The catch is this: just because we forget those early years doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, they’re the most important of all. In fact, I remember an episode of This American Life where they talked about how the first year of life could essentially determine how the rest of your life was going to go. In that sense, Ramsey may not be able to recall the memories she’s making, but they’ll be with her always regardless.

That got me to thinking that maybe the stuff we either forget or can’t recall can be more important than the stuff we think we’ve got down pat — that our emotional memory is just as crucial as the physical one with its deceptive, vivid images. And for me, there’s some comfort in the fact that whatever might be buried in my brain isn’t ever really “forgotten,” that every moment I encounter and experience is so, truly precious that I’m bound to carry it with me one way or another – whether it’s being held and having had my diaper changed as a baby or walking the cold streets of St. Louis with a dear friend.