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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

NO NEED TO CONVERT

Photo courtesy localwiki.org 

NO NEED TO CONVERT

 

This column first appeared in the May 1, 2021 Gallup Independent. Published here with permission.

 

Most often I drive in silence, the better to see the surrounding landscape. This time, going through the gold rock canyonlands between Dulce and Chama, I switched on public radio. To my delight, I heard a program I used to listen to regularly—Peace Talks Radio. The show that day was about community food projects in West Oakland, California and Santa Barbara-Martinez Town in Albuquerque. Both communities had become food deserts or food wastelands, as a result of development projects surrounding them. Most small groceries had gone out of business, and there were no full-service supermarkets. People subsisted to a great extent on fast food because it was cheap and available but also notoriously not nutritious. The speakers effectively made the connection between food insecurity and community breakdown and violence.
 
Then they described projects designed to involve community members––youth, elders, and everyone in between––in such things as gardening, cooking classes, farmers markets, and mobile food units. These mushroomed into increased involvement in local government and networking among local groups. Addressing food-insecurity empowered neighborhoods in unexpected, inspiring ways.
 
Then the interviewer asked if there had been resistance from naysayers who had their own reasons, as strange as it might sound, to be against healthful, affordable food. Was there a struggle to get people to become involved in the projects? One person from the community said that some resistance came from thinking that healthful food wouldn't taste good. That's where cooking classes and community picnics came in. Steamed broccoli might sound boring to someone used to enjoying fatty foods. But what if it were presented with toasted sunflower seeds and chunks of garlic, maybe a little soy sauce and lemon juice? Oh! That tastes good! Others, working three low-paying jobs to survive, might be too tired to cook. How about communal cooking and sharing? How about quick but tasty ways to prepare foods ahead of time? What if the food came to your doorstep in a mobile unit?
 
While the stories and ideas about changing food-insecurity gave me a lot to think about, what struck me most and stayed with me when the program faded into static as I drove deeper into the canyon, was an additional response to the question about sceptics. The interviewer asked, "Did you need to convert people?"
 
The speaker laughed. "You don't have to convert anyone," she said. "Just do what you do and be happy and joyful about it. The key is not to just 'do what you do.' The laughter and happiness and the good feelings you get when interacting with people you love––those are what draw people in. You can't evangelize and try to convert because then you get into a belief war."
 
This response went far wider and deeper for me than the exciting ways community was being restored and how food wastelands were being transformed. I thought of how we humans quickly want to share with others when we encounter something that we find to be good. But so often we go past sharing; we try to evangelize, to convert others to our way of thinking, our way of believing, our way of living.
 
We mean well, usually, when we do this. We love what we have found and how it is making our life better. It seems logical that, of course, it will make everyone's life better. And then, so very often, we get what the person on Peace Talks referred to as a "belief war." The people we want to convert to our experience have their own experiences, their own beliefs, and they don't want to be coerced or cajoled or even frightened into following our way of thinking or acting. Conflict, often heated, ensues.
 
But what about this other way? Doing what we do––whether it's eating vegetarian, celebrating Ramadan, going to a Christian church every Sunday, following traditional Diné ways? That's the first step––doing what we do. Doing it wholeheartedly because it does us good, and it does the world good.
 
Then the second step, the key––doing it with happiness, with joy. There will be some people who want to come along with us. They will see that doing what we do brings us joy. They will want some of that joy. They might ask, "Where does all that joy come from? I want some too." In a way, we have converted them, but we have done it through attraction. It may even spread because others find it good. And still others will go on with their own practices and beliefs. And there will be harmony and peace, no belief wars. No need to convert. Do what you do with happiness and joy.

 

 

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BLESSING

I once recommended the Rudy Anaya classic, Bless Me Ultima, to a friend who considers the entire Southwest her home. She also happens to be an atheist. She quickly said, "Oh, I don't read anything with the word bless in the title." I was taken aback, but on reflection, knowing her, I wasn't surprised, either. I wanted to think, "How narrow!" But I remembered an incident she shares early on with new acquaintances––a painful Christian-school experience of tectonic-shift proportions, something that happened when she was six. I was able to feel compassion instead of judgment. And of course, I have my own blind spots.
 
In fact, one of my aversions is to the necessity for blood sacrifice in Christian theology, emphasized by some denominations and certain people more than others. There came a Sunday in the church I'd newly joined, when I was asked to serve communion––a ritual I find very meaningful. For me, it signifies, not blood, but nurture and community. I was thrilled to be asked to offer this spiritual nourishment to the people who had loved me back into church. Moreover, this church does not overly emphasize blood.
 
Before the service, those of us who were going to serve were given a little orientation, because Presbyterians are known for orderliness. Our mini-class involved determining who would stand where, who would hold the bread, and who offer the juice; the handing out of stoles of the correct liturgical color; and finally, we were told what we would say as people came to receive their bread and juice.
 
The instructor advised, "The Bread of Life for you," and "Christ's blood shed for you." I said, "Sometimes in the church I grew up in," which was actually a bloodier church than this one, "it was said, 'The cup of blessing."
 
"Oh, I like that!" one of the servers said.
 
From her response and no one objecting, I thought it would probably be all right to say, "The cup of blessing." But I chose to serve bread because saying, "The Bread of Life for you," didn't require me to make a decision.
 
"The cup of blessing" suggests a pouring out of goodness, richness, and fullness over us. But the word blessing doesn't quite allow me get away from the blood of it, since it comes from Old English, which in turn came from the proto-Germanic blodison, meaning to hallow with blood, and in the beginning—big surprise—denoted a blood sprinkling on pagan altars. So neither my friend's blind spot about Christian blessing nor my aversion to blood in Christian theology get a pass. What we might both find easier to embrace is how the meaning shifted while still in use in the Old English. It became, not "to hallow with blood" but, "to make happy, prosperous, or fortunate." The cup of blessing.
 
The word blessing is brought to you by yours truly and by my friend, who shall go nameless.

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Excitement

EXCITEMENT
 
Stepping out the door
In the morning
Swirled
In a shimmering shawl
Of birdsong
Wild with hope
And everything possibile
How will you ever be able
To leave this world
You know you will
And there will be the next thing
 
The word excitement is brought to you by Sharon Frey Prewitt, who I think was excited about the last election when she sent this word, but she is also a woman who lives her life filled with excitement and joy.

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AFTER DEATH

Mae Elizabeth Van Zwol Kruis--graduation from nursing school

Less than a month ago, my mother died. She was four days away from her 100th birthday when she walked on. I was grateful to be one of two people to walk with her. Many friends sent condolences online and in the mail. They expressed sympathy for my loss, and some said they knew it had often been a difficult relationship, and then they tried to redeem it with their words. The truth is that the loss happened more than a half century ago. Her dying was less a loss, more a reckoning. Ours had been a bond of unease, nevertheless a bond––one we both tried at different times over the years to repair. I had thought that I would simply be relieved when her death came. That I would feel little or nothing. Because we both wanted something better, a couple of years ago, we were able to speak some heartfelt words and then to cry together. Things were easier between us after that, though not what I would call whole. So after death, when those who knew my mother in a different light spoke of what a wonderful person she was, I felt perplexed. I wanted to see what they had seen, to love the woman they had loved.
 
I've attended a number of life passages—the joy of babies making their entry onto the planet, the awe of walking with people for the last steps of their journey on Earth. I always feel so honored when a soul chooses me to be present at their leave-taking, and being with my mother was no different in that respect. It was also so much bigger than I'd imagined it would be. Hers was by far the gentlest, most peaceful dying I've witnessed.
 
During the time I cared for her and saw her pass over, I was deeply aware of her, not as my mother, but as a fellow human being. Most of what I felt was compassion—particularly when she seemed to have some awareness of what was happening to her but could only communicate by blinking her eyes when asked a question. We couldn't know if we were asking the right questions. Then at the last, she went into a deep sleep and didn't wake up again.
 
My niece Naomi and I were together with her when she left, and I was so glad of that. It was when I said to Naomi, shortly after my mother's last breath, "Just imagine who she might be seeing right now—Trudy" (my sister who died at the age of 9). "Grandpa" (Naomi's grandfather, my father)—that I was surprised to be overcome by tears. A little later, I actually sobbed when my youngest brother, who was closest with my mother all his life, came in, and we held each other. Then I was crying for his loss.
 
There are small tasks to be done after someone dies, and these tasks take on the meaning of making the death round. I waited for people to come and take the medical equipment away; I signed their pad to say, This is finished; I took leftover supplies to donate to the facility where our mother had lived; I brought from there the two dozen red roses her cousins had sent for the birthday that wasn't to be and put them in water; I brought her clothing to Goodwill; I helped my sister-in-law with the distribution of her jewelry and received the turqoise and silver bracelet, pendant, and ring I remembered as the only ornaments my mother had when I was a child; I went out on the land with Naomi to find the rock that will be Mom's gravestone and visited my father's grave where her ashes will be interred; finally, I wrote her obituary. All these things brought roundness to her passing.
 
Back at home I wrote some letters and addressed them to My Mother in Heaven (not that I believe Heaven is a physical place, but I have seen and heard evidence of life after death). In those letters I told my mother things I never felt I could tell her in life. And I cried as I came to the realization deep within me that she had loved me all along. I don't just say this: I truly felt she had loved me in all the  ways she could. And I grieved that I hadn't been able to love her better. But just as she had, I loved her in all the ways I could. Then came the greatest revelation. She had been transformed, and as a result, I, too, was transformed.

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