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.