by Andrew Bowen
In June of 2006, then Senator Barak Obama gave a speech entitled “Call to Renewal” in which he points out that, “[W]e are no longer a Christian nation, at least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers.” This statement, while obvious, speaks less about the reality of our nation’s spiritual diversity and more about why Obama made the observation in the first place. The painful answer is that if we liken religion itself to a city, we often treat our respective faiths as rival neighborhoods. Creeds become organization mottos and pledges, religious artifacts and symbols become gang signs, and the struggle for new converts becomes a turf war.
How did this happen? Is humanity not one city with various colors and frequencies of spiritual and cultural expression? If, as Jesus said, a house divided cannot stand, then we need swift and decisive action toward healing and peace—not between the faiths—but between the people who live by them. How do we accomplish this goal? How do we restore this city?
In late 2010, I had an idea. I decided to do something so radical, so different, that all the religious cliques, gangs, and organizations would lay down their arms and watch. Thus, Project Conversion: Twelve Months of Spiritual Promiscuity was born. The mission: Immerse myself in and adopt 11 faiths from around the world and inspire everyone to educate themselves about the various faiths of their neighbors. I want people to follow my lead and bring about a measure of empathy so deep that the slightest insult or act of violence becomes self-harm.
The first step in this immersion and tour around our religious municipality involves visiting the composite neighborhoods and living among the people. This means going places we aren’t comfortable going, shaking hands with strangers who look, act, speak, smell, and think differently than you do because the idea is to temporarily become them. You are terrified. You are nervous. You are now in that hood across the railroad tracks your mother warned you about.
The Buddha once said that it is easier to conquer a thousand men than to conquer one’s self. At this stage you must recognize that your fear is conditioned upon what you think you know about “those people.” And I had to cross the tracks.
Each religion requires a Mentor to guide me through the faiths. I remember thinking about my delusions regarding the religious variety of my southeastern North Carolina home. We have all the Christian flavors you could ask for, but nothing else. Twenty-four hours of phone calls, emails, and Google searches overturned that notion.
My first track-crossing experience came when I began the preliminary research for a Hindu Mentor. Soon, I established a relationship with a yoga instructor and his daughter in Delaware, and discovered the Hindu Bhavan temple of Fayetteville, North Carolina. I grew up in Lumberton, NC, attended school among Hindus, and was never privy to the temple less than 30 minutes from my home. This serendipity followed me in every stage of my journey as I traversed the faiths looking for teachers and communities.
The Mentor for the next faith neighborhood on the list was a doctor less than a mile from my home in Lumberton. She happens to be the only active Baha’i for miles, and I discovered her in my own backyard. By connecting with her through weekly “study circle meetings” and my subsequent guest lectures at Robeson Community College, I helped her gain a new neighbor—a convert—in her lonely sector of the city. All I had to do was visit a stranger and cross the tracks.
My experience with the Zoroastrians was quite different. Because their numbers are shrinking, contacting a willing Mentor became nearly impossible. Through many calls and emails, I found my teacher in Chicago, Illinois. I hoped for someone local, someone I could shake hands with, speak with about their faith, and interact with a physical community. March thus became my most difficult month as my interaction with the faith became more like a long distance relationship. I learned the hard way how important our spiritual and social networks are on the local level.
Judaism provided one of the most enlightening and gratifying experiences of my year to date. My Mentor for April and thus, Judaism, happened to be a good friend and fellow writer from Charlotte, N.C. He invited me to his home and offered a personal guided tour of the Queen City and its vibrant Levine Jewish Community Center at Shalom Park. The cultural landscape and social identity of the Jewish people blossomed for me in Charlotte in a way only a tangible experience can. Between our visit to the Levine JCC library, a double bat mitzvah at Temple Beth El, and a Shabbat dinner with my Mentor and his wife, I drove home with a new extended family and appreciation for the Jewish neighborhood I never knew.
The next romp through the side streets of religious southeastern North Carolina brought me to a Buddhist monastery tucked away in the woods of a quiet town an hour east toward Wilmington called Bolivia. Wat Carolina, the monastery where I planned to spend the weekend with the monks, is so remote that I drove by the establishment four times before I realized where it was. No one back in Lumberton—people who grew up there all their lives—had any idea the monastery, or any other Buddhist community, existed. The monks welcomed me with labor, meditation, and study, and after a fluke emergency, fate called me home just a little closer to enlightenment than when I arrived.
Now in the latest month on my tour of the town, I pray, worship, and interact with the Latter-day Saints of Lumberton. I knew about this church while in high school, however my then Christian leanings were so critical and indignant that I never bothered to visit them. Part of this month then is to swallow the regrets of my past and cross the street of a neighborhood I once cursed. Maybe they trust me, and maybe they don’t. I can understand if some of the congregation feels the strain of a former Capulet/Montague-style rivalry between us. Someone has to be the first to extend their hand in peace. Since I began the war and now intend to end it, that fellow might as well be me.
I suspect the remainder of my year with Project Conversion will follow the same thread of uncomfortable forays into my past biases as well as the pleasurable release of new relationships. My hope, my prayer—no, my insistence — is that my fellow citizens follow my example. For if we are not a city of diversity brought together by a common humanity and the joy of our variation, then we are a slum where hatred and ignorance rots our very foundations. All we need to do is summon the courage to kill our prejudices. We can build this city. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
For Andrew Bowen, theology is a playground. His fiction and essays splash in the often murky waters of religion and spirituality, and have appeared in over a dozen venues like decomP, Metazen, Pulp Metal Magazine, Sheldon Lee Compton’s Bent Country, and Not From Here, Are You? He is the creator of Project Conversion, a year-long immersion into and adoption of 11 distinct world faiths. Andrew is also the author of the novel, Triune [Note: You can read my Review of Triune, on this Blog, on June 11, 2011]. His website can be accessed here.
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(Tomorrow: Carol Batey)