Zach Anner has a confession: he has no faith.
"Religion is such an important part of so many people's lives and I don't understand it at all," the comic explains.
"To meet people who actually believe."
And so begins the sincere, funny and surprisingly informative series called "Have A Little Faith" that appears on the YouTube channel SoulPancake.
Anner opens the first installment by visiting the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles where the comic, who is in a wheelchair on account of his cerebral palsy, zips up the ramp to the entrance quipping, "This religion already feels accessible to me!"
Inside he is met by Marwa Abdelghani, the Muslim youth group director at the mosque who patiently answers his questions with sparkling eyes and a big smile. Soon we are learning about Abdelghani's story of growing up Muslim in America and, equally important, that her father has a donut store, Donut Prince, of which Zach is a big fan!
More seriously, Anner's guileless style allows him to ask members of the Islam center about prayer and the hijab and learn about the history and reasons for why they as Muslims do what they do. But the show is far from solemn, or worse, boring. Even on the sensitive subject of hijab, the comedian manages to make the conversation funny, highlighting the juxtaposition of fashion and Los Angeles with the headscarf and dating.
Anner grew up with little religion in his house. "My grandmother was a church organist, but we only went on Easter and Christmas Eve sometimes," he explained in a phone conversation with The Huffington Post. "The only time I took communion, I ate too much bread and needed more juice. So I definitely needed to learn more."
"Religion is something we don't talk about, and it is used by uneducated people as a weapon to divide us as opposed to connect with each other. Talking to people is important to me as someone who has cerebral palsy. I know what it's like to have people not talking to me because they are scared they would ask the wrong question, but I would rather have an honest dialogue as long as it comes from an honest place."
When asked if there were any big surprises while shooting, the comic was emphatic in his response.
"It was a continuous surprise for me. I never expected to be discussion 'Breaking Bad' with Mormons. But on a deeper level what was surprising was how similar everything was. The practices were different, but the core values were similar. I was also surprised that I wanted to hang out with everyone out of the context of the show. People I never would have met had this show not happened. It is a shame that we let these things divide us instead of bringing us together. At the core there is a light in people and a spirituality that is almost universal."
The SoulPancake YouTube channel has 600,000 subscribers and was started by the actor and comic Rainn Wilson, who is best known for his iconic character Dwight Schrute on The Office. Wilson explained in a phone call with The Huffington Post that Soul Pancake is a media company that "promotes a discussion of life's big questions and digs around in the human experience."
"Zach came and told us that he knows nothing about religion and asked if we would be interested in doing a show where he joins a different religion each week each in his unique style. The first week he did Islam, next week is Orthodox Jews, the following is Baha'i and Evangelical and others. And we are hoping to do another season after this one with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, Wiccan, even Scientology," Wilson said.
When asked if any one religion wins, Wilson insisted on that not being the purpose of the project. "That's the great thing about the series. It is about what he learns, the journey of discovery, not win or lose."
What's clear is that Anner has just the right touch and proves himself to be a genuine and a purposefully clueless guide. If other episodes are as good as the first, the series promises to be enormously entertaining in addition to it serving a valuable purpose of humanizing people of different religious traditions. Anner says in the final moments of the video that he is hoping that it will be a jumping off point for a deeper discussion about faith.
But in the final moments of the conversation with The Huffington Post, he returned to the time in the video when he found out that the young lady from the mosque's dad owned the Donut Prince business and how much he hopes that when they see it he might get a free donut.
When pressed if this was what the entire series was aimed at he demurred.
"No, no," he said. "It is about a deeper spirituality ... and free donuts."
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