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My Neighbor's Faith: The Heroes I Was Looking For

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I spent my high school years in suburban Chicago dreaming of the future comforts of fat paychecks. When I went to college at the University of Illinois in Champaign, I saw the other America -- homeless Vietnam vets drinking mouthwash for the alcohol, minority students shunted to the back of overfull classrooms, battered women unable to find space at too-small shelters. I knew that America saw these shadows but chose not to call them. I did not want that disease.

So I flailed about wildly. I went to demonstrations and raged against the machine, but I did not see it improving anybody's life. I spent one summer living in communes and another traveling with the Grateful Dead, but decided escape wasn't my trip. I pierced my tongue and dressed in drag on campus, but realized that it wasn't a fashion revolution I was after. "Try being constructive," a professor advised me. So I started volunteering at shelters and schools, but I knew a broken world needed more than flimsy tape.

Few shared my frantic outlook. Most people were happy changing their clothes to fit the climate. Some folks left for places where the climate suited their clothes. A handful cursed the climate, shrugged, and went on their way. I wanted to change the climate. My loneliness was freezing. Somebody said to me, "Go visit St. Jude's Catholic Worker house on the other end of town."

"What's a Catholic Worker house?" I asked.

"Part shelter for poor folks, part anarchist movement for Catholic radicals, part community for anyone who enters. Really, it's about a whole new way of living. You've got to go there to know."
From the moment I entered St. Jude's, it was clear to me that this was different than any other place I'd been. I couldn't figure out whether it was a shelter or a home. There was nobody doing intake. There was no executive director's office. White, black and brown kids played together in the living room. I smelled food and heard English and Spanish voices coming from the kitchen.

The first thing somebody said to me was, "Are you staying for dinner?"

"Yes," I said.

The salad and stew were simple and filling, and the conversation came easily. After dinner, I asked someone, "Who is staff here? And who are the residents?"

"That's not the best way to think about this place," the person told me. "We're a community. The question we ask is 'What's your story?' There is a family here who immigrated from a small village in Mexico. The father found out about this place from his Catholic parish. They've been here for four months, enough time for the father to find a job and scrape together the security deposit on an apartment. There are others here with graduate degrees who believe that sharing their lives with the needy is their Christian calling. If you want to know the philosophy behind all of this, read Dorothy Day."

I did. And it made more sense to me than anything my Marxist professors lectured on, or my prelaw friends dreamed about, or my rock 'n' roll records drove at. Recalling the thoughts of her college days, Dorothy Day wrote: "I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn't see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt, and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too."

Dorothy Day's vision of a culture of kindness was joined by a radical social outlook: "Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? ... Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"

Most importantly for me at the scowly, skeptical age of 19, Dorothy Day had lived her commitments in solidarity with the poor, not just ministering to them; she had lived in resistance to the system, with the jail time to prove it.

I spent a lot of time in Catholic Worker houses during my college years and early 20s. I cut carrots for the soup kitchen at Mary House in New York City, demonstrated at the Pentagon with Catholic Workers in Washington, D.C., even lived for a few weeks at the St. Francis House on the north side of Chicago. I marveled at Dorothy Day because she reimagined the world and lived her life in a way that created it anew. She called America's shadows to her dinner table, served them with love and sat with them as a friend. It was the best antidote that I had seen for America's sickness.

And mine. Dorothy Day once said, "I'm working toward a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently." I wanted to behave decently. The Catholic Worker was a chance to do justice for the marginalized and to achieve redemption for myself. Redemption meant being saved from the sickness of selfishness. Being cured meant joining humanity. And there was something transcendent in that.

It was at the Catholic Worker house that I discovered a desire to touch the pure love of elsewhere. This was the love that Dorothy Day wrote about, the love that sourced and sustained her commitment. My faith journey was sparked not by a desire to enter heaven or from a fear of hell. It was neither about escape nor seclusion. I had no interest in the sin-and-salvation kerosene of the religious right or the soupy spirituality of the New Age.

The faith I wanted would help me love and grieve and celebrate with all humanity. It would shape my eyes to see dignity and divinity in the dirty and ragged. I felt in my bones that humanity was meant for something more than we were achieving.

J. M. Coetzee says: "All creatures bring into this world the memory of justice." I knew that we had a purpose beyond providing for our own comfort. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: "God is hiding in the world. Our task is to let the divine emerge from our deeds." I wanted to live the truth of June Jordan's vision: "I am a stranger/learning to worship the strangers/around me."
The religious life of the Catholic Worker inspired me. I loved the prayers for strength to do the work of justice. I found the Christian hymns and sermons elevating. I read the books of Worker heroes like Peter Maurin and Thomas Merton. But I always found myself standing at a slight angle to the central symbols of the Christian faith: the cross, the blood, the resurrection. And I never felt any desire to convert.

A short conversation with the leader of a Catholic Worker house in Atlanta was an important turning point in my faith journey. I asked if I could spend a summer working at his community.

"Are you a Christian?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Then it will be very difficult for you to take full part in the life of this community. Find a place where you fit, body and soul."

I understood his comment as an invitation, not an insult. It was time to find a faith home. I began reading across religious traditions. I read Ram Dass on Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh on the life of the Buddha. I found my head nodding to nearly every article of Bahai social teaching and felt as if I had discovered a gold mine when I came across the thought of the contemporary Jewish mystic Zalman Schachter. But my attraction to these traditions was intellectual. Similar to my experience with Christianity, I felt that my soul did not fit in any of them.

The one tradition that I did not explore was Islam, the religion I had been raised in. Islam was the tradition my parents carried with them when they left India. America was the situation that provided them with possibilities both stated and shrouded, opportunities that facilitated upward mobility but scattered centering values. My father was a successful advertising executive. My mother earned her CPA and began building a career. The ritual dimensions of Islam never fit comfortably into our American-style lives. We rarely attended Friday prayer and only occasionally gathered at home as a family to bow our heads to God. Still, we were Muslims. We did not eat pork. We said Bismillah ("In the name of God.") when beginning new projects. We prayed tasbi during difficult times. And we helped people, especially Muslim immigrants, do everything from getting driver's licenses to earning advanced degrees.

Neglecting Islam was not so much a comment on the content of the religion as it was an adolescent habit of discriminating against the familiar. But, as James Baldwin writes, "Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches."

I began a Buddhist (at least, what I thought was Buddhist) meditation practice when I was 22. It consisted of sitting still and thinking about nothing. But the Ismaili Muslim mantra my mother whispered in my ear when I was a child -- Ya Ali, Ya Muhammad -- kept rising into my consciousness. In an attempt to stick to the program, I tried to push it out. Finally, it occurred to me that this was the program -- I was a Muslim. My spiritual home had lived in my soul since my birth and before.

Later that year, I went to India to visit my grandmother. I woke up one morning to find, sitting on my grandmother's sofa, a person I had never met before. She was barefoot and wearing a torn white nightgown several sizes too large for her. "Who is she?" I asked my grandmother.

"Call her Anisa. I don't know her real name," she told me. "Her father and uncle beat her, so she has come here. We will keep her safe."

My grandmother has been sheltering abused women for 40 years by hiding them in her home. Those who are interested in education, she sends to school. For those who want to live with family in other parts of India, she pays for their travels. Others just stayed and helped my grandmother around the house until they got married and started their own families. My grandmother has pictures of some of them, faded black-and-white shots, with pencil scribbles on the back telling the story.

After hearing the stories of about a dozen of these women, I wanted to know one more -- my grandmother's. "Why do you do this?" I asked.

"Because I'm a Muslim. This is what Muslims do," she said.

My grandmother was a Muslim Dorothy Day. Her home had been a Muslim Catholic Worker house. The heroes I was looking for were within my religion, in my very family.

I immersed myself in Islam. I sought examples of giants who had fought tyranny with love, and found them in Farid Esack and Badshah Khan. I desired beauty and found it in the poetry of Rumi and Ihn Arabi. I discovered the stories that revealed the grand purpose of humankind that Allah made humanity abd and khalifa -- Allah's "servant" and "representative" on earth. I felt the truth of Islam in my soul: that Allah created Adam through the spirit in Allah's breath, that Allah chose Muhammad to be Prophet and that Allah wanted me to submit to the will of Allah. I felt embraced by the compassion of Allah, forgiven by the mercy of Allah and guided by the light of Allah.

I found full nourishment in Islam for ideas I initially encountered in other traditions. I am a Muslim whose first faith hero was Dorothy Day.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'