I live in paradise. It is literally heaven, and I am so grateful looking out each and every day at the tapestry of majestic beauty. There is so much to be seen here, and what I so relish is the diversity in the people. I have met and befriended those from all walks of life from backgrounds aplenty but with one common thread: they were all amazing people who showed kindness towards me.
This was not always the place I called home. Years ago, it was a much different place. The diversity was limited to the size of one’s belt buckle. There is no harm in that. It is as well a special place to be. It is also paradise, and it is also heaven.
Heaven is for me where I am right now.
Wherever my travels may take me, I am afforded the opportunity to learn and to gain my own insight. It has been my standard practice to form my own opinion by gathering information myself rather than from some outside influence. That has proved quite rewarding.
“Whatever you do, do not stop.” He warned. “The Mexicans, they will kill you.”
I guess that extra glass of water at dinner was probably not the best of ideas. It was dark, and while I heeded his warning, biology prevailed. I stopped in at the rest area that was lit only by lamp posts.
Virtually deserted there was but one car next to me. As I got out, in the middle of New Mexico, I turned my back and standing in front of me was a kid in his late teens to early 20s. An older frail gentleman stood behind him.
They were Mexican.
“Our tire is flat.” The young man explained. “Can you help us?”
Whatever you do, do not stop.
That was the first piece of advice. Giving them a weapon was probably most likely self-explanatory. But, I have never been the best at listening to the warning of others.
I open the trunk, get out a tire rod and give it to the older gentleman who almost transforms into someone much younger in years. The frail old man changed a tire faster than anyone I have ever seen in my life. In mere minutes, he got up and without being able to speak any English, he handed the tire iron back to me as if he was handing me a sword.
We both bowed towards each other, and he spoke in Spanish to his grandson who translated for me.
“My grandfather wants me to thank you. We have been out here all night and no one would help us. He is grateful.”
I shook his grandfather’s hand and smiled. “De Nada.”
Thankfully following my own inner guidance provided a better result for me, and that has been true time and time again.
Most of us can remember 9/11, where we were, what we were doing as it is one of those days that stays with us forever. What about 9/12, though? What were you doing then?
Standing outside my apartment, my neighbor from upstairs was outside. He was a nice guy from one of the larger Middle Eastern countries. We were friends, but like most of my friends I am not concerned with their politics or religion. We talked on numerous occasions but never before about those topics.
But 9/12 was a new day. My fear, like everyone I knew was at a fever pitch. He was not at home on 9/11, so I asked him where he was at and what he was doing. He told me and had a reasonable explanation, but must have sensed my panic because we began talking about the events of the day before. His feelings were the same as mine, of horror and sadness beyond anything else. He mentioned that being Muslim himself added another dimension as he was noticing people treating him differently. There was a watchful eye where ever he went and there were hateful words thrown his way when he would get gas, groceries or any of his normal activities.
I had not thought of that aspect before. I have met those of the Muslim faith but had not had the opportunity to speak to any of them until then. He was open sharing what he believed and answered any questions that I had. He then invited me to the mosque.
Without much thought I accepted his invitation for that weekend.
It did not occur to me the backlash from those I knew who thought I was beyond out of my mind. It was not until then that I learned that there were death threats, bomb threats and vandalism threats at the mosque. I was undeterred.
Living a life of fear is not the way I want to live. We are all going to die. The only question is on what day. It is how I choose to live that really matters, to me.
My children were in I think elementary school, or maybe junior high, but they were used to going to different religious institutions. I wanted them to find what worked for them, not necessarily what I believed. We had attended most denominational church services, non-denominational, Buddhist teachings, and any other that we were invited to join.
It was a Buddhist monk who when visiting a Buddhist learning center that it did not matter if I became Buddhist or not. “All that matters is that you practice kindness.” It is a simple concept that I have kept with me to this day.
There were many who said I was a terrible parent for the thought of taking my kids to the mosque under any normal circumstances but considering the situation I was as some suggested, neglectful. My thought was different. I reflected aloud. “If not there, then where?”
If we are not safe within a religious institution, whatever that institution may be, then we as a society have lost our moral compass. “An eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.” And, I vow to not be blinded by hate, or fear.
Entering for the first time, there was an apprehension as I entered not knowing what to expect. What I noticed quickly is the line of shoes just inside the door. Everyone out of respect is to take off their shoes when indoors.
I took off my shoes and took my place in the back. A lot of people came up to greet me and my children. I had recognized some from playing softball, others being parents at school but they were very accommodating.
The procession was in Arabic. The men were on one side and the women on the other. He spoke in English for my behalf explaining everything as we went along. He told me the reason that the men and women sit separately is because the concentration is supposed to be on the service and not on fraternization. It is not that they see women as being inferior or anything like that.
Halfway throughout he spoke about some of the common misconceptions that are portrayed about their faith. The first is suicide, which is as he said, is not advocated in any major religion. He made a great comparison between the Oklahoma City bombing and how Timothy McVay was a devout Christian. How is it that we do not say a Christian bombed that building, he asked? He is not a representation of normal Christian values just most of the world’s population of Muslims are not representative of those who commit horrific acts.
My neighbor, he was the most religious person I knew. He walked the walk, praying throughout the day. He fasted, did not own a TV. He did not curse, and he was incredibly polite and giving. That is indicative of every person I met there. They were from so many different countries, some smaller ones that I had never heard of before.
The common thread was that they were much more anxious of me than I of them. They individually shared stories of being told they would not be served at restaurants, managers telling them they could not shop at stores and the like. I did not understand it from their point of view.
On another visit, the same gentleman who led the precession was crying profusely throughout. His parents were in the same city that our US forces were bombing. The dynamics were real. He cried not out of anger, he did not have hate in his heart but rather he was a human being whose parents were being bombed. He was a son who did not know if his parents were alive.
I am not sure if it was on this visit or another but during one trip there was also a local church leader. I am not sure what church he represented, but he and I were in the back. He was kind to me, but said very little. At the end they asked if I or he had any questions. I did not.
Standing next to me, he told them that he was gracious for them allowing him to visit and his only hope was that they would “take Jesus Christ as their savior.”
I took a step away. There is a place and a time for everything. That was not the place or the time.
My eldest child ranked his religious liking based on the food they served with his Catholic leanings being the greatest due to their serving donuts. He though quickly put the mosque at the top due to them having a feast after the service. Traditional dishes were served, and we ate sitting on the floor.
A couple of weeks after 9/11 one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed happened at one of the largest local churches. Leaders from the religious community were welcome to come and speak. All the different churches, synagogues, someone from a mosque, all came together with one message: love and peace.
It was magical the solidarity that they all one by one spoke briefly that their belief is beyond all else that we love one another.
It has been well over 5 years since I last visited the mosque. I, like other religious or ideological institutions I found what I came for. I learned what I needed to learn. If found out for myself that these are real people. They are not subhuman. They are mothers, daughters, sons and fathers. They have shaken my hand. They have kissed my cheek. I will invite them into my home, if and only if, and it is the same for anyone else no matter their background or affiliation. If they are kind, I welcome them with open arms.
When someone tells me that all Muslims should die, if I know them, I will invite them to the mosque. No one has yet taken me up on the offer. That is ok. I am not out to change the world. I cannot lead them to where they do not want to go. We all see life through our own limited lenses, and it is ours to view it how we deem fit to see it.
I have though found new friends in places I never would have if I had let fear rule my life. I would not have seen the beauty in someone’s smile or tasted such amazingly different foods if I stayed in my own bubble not allowing myself to be vulnerable. It is a practice I continue to today.
The only finger that I can point is back to me. I cannot solve the world’s problems. I have not the answers. I can though continue to be a little kinder to someone than I need to be, because that’s how I choose to be. In return, maybe someone somewhere at some time will be a little kinder to me than they need to be.
“It matters not what you believe. As long as you practice kindness.”