When is the last time you saw a man in a wheelchair wielding a weedwacker in one hand and a push-mower in the other? This remarkable sight is not uncommon in Kenneth Poole’s neighborhood because Kenneth is the one brandishing the blades.
I met Kenneth in the checkout line at Goodwill. As he bagged my thrifty finds he handed me his business card with the logo, “Everything from the Wheel Chair.” When Kenneth says everything, he means EVERYTHING. From lawn-care and car detailing to a YouTube cooking channel, Kenneth can do it all. I became so intrigued by his tenacity, as well as his obvious faith, that I asked if I could meet with him to learn his story.
We met up in a hospital cafeteria and I quickly learned that his life had not been easy. With his dad out of the picture and his mom lacking stability, Kenneth grew up being shipped back and forth between aunts. As a teenager he dropped out of school to work and took a job as a cashier at Paul’s Market (a local convenience store). One night, while on duty at the register, an armed intruder came in and started firing. Kenneth took seven shots.
He awoke in the hospital feeling cheated. Why had this happened when he hadn’t done anything wrong? That’s when he learned that that his leg would need to be amputated.
He became overwhelmed by bitterness and started living by the mantra, “I am not going to care about anybody because nobody cares about me.” He seemed to have no future and no way out. Even his multiple attempts at suicide proved unsuccessful. Then his mom died. He couldn’t sleep at night. He tossed and turned. He began to grow concerned about making her proud of him. Finally, he asked his cousin if he could go with him to church and started attending The Temple Church.
“I kept going to church and I just kept learning new things that I never knew!” said Kenneth. “Finally a year later I joined. They say that when you turn toward God you will still have your ups and downs. Sometimes I think that this God stuff is not working for me – but I still try to read my bible and pray every day — And he still reaches out to me through other people.”
Not only does God reach out to Kenneth through others, but I know that Kenneth acts as God’s hands on a daily basis. He has now made it his life mission to help others who struggle with physical limitations see that they can do whatever they want to. He is living proof that you can do anything and everything from a wheelchair.
I don’t fully understand why God allows bad things to happen to His children who He loves so much. But, talking with Kenneth it seems evident that God was able to use this tragedy to draw Kenneth closer to Him.
As Kenneth himself said, “I used to be on the streets but sometimes you have to put that stuff away and turn toward God. It has not all been good since I turned toward God – but I feel like the people at church really love me and my good times outweigh my bad.”
This is what unites those of faith. Although our challenges differ, the source of healing is the same. I often feel limited by mistakes, insecurities or doubt. But, as I turn toward God those limitations don’t need to hold me back. I hope to face my figurative wheelchairs like Kenneth: with a weedwacker in one hand and a push mower in the other.
Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Arranging flowers, perusing through old documents and spreading peanut butter on celery stalks are a few things that make her glad to be alive. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are almost 2 billion Muslims in the world and anywhere from 3 to 7 million in the United States, yet most Americans know almost nothing about their Muslim neighbors or the religion of Islam. I’m sure there are a lot of things you could learn about Islam or Muslims that would surprise—even delight—you. Here are a few to get the list started:
1. The Qur’an and the Bible share many of the same stories. Many non-Muslims are intrigued when they learn my six-year-old son, Eesa, is named after Jesus—“Eesa” is the Arabic translation for “Jesus.” His middle name is Jibreel – Arabic for ‘Gabriel’. And my younger son is named Mikael Suleman – yes, you guessed it: Michael Solomon. (On that note, did you know that “Allah” is simply Arabic for “The God”? We add “the” (which in Arabic is “Al” – Al-Lah) because our theology is fiercely monotheist. There is only One God—The God. Christian Arabs called God “Allah,” too!).
The names are important because they point to the same revered figures. Jesus and Solomon are prophets in Islam, and Gabriel and Michael are archangels. Of all the archangels, only Jibreel and Mikael are mentioned in the Qur’an, which makes clear their centrality to Islam: “Whoever is an enemy to God, and His angels and His messengers, and Jibreel and Mikael! Then, God (Himself) is an enemy to the disbelievers.” (2:98). There are, of course, some differences—the most obvious being the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ, whereas for Muslims Jesus is a prophet. But the similarities far outweigh the differences.
What is most important about sharing these stories is that they inform our religious principles and behavior. To share the stories means to share some very fundamental aspects of faith and faithful action.
2. Every year, Muslims are required to give away 2.5% of their assets in charity. This charity requirement is called zakat and it’s one of the five pillars of Islam, that is, one of the five most fundamental obligations a Muslim has to fulfill. Islamic scholars have determined eight categories of recipients eligible to receive zakat funds, including those who cannot meet their basic needs; those who do not have a means of livelihood (for instance, if someone lost their job); and those encumbered with overwhelming debt.
Besides the obligatory charity, there is also a major emphasis in Islam on voluntary charity—we’re advised to give as much as we can, and to not be showy or pompous in our giving (the Prophet Muhammad said something you may find in the Bible, too: charity should be given in secret, such that not even “your left hand should know what your right hand” gives). The Qur’an describes charitable giving as lending God a loan, which God promises in the Qur’an to multiply for us in the many blessings we know only come from Him. “Who is he that will lend to God a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is God that decreases or increases (your provisions), and unto Him you shall return.” (2:245)
3. Muslims fast—and feeding others is a huge part of our faith. Another fundamental pillar of Islam is the required Ramadan fast. During the month of Ramadan, which is a month on the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims around the world fast from dawn till dusk. During the summer, that means a Muslim may end up fasting 16 or more hours! This is particularly arduous since the fast requires that we abstain from food and drink. Yes, that includes water, too. The fast helps us detach ourselves from our bodily needs and turn inwards to contemplate the state of our soul.
But what’s really special about Ramadan is not the food we don’t eat—it’s all the food we are encouraged to give others. The month is enlivened by a level of socializing you don’t otherwise see. Muslims are eager to host dinner parties or sponsor the fast-breaking meal at the local mosque because God awards us abundantly for feeding a fasting person. So you may likely break bread with a whole group of other Muslims every single night of the month! And beyond the dinner parties are the ample opportunities to feed the poor, both at your local soup kitchens and by sending money abroad to third-world countries where hunger is unfortunately an epidemic.
There are so many aspects of my faith that help me rejoice in humanity. The generosity that flows so freely from my co-religionists all year, then is amped-up during Ramadan, shows me the goodness God cultivates in His followers. I hope you’ll take a moment to talk to your Muslim neighbors about some of the fundamental pillars of Islam, and share some of your practices, too.
Asma Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also a lawyer and scholar specializing in American and international religious liberty.
Did you know the United States has an annual National Day of Prayer? Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can participate this year on Thursday, May 3. In fact, you may have been participating in small, daily ways already.
What is The National Day of Prayer?
The National Day of Prayer comes each spring, and has ever since 1952, when President Harry S. Truman declared it law. In 1988, the law was amended to appoint the first Thursday in May the official date of celebration. The amended law was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who said:
“From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”
People of many religions honor the day, including Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Some gather to pray in houses of worship, and others celebrate with food, music, and time together.
This year, the theme is “Praying for America: Unity,” based on the scripture Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
How Can Each of Us Participate?
Our nation is divided, but goodness can still be found. In 2017, stories of light shone through the darkness which shrouded nearly every bit of news. In addition to praying for the unity we desperately need now, we can follow the examples of the people who inspired us.
Find Common Ground
Do you remember when a 22-year-old rapper from Harlem and an 81-year-old grandmother from Florida became friends after competing in 324 rounds of an online crossword puzzle? Spencer Sleyon agreed to play a Words With Friends game with a random opponent. Over a year later, he and Rosalind “Roz” Guttman were still playing and had become real-life pals. They met in person in December of 2017, when Spencer traveled to Roz’s hometown.
Speak Well of Others
When Senator John McCain announced his brain tumor diagnosis last summer, fellow politicians—including some who opposed him in the past—rallied to offer support and encouragement.
Former president Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election said, “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
Help Someone in Need
Around the same time last summer, nine swimmers, including an entire family of six, were trapped in the current at Panama City Beach in Florida. Beach-goers spotted them and rushed to the rescue. No one could do it alone, however. So a reported 70 to 80 strangers held hands and formed a human chain that stretched from the sand to the swimmers, who all survived.
On this year’s National Day of Prayer, we can each do something to build unity in the United States. Whether it is through prayer, friendship, kind words, or service, your part will make a difference. How will you celebrate?
In Judaism, or certainly in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to imitate, much less envy, the ways of the gentiles, a name we give to those outside our faith. So when Krister Stendhal, the late Bishop of Stockholm, urged believers to look for the admirable in other religions, I did not entirely know what to make of it. Does my own faith, the one true faith if I’m right, lack something? Did God give other peoples better ways to serve Him?
These questions do not preoccupy me unduly. But there is one thing I particularly admire. It is, perhaps, the simplest religious act of all.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” In America, a country whose religious culture is shaped by Christian ways of worship, it is the child kneeling by the bedside that often comes to mind when I think of prayer. This is so despite the fact that I recite the prescribed Jewish prayers three times a day. For Ultra-orthodox Jews, who are more insular, the dominant culture’s images play far less a role in shaping their religious imagination. But, for me, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who, in my youth, consumed the same books, movies, television shows as my fellow citizens, the image of the child knelt in prayer is strong.
What does this act of kneeling mean? To kneel is to humble oneself. It is to show reverence. Submission. Sometimes it is to beg. Other times it is to surrender to overwhelming pain. One story I will never forget is of a great rabbi who, upon hearing that his wife of many years had passed away, fell to his knees in grief, sobbing and wrapping his arms around God’s ankles, as it were. Perhaps being on one’s knees is so compelling because it is not always a voluntary act, but an involuntary expression of being physically, emotionally, or spiritually destitute.
In Judaism, we take kneeling very seriously. In ancient times, this act took place at the Temple in Jerusalem when, on the holiest of days, the high priest pronounced the ineffable name of God. Nowadays, we reserve kneeling (and bowing down from our knees) for a few moments during the High Holidays, especially in the part of the liturgy that recounts the Temple scene. But never besides then. In refraining from kneeling at all other times, in prayer and not, we demonstrate that nothing equates to the Temple experience. Indeed, depending on the flooring of the synagogue, we often put down a cloth or paper towel to avoid incidentally touching down on a marble or even wood surface.
Moreover, during the holiest prayers in our liturgy, including our daily recitals, we stand fully erect, feet together, in imitation of the angels who are said to appear to have only one leg (like our two legs together) and no knees. So, kneeling in prayer is not only rare for Jews but also not necessarily our most sanctified stance.
And yet—and yet—when I am feeling most humble (not often, to be sure) or desperate (not often, either, thank God) or praiseful (working on that one), I feel the urge to kneel. I don’t do it, but I almost wish I could. At those times, I am slightly jealous of my Catholic friends who kneel each week (or day) at Mass. We Jews are ever mindful of the fact that worship is not just a function of the mind and the lips, but of one’s entire being. We regularly enact the Psalmist’s image “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee” (Psalms 35:10) by swaying back and forth as we pray. It is a characteristically Jewish image — somewhat like the Evangelical Protestant with outstretched arms, hands high in the air — a trademark of our faith that is alien to all others.
So, it is not that my tradition is insensitive to praying with one’s whole self — with heart, soul, and might devoted in concert to God. Rather, it is being schooled in a faith that values embodied worship and at the same time in a culture that has powerful depictions of knelt prayer that may explain why I am tempted to take a knee from time to time. Spontaneously. Or perhaps the urge to kneel before God is built into our nature as humans, and the God of Israel disciplines us to genuflect only before Him in His house.
As an Orthodox Jew, I will continue to kneel only in the holiest of moments and places. As God would have me do. But whenever I behold seekers of divine comfort drop to their knees in prayer, I will still be moved to a spiritual solidarity that makes this world a humbler place.
Daniel Mark is a professor of political science at Villanova University and currently a visiting fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as the Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in the door of Christ the King United Church of Christ (UCC) in the fall of 2014. I just knew that I had to be in church, but I didn’t know where to go. My family and I had moved to St. Louis a year earlier, and it still felt like an unfamiliar place. When African-American teenager Mike Brown died on a street in Ferguson the previous month, just a few miles away from our house, I knew I needed a church community to help me mourn, to take this moment of fracture—both mine and that of the larger community—and nourish it into something new.
On the face of it, Christ the King was a lot like the church I had been a member of for 25 years in North Carolina. It was part of the same denomination, a liberal Protestant tradition that prided itself on advocating for progressive social causes, including women’s ordination. The minister at Christ the King, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, embodied what the UCC calls its “radical inclusiveness.” But my church back home, for all of its expansive outreach, consisted of a large, fairly traditional, white, affluent congregation in a college town. Christ the King, on the other hand, perched right next door to Ferguson, was small and strapped for money. And the congregation, at least the gathering I could see on Sunday mornings, was all African-American.
I’d like to say that this was an entirely comfortable transition. I’m a scholar of religious history and have taught and written about African-American Protestantism for over three decades. I have attended plenty of services in the black church tradition as a guest and observer. I knew about altar calls, shouting, and prayers that lasted twenty minutes. I even knew the words to some of the gospel songs.
It was harder to know what my whiteness might mean amid such raw racial fracture. But I was raw too, in my own way: I entered there in need of something I couldn’t even identify, an acknowledgment of feeling and experience, that I hadn’t found in the predominantly white UCC churches in town that I’d visited. I came not as an expert ready to interpret this experience, but as someone hurt and angry and in need, both for myself and for this new place I wanted to call home.
What did I find? I found a willingness to talk openly about the gaping wounds in our city that divided us by race. I heard a call for love enmeshed with a vivid and persistent thirst for justice. I saw a community that opened its doors to all-comers, including a homeless man who occasionally showed up and even interrupted the service a few times—and I saw his cries met with attention and acceptance. I met a congregation that didn’t find it weird to see a lone white woman showing up week after week; they just kept right on hugging me.
Most of all, I discovered at Christ the King an astounding mix of joy and pain, both of which were embraced and welcomed in. It is a church that can hold it all because it has to. One sunny Sunday morning we gathered outside the sanctuary after the service with over 100 red and black balloons. As Rev. Blackmon spoke the names of all the victims of gun violence in St. Louis over the past year, we let them sail away into the air. She then asked others to name loved ones who had been shot and killed. At least two dozen people in the gathering identified family and friends lost. So much grief to bear.
Yet it’s the joy and love that nourish people. There’s a lot of great music, and plenty of potlucks after church. And there is a great deal to celebrate: weddings, births, graduations. We take time during the service to praise the young people who are achieving remarkable things and getting good jobs. Sometimes I get antsy when the service goes past the two-hour mark or when the choir launches yet another verse. I’m never convinced I like the keyboard playing in the background during the prayers. None of this is the “white” Protestant tradition in which I was raised, where you felt self-conscious coughing out loud during the service.
Is this holy envy? Close, but not exactly. It’s more of a fellowship of the heart. Christ the King isn’t a typical “black church” any more than there is one typical “white church.” But I do think there is a lot that many white Protestants could learn about loving and living together in community from their brothers and sisters in African-American Protestant traditions. How to hold and share deep pain and profound joy, and most often both at the same time. How to sing and pray as if your life depended on it. How to welcome whoever God brings through the door.
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.
As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, faith counts every second of my day. Many people these days are prepared to (over)share nearly every aspect of their lives, from what they eat for breakfast to who they go home with after dinner. Yet for most millennials, being open to talking about the faith is not a part of this culture of oversharing.
Oversharing my faith led me to both a beautiful transatlantic friendship and a professional failure. As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, my conversion was met with both blessings and challenges. The zeal of a convert can be an inspiring thing– from sparking new relationships to deepening current ones. On a snowy February day three years ago, I ran into a woman I vaguely recalled meeting briefly the day before. She was a Hungarian research fellow spending the semester in Washington. We spent six hours on a snowy day talking about Christianity. I opened up to this Hungarian woman about my faith journey- from my love of the church’s teachings on contraception and chastity to those on the Eucharist and confession, some which I embraced intellectually and spiritually and others which I was still struggling to accept. She wrote to me that night, about how our conversation had inspired her to consider her Christian faith. Three years later, that friend is now a Catholic woman, and I will be celebrating another sacrament with her at a wedding in Budapest this May. Somehow, the exuberance of this American Catholic did not scare away this Eastern European woman.
While the fervor of my faith led me making a friend over 4,500 miles away, there are also downsides of wearing my faith on my sleeve. In one particular case, my exuberance was met with hostility. Just after I was received into the Catholic Church, I started a new job in Washington. I was twenty-five, a newly minted Catholic, and excited about my next professional adventure. After a few months into my new position, apparently something Catholic I said at an event was reported to my boss. I was profoundly embarrassed by this anonymous feedback relayed to me at my brand new job. What did I say? Who did I say it to? What can I do? A few months and two complaints later, I felt utterly defeated. For the first time in my professional life, I was made to feel insecure about my faith. While my pre-conversion encounter earlier that year made a great impression on a total stranger, apparently this post-conversion work encounter made a terrible one. I began a period of soul-searching- do I have to change my personality? Put my passions on the backburner? Hide my faith?
Today, I no longer feel divided between my aspirations for professional success and spiritual sanctity. If you take the call to evangelization seriously– “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), we are all called to wear our faith on our sleeves. Christ calls us to carry our lantern alight with Truth wherever we go. And if we happen to be exuberant lantern-carriers, it will be difficult to hide the light we are carrying. While our profession of the faith will vary at different moments and in different stages of our lives–perhaps I don’t have the zeal of a convert that I had in the spring of 2015–we are indeed called to stand up for Truth and profess our Christian values in the public square. Through these trials that saints are made. We grow in humility, and although our lessons in humility might be painful, Christ first said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”