On Love and Faith

My flight included cookies.
And pretzels.
And a Diet Coke.
Which sealed my fate as completely dumbfounded and eternally grateful for pretzels and cookies and Diet Coke and the immense amount of carry-on space that was clearly well planned for a flight this size meaning that no one had to put their carry on baggage in an area that can neither be described as carried or on the plane. These things are so rarely offered on cost cutting flights these days that it caused me to let out a contorted laugh as the stewardess handed me a packet of cookies.

I laughed the way you would laugh at a toddler’s joke which, unfortunately, is a mix of half paying attention and not being entirely sure where the comedy lies, which I imagine made the stewardess feel like her life was unrelated to her dreams. For that I am sorry, but I am not sorry about the cookies or my unbridled joy.

While this might all seem insignificant to the lady using more than 3/4 of my armrest and the slightly offended stewardess, I took this as a sign that finally, in a way that is almost unexplainable, I have made it. Of course it’s a bit weird to feel emotions such as “wildly successful” and “boastfully proud” because of some airline snacks but you feel it when you feel it and I felt it shoving pretzels into my cheeks stuffed into an airplane seat next to someone reading a romance novel and wearing Chanel No. 5.

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Four years ago I asked a woman who previously held the job that I want to have (Director of Community Engaged/Service Learning at a university) how I could make my resume look more like the kind of person she’d want to hire to replace herself (as Director of Community Engaged/Service Learning at a university). She gave me the usual line items, “varied experience”, “a more focused area of study”, “volunteering”, “life commitment”, “countless rejections”, “years of despair” etc., etc., etc., She also suggested that I work on getting published and perhaps present at a conference or two. The long and the short of it is, I chose the biggest conference I could find, with the most impressive name, and wrote a proposal and now I’m flying home from Albuquerque in my post-presentation haze and a rumpled blazer.

I’m still feeling a bit more verbose, however, and I have a two-hour layover that could either be spent at an airport bar with a glass of wine, or could be spent at an airport bar with a glass of wine and this blog post. The first option sounds like the end of a modern Virginia Woolf biopic. The second option sounds more romantic, like an Elizabeth Gilbert memoir, minus a guru, a Brazilian love affair and spaghetti. Spaghetti or no, I’m still going with Liz Gilbert. She’s kinda my guru anyway and I’m most definitely having a love affair with this glass of wine. It’s from Argentina though. That’s kinda like Brazil right?

In the longer version, I left the office of the person who previously held the job I want to have, with a list of qualifications she would want the person that would replace her to have.  I knew even before I sought her guidance that I would need a few years and probably some distinguishing marks (A gray hair? A worry line between my eyes?) before people would start to take me seriously for this kind of role. About a year or two post consultation, I was happily saving my one gray hair and I was well on my way to producing worry wrinkles on my round, freckled face. While I was waiting for more age and experience to join me, I decided to do everything and anything that I could to become perfect for the job of my dreams. This all seems to be a bit dramatic, I realize, but we’re talking about life goals and reaching for the stars so being lofty and Shakespearean and writing like the editor of a high school literary magazine seems appropriate.

When I hunkered down, and hunker I did, with my papers and planners and files in front of me trying to pinpoint the thing I knew the most about in the world of community engagement, I discovered something rather surprising about myself. I am significantly successful at building faith-based partnerships within our community.

Now, not to drag this mini novella out any longer than necessary, but it should be noted that while I spent a great deal of my childhood and adolescence following the regularly scheduled and somewhat rambunctious dictations of the Episcopalian church, my adult life has been spent generally dodging the majority of Christian conversations. Someone I love dearly once said to me, “People who introduce themselves as Christian, rarely are.” And this is how I felt about the friends, family and/or the previous boyfriends that suddenly began dusting off their bibles and joining Wednesday evening prayer groups curiously around the same time that their beer bongs were breaking and their Nintendo 64’s were starting to get fuzzy. I felt scared and abandoned and fiercely opposed to being recruited. I fought Christianity (and religion in general) like it was a disease.  In a world focused on equity, it seemed that those yelling the loudest oppositions were doing so in the name of God.  So I lumped “person of faith” and “bigot” into the same word bank, and I even half expected to find “see asshole” and “right wing” under the definition of “Christian” in the dictionary.

Words like “evangelism” and “Baptist” and “sins” quite literally put the fear of God in me. It’s just, in this instance, I actually feared God as an entity and a belief system, not fearing his wrath. So it was therefore quite a shock to my system that in my piles of projects and programs and support systems I had built around me at our small but mighty community school that I found my strength in partnership building lay in faith-based partnerships. I had somehow created an army of organizations, and the majority of my soldiers were carrying bibles.

I was confused to be experiencing these feelings of resistance towards those with strong faith, and I was ashamed to admit I had stereotyped on more than one occasion.  I was having a hard time identifying in a world that I had no interest being identified in.  Someone asked me once if it was hard being an Atheist and I angrily cried that I wasn’t one.  They retorted, and I retorted, and so on until I squelched the debate with a firm thought.  I do not practice with any identified or organized religion (unless you can count me floundering around on the floor with Stan and his knee pads in yoga class) and I am not currently seeking to participate in anything similar.  That being said, I cannot and will not identify as Atheist. To be Atheist would mean that I didn’t believe my dad was able to help ease my grandpa’s pain through prayer as he passed.  To be Atheist would mean that I don’t smile proudly when my niece sings “Amazing Grace” instead of “Stanky Leg”, knowing the roots of the magnificent and purposeful things her parents are teaching her.  To be Atheist would deny the goosebumps that formed on my arms while watching my childhood friend sing her favorite hymns during her wedding with the kind of grace and godliness that can only belong to a woman rooted in her beliefs. I have found an amazing family with the partners of faith at my school. I feel warmth when they pray for me or for the families in our community and I absolutely refuse to imply that their faith isn’t strong, honest and real.  With this realization, I then made it my mission to practice peace, acceptance and keep an open mind.

On a selfish level, I was dependent on the school’s partners of faith.  We are located in a predominantly residential area, and reaching out to big businesses is impractical if not impossible.  Our uniforms, mentors, volunteers and friends come overwhelmingly from the faith-based organizations in the area.  I’d like to say that my motives were educational at the root, but I know that partly, I just wanted everything I could grab onto for my students.  This strange little bay of “in-between” is how I ended up exactly where I am today.  I felt proud of my friends and family, but reluctant and uninterested to participate.  So I approached this exploration of faith like a less verbose Henry David Thoreau, with both immersion and seclusion simultaneously, stopping occasionally for a healthy bit of reflection.  I read a book about being Jesuit and attended the most terrifying church service I could imagine in a strongly Appalachian neighborhood.  I debated with zealots and organized prayer requests for families of multiple faiths.  I stopped for Asr and Maghrib during a home visit, gathered on Christmas Eve in the basement of a house church, watched a 2nd grader learn to read with the bible donated by her neighbor, and was thankful for the comfort and peace that same 2nd grader found in her readings when her teacher passed away unexpectedly.

My job, and what I believe will be the continual focus of my career, is to gather morally sound Samaritans in an effort to create a loving and deep rooted support system between neighbors.  I hope to spend my days taking the things we already have, and connecting them like a puzzle to recreate or replace the things that are missing.  I would be remiss, and almost was, if I ignored one of the strongest layers in a community’s foundation.  It isn’t easy telling people that you don’t practice religion and it certainly doesn’t get any easier to then ask them to support your cause.  But I learned that having a fear of faith is almost as detrimental as forcing religion.  Choice in all things is ours to relish, and choice should always be celebrated.  Faith, I have learned, should be revered as a practice.  It should be held up as proof that someone is willing to dedicate their time and their energy to following their moral compass.  It is evidence of peace, good will and a myriad of other New Testament words that I’m sure I’ll misuse.   Faith brings people together; it comforts, strengthens and fills voids. And partners of faith, friends of faith, can be your strongest advocates when you trust them enough to join you.

So when I sat, with my Diet Coke, my pretzels, my cookies and my carry-on, tugging at my rumpled blazer and being thankful for the 50+ people that wanted to know how I created partnerships  with the faith based organizations surrounding my community public school, actively knowing the rules of separation of church and state, but hoping to find a way around “no”, I knew I had made it.  Or at least made it to mile marker one.  I had beaten my strongest prejudice.  I had made my weakness my strength and even stood up to encourage others to do the same.

As a partner once told me, “The best interactions happen life on life.”  I see your life, and raise you the life of one child in a struggling school, who thanks to the hundreds of loving, kind, generous, mindful (and yes, gracious me, even faithful) lives of our friends in East Dayton, will grow up with peace.

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