Monday, July 19, 2010

Faith and Friends

I am a Christian. To be specific I am Catholic. (There are people who would argue that Catholics aren’t Christians, but that’s an argument for another time… and another person as far as I’m concerned.) I don’t go to mass as often as I should, and I understand that I’m only cheating myself. I have friends at this church in Elgin, but I’m not as fond of it as I was of St. Ignatius, though even there I felt like I was alone quite a bit of the time. That’s what being single at the age of 40 does for a person. I could go with my roommate; he almost never misses. I do miss attending with people closer to my age, people I can relate to. But, I have never seen him arrive on time or sit anywhere but the very back row.

I have a friend who is Muslim. We were born the same year, and though we were born halfway around the world from each other we did notice some similarities. We were the same age and single; we were both rather lonely. We both seemed to be a little outcast, each in a different way.

I’m certain that he is more faithful to his religion than I am. We delivered pizzas together and I know that he kept a prayer rug in his car so that he could pull off the road at sundown and pray. I can’t vouch for his consistency, but he told me that he did it pretty much every day. Muslims are supposed to pray 5 times a day and I’m pretty sure that he kept that schedule. I look at him for inspiration of how to be a better Christian.

At the pizza place many of the kitchen staff talked about him, and not in a good way. Some of them were from Mexico and I spoke Spanish, so I got along with them. He is from Bangladesh, so it seems like he should have a lot in common with them as well – being an immigrant, not being a native speaker of English – but they didn’t seem to see that. They would accuse him of stealing breadsticks and pizzas. They would say he didn’t do his part of the work. This small group would find anything bad to say about him, though the only thing that really separated him from them was language. (He actually spoke English better than any of them.) I understand that there was a different religion as well, and I’m certain that his being Muslim made them uncomfortable. (The year was 2002, which didn’t help matters.) Except that I spoke Spanish, I don’t see any reason why I should have gotten along with them better than he. I’m gay; he’s straight. I’m American; they were all immigrants...

I won’t write his name because he might not want me to do so. I suppose I could call him Mohammed. I’m relatively certain that he has that in his name; he told me that every Muslim man does… though the spellings vary. I don’t want to offend anybody’s sensibility, though, so I’ll refrain from using that name.

At the restaurant he didn’t stand around talking as much as the others did. He talked some, to me at least. It seems to me that there used to be more camaraderie between him and others who, like him, had worked there for a while; I would periodically see photos and hear conversations that made me think they used to hang out together more.

He invited me to watch prayer one Friday evening. It was beautiful. Everybody cleaned themselves ceremonially; a man stood in front and called the believers to prayer. They all prayed together, kneeling on their rugs, lifting their heads as they said their prayers. One person at the front led them. It didn’t seem to me to be like in our churches where a priest leads; my impression was that the person in front was more on the same level as the others.

He told me that right after 911 the police seemed to have started to try to harass them subtly. He said that suddenly everybody arrived at their cars after prayer with parking tickets on their cars. The mosque was downtown, but prayer was at sunset which is never before 5pm so there should not have been a meter person working.

Certain people tell me every time they get a chance that Christians and Muslims can’t live in the same world together, that one or the other will have to die. They say that it is written in the Quran that Muslims have to convince everybody to convert to Islam and kill the ones who refuse. From what I have read this is a vast over-simplification of what is in the Quran and a dangerous thing. One could say the same for our holiest of books, the Bible. The Old Testament is full of stories of killing non-Hebrew populations. But, our Bible and the Quran both agree that to hurt an innocent person is wrong. Jesus said that what we do to the least of people we do directly to him, be it good or bad. (Matthew 25) The Quran reads something similar; that if we kill an innocent person it is as if we kill all of mankind and vice versa; if we keep a person alive then we are keeping all of mankind alive. (Quran 5:32)

I actually witnessed my friend take pizza and breadsticks. I certainly wouldn’t call it stealing, though. He took an old pizza that hadn’t been picked up and put it halfway through the oven’s conveyor belt to heat it back up. We all got hungry and needed food throughout the evenings, but he was giving the pizza to a homeless man who offered to help by taking out the trash. The man would have eventually dug the same pizza out of the dumpster later on anyway, all my friend did was heat it up for him. The restaurant had no business trying to sell it again, considering how long it had sat there. Another time I saw him grab some breadsticks that had been sitting around for a few hours. Again, they weren’t usable; they were going to be thrown away. But, that didn’t keep people from murmuring about him stealing. I didn’t have to watch him to know that he was feeding a bird with a broken wing behind the restaurant. I tried a few times to let them know what he was doing, but they were intent on disliking him.

In a way I am a little ashamed for mentioning first that he is Muslim. To me he was first a friend. I haven’t seen him in a while and I very much regret that. I regret that I didn’t spend more time getting to know him. Not everybody in the restaurant disliked him, and I apologize for making it seem that way. The few who talked are the ones who stay in my memory; the friendships that he must have had – that I didn’t see – didn’t have a chance to make it there. In the time we did spend together he told me about his family and he seemed to think that his brother had a very successful career. I enjoyed talking with him about Islam, the Quran, about history and current events. There is a lot to be said for somebody coming to a foreign country and learning a new language, especially when the first language wasn’t Latin or German based. There couldn’t have been any similarities to build on. But, here he was, reading books faster than I’ll ever be able to do. I miss our talks.

We took a trip to Enchanted Rock one time. We got to the top of the 2nd largest rock at sunset. He had his prayer rug with him and he said his prayer at sunset while I looked on. There are few things in my life that have been that touching. At the time I was only just studying Catholicism. I had been baptized around age 19 (I might have been baptized much younger, but I couldn’t remember the church or much else about it, so we’ll stick with 19.) I was searching for spiritual help in a desperately lonely time. He was practicing his faith in what seemed to be a rather lonely time for him. But, here he was, praying faithfully. In times of loneliness I tend to crawl into bed and not come out, avoiding the things that could actually help me. He practiced not only his prayer regularly, but charity as well. The depth of his faith amazed me, and inspired me. It continues to inspire me.

Life has a way of separating people if one is not careful. I got a different job and moved to Elgin. I suppose he still works at the pizza place, though I wouldn’t know. I just let us fall out of touch. My brother stays in touch with friends of his who have moved to different states years ago; there’s really no excuse for my behavior. It’s rather selfish. I still think about him, especially when I’m in church or studying anything religious. I wouldn’t have been any better of a Muslim than I am a Christian I don’t think. But, when they talk about taking a collection for the St. Vincent de Paul society I think of him feeding the homeless. I have two cats, mostly because he convinced me that I needed a cat in my life. Hopefully my prayer will be answered one day and I’ll get back in touch with him. That’s probably selfishness on my part again, but there you are.