Friday, May 21, 2010

Churchopedia #5 (Church #27): The Mormons

“Then, I’m visiting a Mormon church,” I commented in chats, emails and conversations over the last few weeks. The response was uncomfortably similar across the board:

Liberal agnostic: “Seriously? Why would you want to do that?”

Conservative Non-Denominational: “That’s funny. Good luck with that.”

Devout Protestant (sarcastically): “That sounds like fun.”

Co-Worker: “You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

Family member: “Yea, not interested in that one.”

I have learned, when people respond to religion in that manner, the root of their reply is fear. For some, this fear is purely based on the unknown, and a slew of based-on-a-true-story-but-really-fictional rumors. Others have personal experience with the Mormon Church, making it easy to kill a whole garden with one bad seed.

Of all these opinions of the Mormons, there is only one person I know with a truly deep and personal relationship with the faith. He was first featured on an MTV “True Life” called “I’m Coming Out.” While a student at Brigham Young University, he spent a desperate amount of time trying to cure his homosexuality. After years of dedication to the church, he did everything possible to keep that religious bond. This meant succumbing to terrifying electroshock therapy at the hands of the Elders, something the church still denies, of course.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the core of Jayce’s existence. It was as much a part of his identity as his ethnicity, culture, traditions and sexuality. Unfortunately, whereas one can never really leave their physical, emotional and mental characteristics behind, one can be divorced by the church. Jayce left the church, unofficially, and after his MTV special, began speaking for LGBT religious rights. This trial separation from the Mormons was not meant to be permanent, as he had yet to be excommunicated and still had hope of the church coming to a place of acceptance, or at least tolerance, of his sexual orientation.

He spoke at Oberlin College, sponsored by a student organization called Queers and Allies of Faith, of which I was co-chair at the time. Though he was critical of the horrific coming-out-as-a-Mormon incident, his real burden was the loss of his relationship with the church. He still wanted to be a Mormon, speaking highly of his religious culture.

People fairly disconnected from the Mormons, as a religion and a people, are quick to judge, citing polygamy, fighting, and a cult-like atmosphere as reason to disqualify them as a credible denomination. But someone who was deeply hurt by the faith, personally affected and tormented, was accepting, almost promoting the church in his speech.

For some reason, national television and a bunch of speaking gigs did not warrant excommunication, but it was a couple days after his visit to Oberlin that the Elders showed up at his door. We were pretty sure, based on a letter to the editor from local Mormons, that the head of the college LDS had, in effect, tattled on Jayce. I’m sure it was years in the making, though, and the church so proud of its families, history and traditions lost an extremely valuable member based on their own fear of change and the unknown.

When I went to the Church with my friend, Kimberly, I was already being pulled in two directions. One side of me felt afraid, angry and close-minded whereas the other side reminded me that Jayce said he wouldn’t trade his time in the faith for anything. Surely this must be an incredible place if Jayce was willing to go through so much to remain a part of it. I decided to enter in search of the good that he spoke of, rather than the bad he experienced.

Did you know that virtually every Mormon Church in the world looks exactly the same? They have the same layout and design, and their worship services, Sunday School, and gendered meetings are consistent throughout the world. They have a way to control population, as well, so it is unlikely that I will ever find a mega-Mormon-Church. Each church is called a “Ward,” and Kimberly attends the “Ward” based on her address. Most Wards do not exceed 300, for if they do, it is time to build another. They operate with the formalness of parliament and the unity of a small group of friends. They strike me as hardworking, dedicated, and, most importantly, genuine. As many of them commented during the third hour (women’s and men’s meetings), they really believe the bible and the Book of Mormon are true. They “know” it is true.

Structurally, the church’s to-the-letter operation is very appealing. Congregationally, the community found within the Ward is comforting. Theologically…well, this is where my issues start. Not only do I not know it is true, I don’t even believe that it could be true. I’m too faithful to science and history for that.

But that doesn’t make the Mormons wrong and it certainly isn’t a reason for society to assume the worst of them. Every religion has people, often in leadership, that do terrible things. Every faith has its misconceptions about morality and ethics. Every person has their own ideals and beliefs based on what they know to be true. We should not all strive to be a single unit, the chosen people; rather, we should seek to appreciate and learn about our differences. I have always said that liberals talk too much and act too little. I still believe that’s true, however, we really don’t have any business acting until we’ve talked enough to get it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Churchopedia #4 (Church #26): Spiritual Inspiration or Physical Health?

“If you ever get sick and need to go to the hospital,” my dad proposed, “go to a Seventh-Day Adventist hospital.”

Master of health care human resources and well-read labor economist, my father never ceased to provide us with useful information. At one point, I knew exactly who to ask for manager-wise in a hospital at any given time of day. I had nursing positions, schedules and salaries memorized and recognized a somewhat disheartening fact: very few hospitals are still owned and operated by a non-profit entity, like a religious organization or government locale.

Hospitals, nursing homes, retirement facilities and other health care spaces are often associated with a religion. Putting “Saint” in front of everything makes the public immediately think, “Catholic.” In Kansas City, we have “Menorah” hospital, which obviously points towards Judaism. Most of these places, however, are no longer associated with the faith, but rather, a for-profit corporation that has essentially bought the operation, and therefore, the name. Don’t think that by choosing “Saint So-and-So Hospital” for your healthcare needs that you will be attended to by nuns and priests. It’s just not that common anymore.

But the Seventh-Day Adventists are different. They have stayed true to their faith and calling to operate their facilities based on a religious purpose. Though religion can be used to oppress, it can also liberate. When everything is based on thoughtful prayer, people tend to be happier, salaries higher and patients cautiously cared-for. If I am sick, there is a comfort in knowing that the person plunging a needle into my arm feels a sense of religious duty to do so. He or she is answering to God and is concerned with not only job, but spiritual security.

The Adventists do not stop at health care, either. In Oberlin, they held a monthly clothing swap for students and community members, weekly meals and plenty of no-pressure opportunities for musical involvement. As an outsider looking in, they seemed to me a generous, deeply prayerful people who truly believed in what they were doing and were doing what they believed.

I guess I expected their worship service to reflect this intense passion. I at least hoped for an extreme, as the Quakers’ silence, as the Orthodox’s ceremony or as the Assemblies of God’s speaking in tongues. I would have been content with one or two “Amens” from the congregation. The Adventists must be using all their religious zealousness toward mission and not praise, though, because that was one boring service. There were exactly two points of interest: they almost over-utilized old Southern gospel hymns (i.e. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder) and the preacher had an accent that was some strange mixture of New York, Boston, Ireland, England and Australia. I spent most of the service texting my mom in contemplation, trying to figure out his native country.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the purpose of this journey and this blog. Is it to be critical or curious? Is it to be open-minded or jaded? And now, is it a journey of “10 Churches,” as stated simply in my blog address, or a journey of “10 Faiths”?

Reading back through my posts, Lenexa Christian (Mega-Church #4, Church #15) caught my eye. After all, the Assemblies of God as a faith has been vicious and hateful toward some of my dearest friends. Their statements and policies concerning homosexuality are perhaps some of the most extreme in the Christian religion. That service, however, was one of the best worship experiences of my life. Using this logic, the Seventh-Day Adventist’s faith could trump worship service just as easily as the AG’s service trumped faith.

So what—the service was boring. But I’ve been to Shawnee Mission Medical Center’s Emergency Room twice in the past year, spending more time there than in worship with the Adventists. Shouldn’t that be my basis for any judgments for or against their faith? Less than one hour of worship versus needles, x-rays and diagnosis: Am I will to trust these people with an hour of my Saturday morning? No. But am I willing to trust them with my life? Absolutely.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Churchopedia #3 (Church #25): Musical Church/Church Musical

If I had my way, life would be a musical. And I don’t mean one of those plays-with-songs musicals. I mean full-out-rock-opera, little-to-no-dialog and obnoxious-dance-break musical. There would be ballads equal to Lloyd-Weber, tap-dancing a la Cole Porter and some sort of subconscious singing narrator. As I have told many since its pilot sneak preview last May, “Glee” is pretty much the world I live inside my head.

It’s not surprising that the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Dionysios, was appealing for a similar reason. Ninety-five percent of the service was sung, beautifully. It was not the type of beautiful that requires intonation or rhythm. It was just heartfelt and full, from the Friar to the congregants. These people were born to sing. Every word had shape and purpose. I know this is going to sound completely wrong, but, I’ll say it anyway: if I were a God, I would want to be praised by the Greek Orthodox Church.

This is the most challenging service I’ve attended, and probably where I felt the most ignorant. Whereas the mega-church delights in being accessible, the Orthodox take pride in complex tradition. Interestingly, though they were harder to understand, they seemed more welcoming than most of the churches I’ve visited. No one was annoyed or disturbed by my presence, or by my lack of participation. There was a man sitting two rows ahead of me that came back to explain what was happening whenever the service changed directions. “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’,” was how he phrased his statements. It was very direct but not abrupt. It was almost as if he was saying, “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’, and some people don’t, which is cool.”

At the end of the sung liturgy, which lasted almost an hour, there was a short sermon followed by the Eucharist, though I’m not sure if they call it that. (I planned on doing research before I wrote this, but I didn’t want my experience spoiled with facts and history.) Right as the wine was turned to the blood and the bread to the body, two small groups of people entered from the back of the sanctuary. They participated in the English aspects of the call and response, but not the Greek. I was confused and therefore distracted until I heard The Lord’s Prayer, which, unlike the Apostle’s Creed and most of the other liturgy, I actually had memorized. I spoke the prayer in English and then listened to two-thirds of the congregants say it in Greek. Then, as I began to turn the page in my booklet to the next part of the service, I heard the pulsation and breath-marks of The Lord’s Prayer in a different language. The people behind me to my left were praying as all others bowed their heads in silence. Then, a group on the right side of the sanctuary chanted what I’m sure was the Lord’s Prayer in yet a fourth language.

I was bewildered and moved. I really wanted it to culminate in a multi-lingual recitation of the prayer simultaneously, but it didn’t. I glanced around, trying to be inconspicuous. My racial-profiling radar has never been that good. “If only I could hear a single person speak clearly,” I thought to myself. “Then, I could identify the language and therefore the people.”

I never did figure out what the other two languages were. I kept meaning to call the Friar this week and eventually decided that I didn’t care. Speaking purely from logic, reason and basic knowledge, I would guess that the groups were Romanian, Ethiopian or Russian Orthodox. I know that their worship is similar but obviously, in a different language. Regardless of what separated them, the true unity of Christ is what brought them together. Whatever barriers caused them to worship separately for an hour were ripped down, like the sheet in the temple, when it came to Jesus’ body and blood. The late Reverend Fred Lassen once loosely interpreted a verse from Romans to me: “Embrace each other precisely in your differences.”

This ceremony and communal process really attracts me to the Orthodox religion, the same way I envy the Catholics and the Episcopalians. I like feeling like I’m part of the culture of something, even though I may not ethnically personify that representation. I don’t think I’ve fit into a “culture” since Oberlin, and maybe that’s what I’m searching for now instead of a church.

One of my college professors hated the saying, “Music is the universal language.” She thought it was trite and silly. I would challenge her now with the idea that music is a cross-cultural language, a time-traveling language and a telepathic language. It allows us to embrace precisely what is different, and when paired with prayer, is virtually unstoppable.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Interlude: She Ain’t Heavy, She’s my…self.

The first alarm escalates at 4:50 a.m. The phone begins soft, almost charming and then crescendos into an obnoxious serious of chords until a button, any button, is pushed. Alarm number two is the annoying, beeping kind. It rings at 5:00 a.m. sharp, though the clock itself says 5:15. For more than ten years the clock has fluctuated between 10 and 20 minutes ahead, as if the trick will work on the mind unconditionally. “Oh my goodness, the clock says 5:15,” she panics. After she’s dressed and headed out the door, she’s calmed by the microwave’s marquee, “5:00 a.m.”

She enjoys the walk to the gym because it is dark and cold. This is the only time she likes being outdoors. Even so, she is grateful to enter the peaceful, air-conditioned lobby, staffed by a busy senior citizen and a high school lifeguard. She waits with her chin in her hand resting on the desk by the keypad, ready to enter her top-secret gym security code as soon as the clock hits 5:25. Every minute counts. The sooner she finishes the elliptical, the episode of “Bones” and the 45-minute workout, the sooner she can shower and catch a quick nap before school. Some days, if she’s running short on time, she’ll dry her hair for four minutes instead of five. This allows her one more minute of rest.

She ate a breakfast bar and drank a sugar-free energy drink before exercising, but the calories have worn off. As she closes her eyes for forty-five minutes, her stomach grumbles in discontent. She tries to focus on the Oprah-preaching positive: If you are hungry, then you are actively losing weight. By the time she awakens for work, she is too anxious to be hungry anymore.

Eating, though, is like the pile of papers that gathers on her desk every semester. It is okay to avoid it for minutes, hours, days and maybe months. It’s okay to let it slide and ignore it, even though it causes great discomfort and may even put others in an uneasy state. But one day, one very frantic day, she suddenly begins organizing and cleaning, depleting the stack of papers one by one until her room is the epitome of perfection. It is the same for food and hunger. Eventually, she will be full, sickly full, regardless of how long she can avoid it.

She quit wearing make-up in college. She quit caring how she dressed after her first teaching job. She just added it into her quirky character label that she gained in high school when she color-coordinated her days of the week and wrote scathing political columns in the school newspaper. Elitism is an easy excuse for lack of self-confidence. Justification is the easiest way to turn a negative into a positive.

Dieting for 15 years is not easy, for anyone, but especially not for her. She loves food, and sometime in college, she learned the glorious combination of food and alcoholic beverages. Drunken pizza, tipsy Taco Bell…they are all staples in her lifestyle. She eats more than she drinks, for sure. It definitely doesn’t take an evening of frivolity to instigate a trip to McDonalds. Aside from alcohol, her reasons for eating are very good: rough day, hard decision, emotional crisis, fabulous celebration, and important social experience…she never eats if there isn’t a good cause.

Music and food are similar in this way. They can fill the void in her life at anytime. The presence or absence of said item can really make the different in a wonderful or terrible day. Just as she could say, “I’m in the mood for Italian,” she could state, “I’m in the mood for some Mozart Violin Concerto in G Major.” Music and food represent the solution as much as the problem, and the tone and mood of her attitude.

She knew the food obsession was an issue, because she started trying to fix it as a teenager. A person who operates in extremes, however, is not so good with balance and nutrition. The most successful diets were difficult and severe, and they lasted no more than a month. At most, she lost thirty pounds and if she was lucky, reduced her blood pressure to an age-appropriate number. Then, tragedy struck, celebrations continued and food was a necessity once again.

Looking in the mirror today makes her sad and disappointed. Whereas before she had instances of security and self-confidence, that assured stature has completely faded. No longer does she appreciate her curves, her naturally highlighted hair or her dark brown eyes. It all seems secondary to the glob in between. Part of her body doesn’t even feel like hers anymore. It is like an uninvited guest that just can’t take the hint.

And when she stands in the classroom, her biggest fear is that the girls that love her can see her pain. She wants them to be strong, smart and caring. She focuses on their growth, intelligence and personality. She doesn’t want them to look in the mirror and see what she sees, which makes her feel like a hypocrite. How can she say it’s okay to be big and beautiful and hate it all at the same time?

As she slumps up the stairs and waddles into her apartment in the evening, she stands at the door and ponders her success. Job, check, education, check, talent, check, personality, not brilliant, but check. There is no mention of her eyes or her hair anymore. There is no reference at all to image or physical appearance. Even without the acknowledgement, the issues push through. For how she looks on the outside is how she feels on the inside, and refusal to look in a mirror is equal to refusal to assess ones faults and weaknesses.

By doctors’ standards, she is obese, yes. By society’s standards, she is just unattractive. Either viewpoint is uncomfortable, and both seem to be based in fact rather than opinion. She gets confused, “Am I fixing a problem?” she asks herself, “Or altering a solution?” The biggest question on her mind, the most dramatic question that she doesn’t express is: “Am I even worth it?” Maybe this is it, she thinks. I’m just supposed to be this way and the consequences will occur regardless.

Grasping at spirituality, music and writing will not help her at this point. She must take drastic, but reasonable, action. She must refuse to settle into the label that she has endured for fifteen years and through confidence or weight-loss or both, prove them all wrong. She does not fit into a category, a box on a sizing table, or a highlighted column on a weight chart. She just needs to fit into her own body, with enough cushion room but also a safety belt.

When the first alarm rings, she presses “dismiss” without hesitation. She resets the 15-minute-ahead-alarm-clock and crawls back into bed. She feels the weight of her body pressing against her most inner doubts and fears. She is full of compromise, justification and pure desperation. She feels defeated. The baggage she has acquired is heavy, but her responsibility. She’s strong enough to lift it, which means she must also be strong enough to throw it away.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Interlude: Do I look Illegal?

Rachel and I have similar experiences when it comes to racism. We have the unique opportunity to see the most internal, secretive, illogical racism that exists. Family, friends and coworkers, who would normally avoid racial remarks at all costs, feel comfortable making them when only white people are present.

Or so they think.

Rachel is half Venezuelan. Actually, her father is Italian Venezuelan, so I guess that makes her a quarter of each. She has porcelain pale skin and gorgeous red hair. She has been called beautiful and exotic, but rarely a racial or ethnic minority. I, on the other hand, have both Mexican and Japanese blood running through my veins. I grew up in a household that embraced the Japanese culture and when my mom walked the streets of Miami, people spoke to her in Spanish because she looked like a native speaker. I have brown hair, brown eyes and very light skin. Even when people find out I am of Japanese and Mexican decent, they often don’t believe me.

The event usually unfolds as so:
I am sitting in a room, on a plane or in a meeting with people that I consider friends, or at least, acquaintances. They know me well enough to call me by my first name, speak to me sarcastically and ask me for help. Some have known me for a very long time and we might even be related. They know where I went to college, where I grew up and often, have met my parents. Then, a story, maybe from the television or from their personal experience, references Japan or Mexico and the people within those countries.

This is when the conversation gets uncomfortable…for me, and, if I’m in an argumentative mood, for them. The least hurtful comment is the use of the word “oriental.” Rugs are oriental, people are not. Occasionally, the term “Jap,” used regularly in WWII, comes up in conversation. Most recently, a cousin of mine posted a warning on my mom’s Facebook wall about “those oriental nail salons.” My mom was bewildered. “You know I’m Japanese, right?” she responded. “Oh, no offense,” was followed by a detailed essay on why what my cousin said “really wasn’t racist.” When I was in eighth grade, my social studies class spent the better part of an hour watching footage of the atom bomb. “Cool!” the other children exclaimed. The teacher did not intervene as the video promoted the American perspective of the war, depicting the Japanese as terrible, harsh fighters with no regard for human life. Fifty years after the war and we were still dehumanizing the “enemy.” Even at 13, I felt discouraged.

When I defend my heritage, which is 100% of the time now, I often receive the excuse, “I never would have said that if I knew you were Japanese/Hispanic.” That doesn’t change the fact that you are racist, I want to reply. Careful racism is just as bad, if not worse than outward racism. It makes you wonder how many people have these prejudices inside and how many friends to whom they feel close enough that they can express their biases. Unfortunately, this internal fear they possess has ended many relationships for me. I can handle discussion over political beliefs and even open-minded conversations on race. What I will not do is have a relationship with someone who dehumanizes my friends and family. There is a line that needs to be drawn and those of us who like to debate need to boycott those who cross it. I wonder if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had sat around and “talked” as long as we do sometimes, would civil rights have happened? We need to stop convincing and take action, stop listening and take charge, stop buying and start affecting.

The immigration bill in Arizona has started a movement called “Do I look illegal?” To me, that is like asking, “Do I look like an alien? Do I look non-human?” And though the revisions to the bill state that officers of the law may only ask for documentation if they can find another law violation, the first thing the police will do is look. A light-skinned man and a brown-skinned man are standing in front of a convenience store. Which one will the police approach regarding loitering and then proceed to ask for documentation? This bill, just as so many subconscious bigots did when they found out my heritage, makes excuses for discrimination. It is no different than the laws imposed on African-Americans that were full of evidence and arguments and justification.

As I ponder the question, “Do I look illegal?” I put my passport, a copy of my birth certificate and my social security card in my wallet. Every time I use my credit card, go to the bank or get pulled over for speeding, I can offer up all of this information. When I get carded at the bar or club, it will be easier if I just shove evidence of my whole life into the open. And then, I can pleasantly state, “You look illegal. Can I see your documentation, please?”