Almost two years ago, I happened to find myself sitting in a pew on the front row of a small rural area church. On this particular evening, I was not there for my spiritual tutelage. Rather, I found myself attending this rural Southern Baptist Church out of morbid curiosity. Only days prior, I had come across an advertisement that said the church would be hosting a guest speaker who would be giving a lecture on the “The Dangers of Islam.” To be clear, I had no interest in the talk. Rather, my curiosity was with the person giving the lecture, and with those who would be attending.
So there I sat, front and center, yarmulke firmly placed on my head, eagerly waiting for the show to start. Now, before finding my seat, I had already navigated several potential dangers. No, not by the hands of radical Muslims, wishing to rain terror on the event. Rather, I had been cornered already by a member of the church, who after seeing my yarmulke, he had a question for me. The congregant, a tall, older gentleman, looked down at me with pained eyes, and a genuine look of concern and said, “I recently found out that my grandfather was Jewish. What do I do?” My response to him was, “I’m sorry, I don’t exactly understand,” while thinking to myself, “this man seems to have declared a statement and then followed it with a question. However, the two do not appear to coincide.” The man, still with a troubled look on his face said, “I’ve grown up my whole like a Christian, however, now that I found out my grandfather is a Jew, what does that mean about my faith? Should I be a Jew now?”
Now, it wasn’t like I was completely unprepared when I attended this event in the first place. The subject matter alone told me what to expect. However, after hearing this man’s question, that’s when it sunk in exactly what kind of party I’d be attending tonight. I said to him, “Are you happy with your Christian faith and do you feel like you are spiritually satisfied?” In which the man somberly nodded his head, and muttered “yes.” I said, “Ok then, I officially release you from any obligations of the Tribe of Judah. You are a Christian.” The man, smiled at me, obviously pleased by this answer shook my hand and said, “Thank you!.”
This would be only the first intercept I encountered. The second was with a woman who looked to be in her early 40’s, who nervously approached me and said, “Can I speak to you Officer?” I responded, “Sure.” She then proceeded to walk into the small hallway outside of the congregation hall, looking around, as if she was afraid of anyone hearing what she had to ask. After a brief pause in the hallway, followed by more nervous scanning, the woman said, “can I speak to you outside? I followed the uneasy woman outside, thinking to myself, “well this is clearly going to be good.” The woman stopped in the shadows outside of the church, turned around and got about a foot from my face and said, “ I want you to look me in the eyes when I ask you this.” She was intensity staring at me, and suddenly I became the fearful one.
The woman proceeded to tell me that she was the president of the group co-hosting tonight’s speech. After a brief introduction, the woman leaned in even more uncomfortably close and whispered, “You have a kind face, so I believe that you will tell me the truth. Many of us in the group are worried that President Obama is planning on declaring martial law and the police will be used to take away our constitutional rights and freedoms. What can you tell me about the plans?” I chuckled and closed my eyes, only to open them and discover, “Oh wait! She’s serious.”
Realizing, that if I told her that was absurd, that would merely confirm her conspiracy beliefs, because it would mean, “I was part of the government cover-up.” Conversely, if I lied and told her that, “the guilt of hiding this evil secret had come to be just too much for my kind face to bear,” and confirmed her conspiracy theory, she would trust that I was telling her the truth. So, I decided to go with, “Ma’m the American police forces swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic on American soil. If the Federal government tried to take away the people’s freedoms, we might be the only uniform fighting force the people would have.” She nodded her head, with a look of suspicion and then released me from her steely gaze. I was finally free to find a seat before the big show began.
The guest speaker introduced himself and told the crowd that he had once worked in the computer sector before he received a message from God to go out and speak out about the evils of Islam. His journey from computer diviner to biblical prophet was detailed in his book, that he just so happened to have plenty of copies on hand, should anyone like to buy. In case, that wasn’t your cup of tea; he had a series of other books for sale as well. He also had a large donation jar handy, just in case you wanted to skip the reading part and only donate to his efforts.
As the speaker began, he asked the crowd, “How many of you think Allah is God?” I turned around to look at the group of probably fifty attendees. No one was raising their hand, and most were looking at the person next to them muttering something while shaking their head.
With no one raising their hand in response to the speaker’s question, I turned back around and enthusiastically raised my hand. Clearly, this was not something the lecturer had planned for, as he played the old, “pretend like I’m looking at the crowd and I don’t see you trick” and said, “no one?” Thankfully, the woman behind me said, “The man upfront raised his hand.”
The speaker cut his eyes towards me, and he said, “you do?” His tone was sincere. However, his eyes told me, “I hate you so much right now.” To which, I cheerfully replied, “yes I do believe Allah can be God. Allah is merely the Arabic word for God in the Abrahamic religions. Often it is associated with the God of Islam. However, the word simply translates to God. In fact, it’s etymology suggests that the name originates from Hebrew and Aramaic, since the word for God, in the Semitic languages is “Eloh” or “Elaha.” The speaker looked down at some notes in front of him as if somewhere within those notes was a spell he could conjure to make me disappear, before looking up and saying “That is correct.”
The remainder of the lecture proved to be exactly what the attendees had hoped for. It was a mixture of cherry-picked verses from the Quran that elicited gasps from the crowd. There was equal parts American nationalism, subtle racism, some fear mongering, a lot of “I’m not going to get into all of that now, but if you pick up my book.” There was also plenty of alleged justification for all of the views as mentioned earlier, as being consistent with what Jesus would want. He even brought out my favorite, “Most Muslims are good people and don’t condone violence, however…” I’ve come to find this statement is the equivalent of, “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend.”
For the grand finale, the speaker presented a good old-fashioned call to arms, for something that sounded more like an inquisition, than Southern Baptist Proselytism.
Before departing the podium, the guest speaker allotted some time for a “question and answer” session with the audience. Before I could get my hand raised quick enough, a woman in the back blurted out, “Where do we find these Mooslims (sic)?” I have to admit; I was impressed by this woman’s question. Truthfully, the only significant population of Muslims in the surrounding area, are Black Muslims and not Arab Muslims. Admittedly, it was probably my own biases. However, I imagined that most of the attendees had never considered that there could be Black Muslims. In my mind, I saw this group of people, rushing out of the church galvanized by their recent educational experience and chasing down Hindus or Indians.
I don’t even recall what kind of bait, the speaker instructed the group to use to lure the “Mooslims” into forced conversions. However, by the time he finished with his answer, my hand was up, with a little waving action going on. Not, too over-the-top, but just enough to demonstrate my eagerness. I am going, to be honest with you right now. A huge part of me wanted to ask, “So if we cannot convert the Mooslims, will a stake through the heart keep them from rising back from the dead, or do we also need to burn the body? Just to be safe.”
Instead, I went with, “Now, you said, “Most Muslims are good people, I would assume that you are referring to 99.9999999% of American Muslims since that is what the evidence would suggest. So basically, regarding the bad Muslims, or “not-most,” is it safe to assume you would be referring to the militarized radical Muslims, such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, in which 99.999999% reside in war-torn countries in the Middle East? I just think it’s just important to clarify because I would hate to see anyone leave here, go buy a plane ticket, and end up in Yemen walking up to an Al Qaeda training camp, saying “Excuse me, have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” Now, don’t get me wrong, I feel like 99.99999% of Muslims worldwide, wouldn’t care if ISIS or Al Qaeda found Jesus, just so long as they stopped killing and terrorizing people. However, I do believe it could be highly dangerous.”
The speaker looked at me for a moment, saying nothing. His gaze told me that, assuredly his next lecture was going to contain a new verse he would discover in the Quran which warned of the “forked tongue Jews.” Finally, after shifting and propping his leg up on the podium, the now uncomfortable guest speaker said, “Yes, I would highly recommend no one going overseas to try to reach out to terrorists.” Now, for my next move, I knew I had to act quick, so as the “st” in the word terrorist, was coming out of his mouth, I immediately blurted out, “Ok, I have one more question!”
I didn’t even give the speaker a chance to respond to my request for a follow-up question. Instead, I just let it come rolling out in full run-on-sentence format. “My question is, do you have a concern that by going out and engaging in aggressive conversion tactics towards the peaceful Muslim community that could cause more people who just wish to practice Muslim faith to become resentful towards other religions? In essence, it seems like this could ultimately force Muslims to side with radicalized ideologies, out of concern for cultural-religious genocide. It seems it would be much more efficient just to treat the Muslim community as equals and be kind to them. If indeed religious conversion is a goal, this seems like it would better demonstrate the virtuousness of Christianity and promote interest within the community. In a way, it seems like this is just a less violent form of what radicalized Islam is doing in the Middle East. “Join us or die,” where this is more like “Join us or get out.”
Now, at this point, I want to apologize to the entire Jewish community worldwide. Because, from the look on this gentleman’s face when I finished my question, I realized that this was probably the exact moment he decided he would author a three-part book series, with an accompanying lecture on “The Dangers of Jews.” I don’t know this to be a fact, but I feel like it could be highly likely.
The guest speaker’s facial expression turned from indifference to a full-on frown. As I turned around and looked at the crowd behind me, I realized for the first time that frowning could be contagious in the same way yawning is for people. This moment was also the first time it occurred to me that I was probably outgunned right now by about three dozen people in the crowd. All of which seemed to be none too pleased with my intrepid arrogance.
Quickly, my brain shifted gears from virtuous defender of people’s freedoms to righteous defender of my own butt. The two front exits on either side of the stage were the closest to me. However, if this thing suddenly went Boondock Saints on me, both doors led to a narrow hallway. Anyone, with any training in gun fighting, will recognize narrow doorways, hallways and passages are a no-no, and the hallmark of the “Fatal Funnel.” This left me with only the option of a dynamic exit. I would have had to try to channel my best Jason Bourne impression and hurl myself through one of the stained glass windows.
I noticed a larger gentleman several rows back from me, folded his arms over his chest and accentuated his look of disapproval in my direction. Suddenly, the words of Sun Tzu came into my mind, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
I turned back, just in time for the still scowling presenter to say to me, “They want to be saved. I’ve had Muslims tell me no one shared real love with them until I spoke to them.” With Sun Tzu’s ancient wisdom on ‘The Art of War’ as my guide and the realization I had probably pushed my luck to the limit, my response this time was, “Ok, so you said your book is for sale in the lobby, right?”
Luckily, I was ultimately able to make it back to my car and safely extracted myself before my mouth could get me in any more trouble. Upon, reflection nothing about this experience seemed religious to me. Sure, there was quotes from scripture, and indeed the whole thing went down at a place of worship. However, nothing felt like the comforting warmth that I had come to associate with religious observation. Admittedly, I am a Jew. However, I have attended many Christian service or functions over my lifetime, and the bulk of my friends are Christian. So I feel like my feelings weren’t particularly biased towards a religious preference.
For me, the entire event seemed to radiate with a white nationalistic and prejudice theme. The only thing that made it more palatable was it had been intertwined with religious virtues. In my opinion, prejudice should never be something that is considered an aspect of spiritual integrity.
Ultimately, I realized that this event wasn’t really about religion at all. This event was an opportunity for people to confirm their pre-existing prejudices, and then be able to walk away with the satisfaction of feeling like these prejudices were religiously honorable.
I’m not sure what everyone else who attend the function that night walked away with. Assuredly, more than a few left feeling a sense of satisfaction.
However, for me, that night was one I'll never forget. That was the night I got a chance to experience point were religiosity and zealously meet.