(written for and orated at BMC Service-11/29/09)
My faith journey can be summarized into two main areas: music, and a commitment to peace and social justice, and yet I cannot begin to think about my faith without acknowledging the presence of family, specifically parents and grandparents. I come from a family long-rooted in the Mennonite tradition. Both my grandpas were heavily involved in some aspect of the church. My grandpa on the Goering side was involved with lobbying President Roosevelt to legalize conscientious objector status for Anabaptists during World War 2 and afterwards became a pastor at churches in Witchita and Goshen. My grandpa on the Fretz side was a sociologist who studied and wrote books on Mennonites in Canada and Paraguay, and helped start Conrad Grebel college in Waterloo, Ontario. He was the acting president there for several years as well as interim president of Bethel College for a year. I will always remember two walks I had with each; one with Grandpa Goering along the shores of the Outer Banks in North Carolina when I was just becoming a teenager, and one with Grandpa Fretz, probably the last walk I took with him, taking place along the wooded path that leads from Bethel past the Kaufmann museum on to Kidron, right around the time I was starting college. Both walks I was not inclined to offer or accept any profound utterances on the nature of the world, due to a period of adolescent silence although I was always a good listener, leading my Grandpa Fretz to declare for me that "it's better to remain silent than be thought a fool."
My whole family went to Bethel College; mother, father, brother, aunts, uncles, several cousins, and so I was always around Newton in the summers for reunions and other such activities. As I grew up, I became bored with small town life, a fact which led to my announcement that I would be the first in the family not to attend Bethel, and ended up graduating with an English major/Philosophy minor from the University of Maryland in addition to a Freshman year stopover at Loyola University in New Orleans. Big city living was fun while it lasted but ultimately not healthy or sustainable, and now I realize I would have been perfectly fine following my parents and attending Bethel. My recent change of opinion is due in part to sharing some good times with Bethel alums, particularly my brother's graduation party and wedding out among the wheat fields of Kansas. It reminds me of a scene from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, where a priest asks young Stephen Dedalus if he loves his mother, why doesn't he just follow what she wants for him?
I was quite the stubborn and rebellious spirit growing up, always trying to get what I wanted and questioning the norm. When we went to church, I was the younger brother from "A River Runs Through It," slouching against my mother asking for candy, or heavily invested in whatever book I had at the time, and only paying attention when it came to singing hymns and the childrens story. To this day, hymns are my favorite part of worship, but I can't say I get much from the childrens time anymore. Fortunately, I found vectors to soothe my rebellious inclinations in picking up the saxophone in the 4th grade and co-founding a student group in high school called Students for Social Change.
Music was encouraged through the Goering side. My Grandpa plays Joy to the World on piano every Christmas morning to wake everybody up. He forced my dad and his sister and brother to pick up instruments throughout their schooling. My dad chose the Tenor saxophone and still plays, although with not as much tenacity as earlier on in his career. We actually have a small jazz combo that plays periodically at Hyattsville Mennonite Church and around the Washington, D.C. area. My brother and I were similarly forced to pick up instruments, and while I loathed practicing every day, picking up a new instrument is frustrating and requires discipline!, I'd say one of the greatest gifts a parent can give and teach to a child is an artistic outlet. Music for me is spiritual, relaxing yet stimulating, satisfying yet mystifying and always calling to me. I couldn't get rid of it if I tried, like God. I wouldn't want to live in a world without it, like God.
Students for Social Change, or SFSC as we called it, was entirely student-run and organized around different issues we felt strongly about including homelessness, globalization, political prisoners, the death penalty and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We would make sandwiches and walk around our nation's capital with a boombox feeding the homeless. We were involved with numerous protests, including the World Bank/IMF struggles of the early 2000s, and the massive anti-war marches that failed to stop the inevitable tragedy from unfolding. The height of Students for Social Change consisted of a county-wide walkout in 2003, linking up with our brethren from the D.C. school system, and followed up by a Valentine's Day concert featuring the movement-encompassing message Make Love, Not War.
The middle years of this decade were some of the darkest for me spiritually. Don't get me wrong. I had tons of fun in high school and college playing in different bands, traveling on sporadic road trips, writing and organizing, and other rawkusing in general, but I was always haunted by the question of how could God allow so much suffering in the world? Why were the people in power so heartless and greedy? I still struggle with these questions but several developments have alleviated the pessimism. While my faith was virtually absent during this period, I took solace in words, reading whatever professors would throw my way, and I began writing my feelings through poetry and song lyrics. Writing comforts and strengthens me, gives me a sense of achievement, and perhaps led to where I am currently. The election of Barack Obama also helped, and was literally like a candle snuffer being pulled back to reveal the candle still lit, although some of the promised changes seem to be taking awhile...
Studying philosophy and literature led me to the conclusion that everything is determined, everything is meant to happen. God has a plan, and God is the dramatist. All the world's a stage and God is the audience. In the words of Gandalf from the movie versions of Lord of the Rings, Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case, you were also meant to have the ring. I was meant to come to Boulder, I don't know what for exactly, but from an objective bystander observing the time line and subsequent unfolding of the universe, it was not my choice. Each of you were meant to be sitting in the chairs that you're seated in. All you have to do is decide what to do with the time you're given. God not only has a plan, God is the plan. I once asked my mother at a young age what and where God was and she responded "God is everywhere. God is everything." This befuddled me for awhile (many years), but with my realization that determinism and creation go hand in hand, that there is an illusion of free will that veils us from the true spiritual realm, and everything is in God's hands, allowed for this reality to set in. All you have to do is walk in the light, show some love, forgive others, resist temptation, be a witness to God's creation. God will take care of the rest. This doesn't exactly take care of the poor people suffering, but spreading the message of love and forgiveness like Christ did before us will hopefully change something in the world. I've also learned that its better to lead by example, rather than by telling someone how to live.
Two international trips helped me come to this conclusion, one having to do with peace and justice studies and the other having to do with music. They both happened in the month of January, two years apart. The first was a sojourn study group with Patty Shelley and Bethel College Winter Term to Israel, Palestine and Jordan in 2007. Seeing the Holy Land, and locations where events in the Bible take place really strengthened my faith and belief in God. I recommend a similar trip to everyone here. While violence is a reality there, life is fairly normal and safety as an American is generally ensured. Patty Shelley is a voracious singer for those that may know her. We would usually sing a hymn at significant sites and churches in the area, sometimes to the applause of other tourists, and we sang the hymn "Seek Ye First" in a church on the Mount of Olives, which had a tear-shaped window that overlooked Jerusalem. The occupation that Israel lords over the Palestinians, the discrimination shown to Arabs, even Israeli Arabs, the racist government that claims to be democratic, frankly needs to stop, and the conflict is in my prayers daily. When I saw for the first time the giant security wall that tore through the olive fields of Bethlehem, I nearly broke into tears. I hope that one day it will be torn down in similar fashion to the Berlin wall.
The second trip I took was with friends this past January to the mystical island of Jamaica. This was the first time I had traveled south of Orlando, Florida, and while I was somewhat worried going to a third world country, everyone was friendly, sometimes too friendly, but nonetheless warm, genuine, and possessing spates of wisdom that made you rethink outlooks on life. Everything is about respect and no worries, keeping the faith in Jah, meditating daily, dancing and playing music. The language, and music for that matter, once you can decipher it, is uniquely colorful and illustrative, preserving social integrity and promoting moral revolution. Words like Babylon, bredren, inity, respect, ovastanding all play into the spiritual mix. Rastafarianism takes its roots from Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and my explorations into it have delivered me to a strong and positive place in life that enrich the rebel soul within me.
Clearly, freedom of religion and general social acceptance have not been extended to Rastafarian brothers and sisters. Like Anabaptists and Palestinians, Rastafari stems from a theology of protest and martyrdom in refusing to be enslaved to authorities, specifically White male authorities. And while there are similar struggles to the Mennonite church in regards to the question of homosexuality and women empowerment, the language of liberation and personal empowerment and happiness is prevalent throughout rasta, a lot of who follow the teachings of Christ and debate scriptures with each other over games of Dominoes. Survival. Sacrifice. Solidarity. As the legendary Jamaican singer Peter Tosh sang, "If He was here, right now, he'd go to the jail the same."
While hybridization of religion and worldviews is possible from an individual standpoint, I don't know what do you think of Mennonite Rastas, I must admit I feel more attached to the Mennonite church because of my roots there within, but I am always curious to explore deeper meditations. I am glad that you all have accepted me here at Boulder Mennonite. I've made many friends here in colorful Colorado, and I look forward to meeting those that I haven't already.
In conclusion, it is what it is. I am what I am. Take it for what it's worth. And yet it can't be an individual effort, strength comes from togetherness and community. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." And I can't tell you what is needed to be done. I feel like the pulpit shouldn't be used for politicking and yet as Newt Gingrich put it in a recent Meet the Press interview on education, "Politics is the art of the possible." And God is what's possible. To quote Matthew 18 again, "Truly I will tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." If that is the case, I pledge to fight for equal rights, spread the message of love and peace, and to incorporate music into everything I do.
And I leave you with a quote from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning."