pilgrimage

A Green Mango Pilgrimage -Part 4 – The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

“Humanity is but a single Brotherhood, so make peace with your brethren.” The Qur’an 49:10

I am not in Tennessee right now, I am in Haiti. But I am trying to get caught up some on my Pilgrimage posts from when I was in the States last and was able to work on my sacred space bucket list. And highlighting this particular place, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, has been on my heart for a while, the more and more that I see Islamophobia normalized in the US and even celebrated within the current political campaigns, I wanted to share the example of this beautiful faith community there in Murfreesboro that has overcome tremendous adversity and still stood strong as a symbol of peace and tolerance.  The mosque is one of the newest places on my list having only opened up in 2012, after a long and controversial process to build a larger location for the growing congregation there to gather and worship. Once they announced their plans for the building in 2010 they endured more than two years of protests, vandilism, threats, and arson from community members that didn’t want them to be there. They were even sued in an attempt to stop construction, but a judge ruled in their favor and the building continued. When they finally opened in 2012, the congregation celebrated their new space that stood as a triumph over hatred. The Imam Ossama Bahloul at that time encouraged his Islamic community there by reassuring them that they had reason to be proud because God knew they were strong enough to deal with all of the opposition that was thrown their way.

That history in itself makes this place special as a sacred space that almost never was. But what is even better is that since then, this community of Muslims have made a conserted effort to establish their space as one that represents unity, understanding, and indeed community. Despite the violent reaction that they received, they have responded out of love and tolerance and become a place that brings people together in Murfreesboro rather than dividing them further.

From the homepage of their website,

Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers, openess rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together, in the common spirit of the value and dignity of a shared personhood as citizens of this great nation.

Sounds pretty different from what we’re used to hearing from certain politicians and the media these days. We seldom let the voices of Muslims themselves be heard on the issues that affect them. Instead most people hear “ISIS” and freak out because what they really heard was “Islam”. But that’s not what Islam is, this is Islam, “Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers.” 

 And from what I can tell from my own experience there in Murfreesboro, they are really embodying this as a congregation. The space itself welcomes you in no matter who you are and encourages to ask questions about where you are to shed light on a belief system that is so widely misunderstood. Even as I pulled into the parking lot I was struck by the fact that it sits within spitting distance of a Baptist church and the two buildings look like they belong next to each other physically and theologically. It’s a strong symbol alone that two such places can exist side by side in this country.

I, unfortunately, arrived at a time when only the janitor was around. I have since been trying to get in touch with Imam Bahloul to ask him some more questions about the center there, but he is in the middle of leaving his position there to focus on more academic work so I have not been able to talk to him as much as I would have liked. But I can understand even from my very brief correspondance with him that no matter where he goes or what he does he is working to bring people together and doing everything in his power to present a positive, more true image of Islam to the world. I pray that whoever the Center there finds to replace him will be able to continue to build on everything that he’s already done.

The mosque in Murfreesboro is just one example of the many, many mosques all across the US that are full of devote followers of Islam who believe in peace, in freedom, and in solidarity with other faiths. These places don’t get near enough attention. They are essential institutions for our communities and important parts of our republic. They are sacred and they people that worship there are our brothers and sisters. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can all know peace. Until then, I’m happy to stand with them and look at distant horizons together.

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A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 3 – Abbey of Gethsemani

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. – Thomas Merton

I know that this is going to sound hyperbolic and absurd, roll your eyes at me if you must, but the moment that I stepped out of my car in the parking lot outside of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, I immediately heard the birds in the air and the trees that populate the acres of beautiful land that the abbey sits on sing more clearly and and beautifully than I’d ever noticed anywhere before. I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of a Snow White film and soon the squirrels and bunny rabbits would be running up to me carrying freshly plucked flowers and ripe fruit for me to snack on while we all speak to each other in our universal animal language. But I guess, in a way, that’s sort of the point of this sacred space. Not to feel like you’ve been sucked into a Disney film, but to feel like you’re separated from all of the hubbub and chaos of modern life and are able to find a sort of serenity and solitude that allows you to commune with God, nature, and your very self, in a completely different language. Specifically for the monks and others who retreat at this monastery, that language is silence.
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IMG_0095The Abbey of Gethsemani is a monastery of the Cistercian order of monks who “lead a life of prayer, work, and sacred reading, steeped in the heart and mystery of the Church,” according to their brochure. It is through the methodical study of Scriptures and concentrated prayer regimen that monks here are able to explore more deeply what it means to live fully in Christ and discover the depths of the love of God and ultimately to share that love with the world. They are in a unique position to intercede on behalf of the Church and the world through their prayers in a tumultuous time when the average person does not take the time to slow down and pray themselves. This very fact hit me hard to realize that with all of the division that currently exists within the Church and uncertainly about its future as well as in the world in general with injustice and misunderstanding plaguing every corner of the earth, there are people whose job it is to intercede on our behalf. All of us, myself included, without these monks even knowing who I am, are being prayed for by men who have the strange luxury of being able to focus all of their life’s energy into that prayer. That’s a powerful realization and it brings extra gravity to my own personal prayers, knowing that these men center their life around such a gift, to come in contact and communicate with God. It brings extra vitality to the need to embrace what a true gift it is.
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The Abbey’s most famous monk was Thomas Merton who lived there from 1941 until his death 27 years later during which time his prayer and study led him to become one of the most respected theologians of the 20th century. His works focused on interfaith truths and social justice and have drawn connections between a number of world religions including Buddhism and Native American beliefs, from a Christian viewpoint. He studied Eastern religions as a way to draw himself deeper into the human experience which he considered being at the core of his own beliefs as a Catholic. Merton’s work has been credited as giving rise to an explosion of spiritual exploration in the 60’s and 70’s and continues to inspire and inform seekers of all backgrounds to this day. His grave is placed in the cemetery right outside of the monastery in Kentucky, but his legacy continues to live through the many who have been touched by his writings to plunge the depths of the human soul and rise to seek justice and peace for all on the planet.
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IMG_0098Although most of the property of the Abbey is off limits to the public and reserved for the monks, they do allow the public into the sanctuary and invite anyone to join them for their daily prayers. I was blessed to be at the Abbey just in time to witness their afternoon prayers inside the beautiful, narrow sanctuary. I sat there for a few minutes alone before the monks entered, meditating in a silence that was even more intense than what I had experienced at the Baha’i Faith Temple the week before. When the time came for the prayers, the monks came in one at a time, in complete silence, and took their places. Once everyone was there, with no fanfare of any kind, no speaking or instructions, they simply stood and began singing in unison a cappella. I naively expected it to sound like one of those Tibetan chanting monks CD’s that you find next to the spa music in some holistic health store. But as soon as they started singing, it was clear that their goal was to pray, not to sing. This is not to say that they were bad at singing, it was just clear that they were not concerned with how they sounded to anyone but the Lord that they were praying to. The authenticity with which they sent their voices up and sincerity with which they sang each word filled that simple space with a Sacred Presence so palpable that no one could deny that the Spirit was active in their prayers. It was refreshing in a world where so many churches have turned praise into performance and the singing becomes empty when authenticity is sacrificed for entertainment. There were no fancy lights, or instruments, no hipster glasses or skinny jeans, no frills, no show to be put on, just pure honest praise that ushered in a more powerful worship experience than any modern service could offer. For four simple songs and fifteen simple minutes, I witnessed a group of men unified with one simple goal of praising the God that they loved and inviting him to work through them in this world. Everyone in worship services always claim that they’re there only for God’s glory, but I never really believed it fully until I saw those men consumed by it so purely at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
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After my short visit, I have to admit that I left the Abbey of Gethsemani thinking to myself, “I could be a monk for a while”. The revelations offered through the lifestyle the monks live there and the unadulterated experience that is offered through such a simple and direct encounter with something so Holy is so undeniably attractive that it certainly makes one question why everyone doesn’t commit themselves to such a life at least for a while. But I’m afraid I won’t have the courage to trade in my Levi’s for a white robe any time soon. I will, however be reading more Thomas Merton and doing what I can to walk through life with a more conscious appreciation for both the opportunity for solitude as well as the gift of relating to the rest of humanity.
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This post is part of my Pilgrimage series where I write about places as I check them off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List.
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A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 2 – Baha’i Faith Temple

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. — Bahá’u’lláh

I have been traveling around the US again this month and during that time I’ve been able to check several more places off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List. I have been busy with so many other activities during these travels that I haven’t had time to stop and write much. But as I go, I promise to record my thoughts and experiences in these places even if it comes a couple weeks later. The experiences that I am blessed to have in these spaces stay with me and travel with me, so I will be sharing them with you as soon as I can. They have been, in fact, the necessary pause in the midst of the nonstop activity of a whirlwind road trip. No place better embodies this sense of pause than the first sacred space on my current trip, the Baha’i Faith Temple in Wilmette, Illinois.

IMG_0038This temple in Wilmette is one of only eight Baha’i temples in the world, representing the central symbol of light and unity for all who follow the Baha’i faith in all of North America. This is why I absolutely had to see it while I was in the area. As someone who seeks to understand and learn as much as possible about all world religions, I have opportunities in every city that I visit to see churches or mosques or synagogues or temples from other religions, but Baha’i only gives you eight chances in the world, so I had to take the chance when I got it. I will admit, however, that I knew very little about the Baha’i belief system before visiting Wilmette. I had known a few people who had dabbled in it and even had a couple of my roommates in Haiti who briefly converted to a local version of Baha’i a few years back. But that didn’t last long as I always suspected that they were just doing it because of a couple of cute girls who were also in the group that they wanted to impress. “Hey Girl, yah I totally believe in the oneness of humanity and dignity of every human being. What you doing later?” So despite their weekly devotional meetings, they were never great wells of information for me to learn from. So I approached the temple with a significant level of ignorance but also a significant desire to replace that ignorance with understanding.

Once I arrived and spoke with some of the individuals there and spent some time absorbing the clarity that the space there offers, I have to admit that what I learned there was in overwhelming harmony with my hippy heart. Central to the Baha’i faith is the belief that we all belong to one human race and that all religions share a common source and aim. They believe that all scriptures throughout history combine to reveal the truth of God and that God himself has used a number of messengers to transmit wisdom to the human race. They believe that civilization is constantly undergoing a spiritual evolution and that Baha’u’llah is the latest of the Divine Messengers to share God’s truth with the world. Basically, in Baha’i, in my very simplified summary, we are all one big happy family. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and everyone else. What each believes represents some part of what is True but they each are all just part of something much bigger which they may not recognize themselves. To a traditionally Christian Theist who has always tried to be as inclusive as possible, with a leaning towards pluralism and a desire to find the wisdom present in differing religious traditions, this incredibly encompassing foundation that the Baha’i faith is built upon really made sense. It seemed so refreshing in a world where everyone is always arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong. It seems so refreshing in a world where even people who claim the same labels, claim to follow the same God, and even sit in the same pews next to each other once a week, always seem to end up disagreeing so much on what is truth and what we should do with the truth. The idea that there is a place where everyone is allowed to be some sort of right is refreshing.

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By entering into this specific space in Wilmette, refreshed is exactly what I felt. As mentioned, that was exactly what I was already searching for after some busy days of fundraising and traveling, a needed an opportunity to pause and refresh my soul. The Baha’i Faith Temple provided just that. From the moment that I stepped in even the welcome center, and not even the sanctuary yet, all of the inertia from my go go going suddenly halted and seemed to fade at the doorway. The simple presence of such a unified, peaceful faith being expressed in a single location, changes the way one breathes, sees, even speaks. When the gentle woman inside greeted me I found myself responding with such a calm moderation in my voice that I surprised even myself. There was suddenly absolutely no reason to speak any other way than with absolute open sincerity. I was tempted to simply stand there and have an entire conversation with this woman about entirely everything that she believed. But that, of course, was not why I was there. I wanted to get into that sacred space where one was invited to encounter the Divine. So after a short chat with her I asked directions into the sanctuary.

When you enter into the sanctuary, guests are welcomed and instructed by another compassionate volunteer to maintain silent to respect the sanctity of the space. Walking into the room, which is adorned my a series of tremendously intricate shapes and symbols, just the same as the exterior, all representing different religions and traditions which are all interconnected and all welcomed there, one is immediately filled with the realization that if God were ever going to speak to you, that would be the perfect place to hear Them. In the top of the dome an invocation in Arabic is written, “Oh Glory of the All Glorious”. As you sit in the chairs there and look up through the carvings on the walls, the windows shedding light on every inch of the interior, and ultimately up into the beautiful dome, you are drawn naturally into a meditative state of communion with whatever Spirit you believe in. You are not imposed upon with any doctrine or influenced by any icons, only the whir of the air conditioners to supplement whatever prayerful condition you choose to enter into within yourself. Pause. Refresh. See and Understand. Be.

IMG_0039Outside the sanctuary, the space is expertly designed with every inch of the building itself and the gardens and grounds around it to reflect the principles of light, unity, balance, and universal brotherhood. As someone who has lately been fascinated with the artistic and spiritual intersected possibilities of East Asian mandalas, I was naturally inspired by the arrangement of the temple grounds themselves in such a pattern with the temple being at the center of the mandala with gardens and pools radiating out from it. So, before leaving, I had to take the opportunity to walk around the grounds as well in a continued state of prayer. Whatever a particular seeker’s current situation in life, or reasons for searching out an opportunity there to pray, there is place there for them to find the exactly what they need. There is a space to come in contact with the divine direction they crave.

So, whatever your spirit craves, whatever commotion is filling your life demanding for pause, if you have the chance while in the Chicago area to stop by the Baha’i Faith Temple, please take it. Whatever God you follow or don’t, I guarantee you will find something in the silence that speaks to you and changes your perspective upon leaving. Praise be.

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A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 1- Devil’s Tower

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My life is in Haiti right now. But sometimes I have to travel back to the US and when I do my time is usually filled with fundraisers, meetings, and administrative catch up. When I’m lucky I get to invest some time in making art and visiting with friends and family. But my time in the US seldom includes room for investing in my own spiritual well being or exploring new ways of experiencing God in different spaces and environments. This time back to the US I have made a decided commitment to change that. All of those other things that I have to do require me to do quite a bit of traveling and so I’m adding it to my agenda in each new place that I pass through to visit a certain sacred space and spend some time encountering the unique holy histories that exist in each one. Although this is a personal journey, I believe that we never truly can experience God ourselves unless we are willing to discover and affirm the ways that the Sacred presents itself to other humans who are each on their own journeys as well. So I will be sharing my experiences here on the blog in the hopes that others can find something of value in what I learn myself. Feeling the journey is primary, but sharing it will also be important to me.

This is something that I’ve felt propelled to do for some time now, but last week I decided to officially start the pilgrimage while in South Dakota by making a visit to Devil’s Tower (actually in Wyoming), which is considered a sacred site by many native tribes including the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux. It seemed like an appropriate genesis for my journey considering the traditional stories attached to it are about transformation, escape, and rebirth. The legends vary slightly from tribe to tribe but are all similar:

Seven young children were out playing one day, collecting flowers and berries, and chasing antelope. They had wandered far from home following where nature led them when they realized that they were lost. They looked all around, each pointing in different directions, but they could not find the way home. Then one of the children noticed a giant bear coming towards them and yelled to the others. They all turned to run away as fast as they could and the bear chased them swiftly running behind. After running as far as they could they slowed and found that even more bears were now closing in on them, all great and terrifying. With no where to run they knew that they would soon be devoured by the bears so they all gathered close together and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit had pity on them and the ground beneath them began to tremble and raise up from the earth. The bears dug their claws into the rock tower trying to climb it as it rose into the sky but they only slid down it as it continued to rise with the children on top higher and higher out of the bears’ reach. The children now rose into the sky and the Great Spirit turned them into the constellation Pleiades, which still shine over the tower and the plains every night.

IMG_2401This is a powerful narrative to me. Anyone who’s read my book knows how much I love a good metaphor of people turning into stars. So I went up there last week to get in touch with the sacred energy that exists there and spend some time reflecting on what it means to be lost and desperate for salvation in this world. I had driven past the tower from a distance before but never had actually been up to the base on the hiking trail to spend time within the hallowed environment there. And yet, it is difficult to truly call it hallowed because it is indeed a sacred space, but it has also been turned into a tourist attraction as well. So one must be very intentional to find the Sacred there despite the tourists and the rock climbers and the guides. But if you go with that intention, and take a step off of the trail and just take a deep breath, then it is impossible to deny that you are in the presence of something holy and powerful. And I think that whenever you do have to opportunity to stand in that presence, you must allow yourself to surrender to whatever the Spirit has to say to you.

So I took the chance and found a large rock to sit behind for some meditation where no guide could yell at me for leaving the trail and I wouldn’t be able to hear the tourists talking about their zumba classes and kids’ last weeks at school. I had to take a moment to escape from the bears that may be chasing me down in this world. Sometimes living in Haiti and trying to do work that you know is good can feel like that. So many outside forces constantly after you, impossible to escape, and everyday you feel like they’re about to devour you. It makes you want to cry out to the Great Spirit, “I don’t get it! I just came out here to pick berries and now I’m running for my life! I just want to go home!” But then you realize that the Great Spirit is made of Love and will lift you up, place you in the sky, and give you a new home. Salvation when you’re lost. But in order for any of us to find that new home ourselves, we must first find the place within ourselves where the Great Spirit may be at home.  As I continue to visit other sacred locations within this world, I think that the real part of the journey will be discovering the sacred space that resides within me and being more conscious of what I allow into it. Those other influences can keep clawing away, trying to get at me, but I have to make a covenant with myself to continue rising above.

IMG_2386One of the greatest parts of praying at Devils Tower is knowing that you’re not alone. All around the tower are prayer cloths tied to the branches of trees. Traditional practice by native tribes of the area, these cloths are left behind so that their surroundings may be anointed by the prayers and intentions of the maker and act as a blessing to those who may come into that space after them. It serves as an inspiration to me, a solitary sojourner, to see these remnants of other people’s sacred encounters in that place. Although I don’t know who they are or what they prayed for and they don’t know me, I know that they were there with the same Spirit that I am there and they left behind a blessing that I am now a part of.  They don’t kneed to know what tribe I am from or what name I have for my God or the Spirit that we are connected through, with their prayer cloths, they welcome me into that space to commune with the sacred energy of nature and humanity. They invite me to draw my eyes upward, gaze into the heavens, and discover salvation. Discover peace.

I am not sure where my next step in this pilgrimage will land, but I hope that you will continue to join me as I journey. If you have any suggestions of places I should visit, I’d love to hear them. For now, if you do get the chance to visit Devils Tower, please take it and know that behind a large rock on the south side of tower there is a prayer left for you from me.

 

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