This past Sunday, I visited the Buddhist Temple of Chicago as their guest speaker on Islam at their annual Interfaith Sunday event. Rev. Patti Nakai, as she introduced me to her congregants, shared a bit of fascinating Chicago history with us:
Prior to the 1940s, the Buddhist presence in Chicago was not significant. In the 1940s, thousands of former concentration camp internees from California relocated to Chicago (possibly seeking to flee the bad memories, as one of the Temple representatives said). When the Buddhist Temple of Chicago was opened, it was met with suspicion. Buddhists (mostly Japanese) were met with suspicion and alarm.
In this climate of war, hate, amd fear, Reverend Preston Bradley (founder of the Peoples Church in the Uptown neighborhood) spoke out boldly and forcefully on his popular radio show to welcome the new Chicago neighbors.
As she introduced me, Rev. Patti reminisced about those times of fear and conflict, and reminded her congregants to welcome and be kind to all. Today, she welcomed me, a Muslim, to her community. In this climate of Islamophobia, her words rang out clear as a bell. She did not hammer the message hard, but allowed it to flutter in the air as listeners found a home for it in their hearts.
This is a temple that is surrounded by soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The community makes a point of welcoming their neighbors and being supportive. The full kitchen is being used by volunteers to feed the hungry in the area. This is a multiracial, multicultural congregation, including White, Black, Japanese, South Asian, European, and mixed-race members. I had lively conversations after the service with them, and would love tocontinue those conversations again. We discussed the difficulties of changing ways of doing things in congregations, as well as learning to welcome all attendees, especially Black members. Svend and I both just loved Rev. Patti Nakai, a Japanese-American woman who firmly, lovingly, and fearlessly leads her congregation.
Before my short lecture, Rev. Patti and
Candy gave us a tour of the temple, showing us an altar that was painstakingly
constructed, bit by bit, by concentration camp internees in the Heart Mountain, Wyo., Japanese internment camp, using bits of wood that internees found here and there, and put together.
In the same room, filled with memories, vessels lined the shelves, containing the ashes of former internees and other temple family members.
Afterward, chatting with an elderly, cheerful and irrepressible Japanese-American congregant, I heard of how she had been in a concentration camp, and how her mother died while in that camp. At that time, this woman was 9 years old.
As I spoke to this audience, I felt like the hearts around me were open and present, and ready to connect. It was a powerful and precious experience.
The night before this visit I sat, wondering what to say. It had been a busy few weeks, and I hadn’t had the time and energy to prepare as I should have. I sat discontentedly throwing together Five-Pillars and Islam-Wikipedia factoids. I gave Svend the laptop to look over my talk. He read. He looked up. He stared at me, half-kindly and half-puzzled, as if to say,
“I feel bad for you, because this is trash.”
“Can you make it more personal?”he said gently. “It could get a little boring.”
Tired (it was 10:30pm on Saturday night), I sniffed and said, fine, I’ll see what I can do, thinking to myself, Why don’t you write it for me?
The next morning, just half an hour before heading out, I opened the laptop, stared at the document, thought, this is not speaking my heart at all. I tossed the print-out of the previous version. I inserted some stories, and said, Well, here goes nothing.
I was anxious that I was far too tired to wing it in any way, but the energy in the temple community was the wind under my wings, and we all flew together.
Svend sat and watched, smiled, moved to the front row, and said afterwards: It was fantastic.
I said, no. I was ready to bomb it. Allah did it for me. Also, thank you, Svend. For telling me that the first version sucked. Sometimes, you’ve got to have someone you trust enough to tell you that you suck, and you need to do something different. Maybe you need to stop trying so hard, and just connect your heart with the hearts around you. Trust the hearts. They do the job.