When my Muslim friends raised overseas ask me what makes growing up in the South so unique, I talk about church camp. All my good Yankee friends are surely going to protest: I went to church camp too; the South didn’t trademark that!
Honestly, I don’t know because I never made it past the Mason Dixon Line until the age of 15; our town sent me on a mission trip to build a protestant church in Spain and convince the Catholic citizens of Barcelona about our Southern brand of religion. So, alright my friends, maybe ya’ll did go to church camp, but you never went to Jesus camp.
My collard green daddy didn’t send us to camp to explore new interests, like horseback riding, origami or basket weaving. Heck no! Jesus camp had one purpose- to teach you how to love Jesus and fear God. Those who loved and feared the most were honored with a baptizing ceremony at the alligator-infested lake. Breathing in the bloated, soggy air under lava-hot Florida sun rays, made the threat of alligators less irksome, and salvation, a risk worth taking.
We’d all go down there, singing a gospel song and gather at the muddy edge. The pastor would go waste deep and start baptizing campers one by one to a round of amen. I almost waded in once, but changed my mind after my friend came up to a shout of hallelujah, and poor thing, she forgot to wear an undershirt. That’s the closest I’d ever been to a wet T-shirt contest. The pimply boy-campers, hovering around like flies on the sweet-tea pitcher, pounded out an awfully sincere word of praise. She spent the rest of the week getting waited on hand and foot.
Meanwhile, I was in no danger of fending off a courtship. The most prominent thing about me was a nasty under-bite, for which my mama sacrificed three days wages to pay for an orthodontic retainer. That tooth lasso could usually be found clacking around my mouth, which no doubt, was a more effective boy repellent than the Cutter’s spray mama packed to ward off pesky mosquitos.
I pity you if you never went to Jesus camp because it was a four-star kiddie vacation. There were the sing-alongs in the fellowship hall, the breakfast of pancakes and sausage, the obstacle course, swimming, nature walks, devotionals, calling the top bunk, reprimands for practical jokes- somehow always involving toothpaste, covert hook-ups, a crush on that very fine camp counselor-college student, giggles, verbal cat-fights, fumes of gossip, canoeing, bonfires, S’mores, and Bloody Mary stories- followed by high-pitch screams.
Last but not least, was the reliable, collard green inoculation against evil in the form of a well-choreographed finale sermon. The whole congregation of campers held hands and swayed to the organ music. We swore from the bottom of our collard green hearts to go home and be better children, students, and community members…better Christians.
When my son was six-years-old a group of Muslim parents from North Florida organized a camp and registered participants at mosques around the State. It was to be held at one of the camp grounds where I attended as a retainer-sporting princess. I was ecstatic to learn that the program rules allowed younger children to attend, accompanied by their parents. The three-day weekend activities were centered on the theme of Islam and Ecology, and the goal was for campers to depart, affirming in their hearts that they would go home to be better children, students, and community members…better Muslims.
Several volunteers lined up to lead workshops; there was even a contest to determine which child delivered the best presentation, educating fellow campers on how to better care for our planet. I eagerly put my name on the volunteer list and started preparing for the role. Then, I talked it up every day till X marked the spot on our calendar. We piled in the car, my son behind my seat and his baby sister, along for the ride. Our voices alternated between Islamic themed sing-alongs and our favorite blue-grass hits blaring from the CD player. I filled my son’s head with visions of myself as a child, a few years older than him, sitting in the back seat, just like him, listening to the radio with my daddy, just like him, wishing the miles away in anticipation …just like him!
He hung onto my every word because the only thing he loves more than telling me about something he’s gonna do, is listening to me tell him about something I already did. His expression always hovers between disbelief and longing to walk into that world with me…as if he can hardly comprehend that I was a kid once too.
As we approached the entrance to the camp, the traffic accumulated. It was a two-lane road, running a path through flat, sandy earth yielding only brown tufts of grass. In the distance I could see a group of people huddled on either side, holding up fluorescent poster boards on yardsticks; they alternated pumping them up and down like gilded, iron horses on a merry-go-round. As our car advanced farther in the queue, we could distinguish the lettering enough to make out the words: Jihad Terrorist Camp, Islam is an Evil Religion, Get out of America …and more.
My son was not a fluent reader just yet; still, I tried to distract him, but it was no use. The protestors were shouting and their voices became audible as we moved closer. His father turned up the radio real loud.
“What are they doing?” my son asked. I un-latched my seat belt to turn my full body around in the seat and look into his quizzical expression, laced with a trace of wariness.
I shocked myself with a rapid response: “They welcome new campers like us. It’s part of the camp spirit,” I said. “They even made signs! How cool is THAT?!!”
A big grin spread across his face, and revealed the gaping hole where his two front baby teeth used to perch. He perked up in his booster seat and gave them all a big wave and a holler: “Welcome to you too! Thank you! Welcome!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to make his voice more audible over the blaring radio.
He pleaded with his daddy to “roll down the window,” so that the “nice people,” could hear him shout back. His dad feigned grumpiness, and claimed he didn’t want to let the air conditioning out. I reassured him that the welcoming committee would be just as happy to see his smiling face through the window. My son didn’t ask why their foreheads were crumpled up and their fingers were shaking up a storm. I slumped back down into the seat, struck by the realization that a six-year-old will take his mama’s word for just about anything.
It was probably no more than ninety seconds until our car inched into the clear, but it felt like ninety years. The weight of the world bore down. The reality of raising my Muslim children bore down. The sight of the protestors’ signs, their battle-cry expressions, and waging fingers, bore down. The sight of my boy’s tooth-less, gullible grin; the force of his hearty wave; the piercing noise of that radio, drowning out their venomous shouts; the bitter taste of that lie on my tongue – it all bore down.
I wanted to unleash a river of scalding tears, caged off and burning a hole in my throat…burning me so badly it felt like fire ripping through my entrails, and lighting my soul ablaze. I wanted to make an opening to exhale. I had something to say, muddled inside the inferno of my disfigurement. If you came here to shock us; if you came here to wound our notion of belonging; if you came here make us want to crawl out of our skins, just because you can; if you came here to make us weep into our pillow to muffle the sound from our children; if you came here to do all of that… you won, dawn you. You won!
I am acutely mortal in such circumstances. I didn’t feel defiant, yet humble, like David before Goliath, or merciful and determined like the Prophet Mohammed when his people threw garbage and rocks at his head, yet he only responded with an earnest prayer, asking God to forgive them all. My mind didn’t instantly revert to the oft-repeated verse from the Qur’an: “And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!…” (25:63).
I’m not proud to say that I only felt smoke rising from my sudden, ruptured existence. I loathed them all.
I didn’t grip my husband’s hand, in a show of affection and solidarity. He didn’t grip mine. Whatever comfort we might afford one another, was muted in the shock of our predicament, and in the need to keep appearances for our boy- now nearly bursting out of his seatbelt in joyful agitation.
Our son almost opened the door before the car came to a full stop. The hot coal in my throat started to extinguish with the need to turn our focus on the details of registration and cabin assignments. The fire still flickered and I yearned for a private moment, just long enough to have a good cry. I wondered about the older children who read the signs, and actually understood them, but I didn’t ask. In these situations, people don’t want to talk, they just want to forget.
Those who lagged behind skipped the clan-like welcome. Even hate-mongers break for happy hour. They didn’t hold their ground against the “terrorist;” rather, they left voluntarily not long after our scheduled entrance. Apparently, it was not conviction that drove them there, but the sick thrill of capture…a hit and run. They smacked our kids real good; now, it was time to celebrate over a round of cold beers and high-fives. Maybe a reporter would even quote one or two protestors, then ask a Muslim camper to respond- as if it was a battle between two sides, and the public must decide. Only if the bigoted assault were directed at any other group of children would it be deemed a shameful act. These were, after all, Muslim children and wasn’t it Muslims who attacked us on 9-11?
Meanwhile, we met in the Fellowship Hall. The keynote speaker told all the children that they had a duty to God; and as an extension of that duty, a duty to their fellow citizens, and a duty to care for the earth. He said it is not always easy to be faithful, but we must be sincere and try to do our best. We must not let hatred directed at us, interfere with that duty. The talk was followed by a communal prayer. When I touched my head to the floor, bowing down in worship, I noticed the burn was no more. I felt close to my Creator, and vast distances away from the world outside.
My son would soon read fluently; he would hear and see all things clearly. I could only protect him for a while longer.
My children will receive shocks of pain from corners that I never anticipated, and that I scarcely would have imagined as a child. They will know pain, but he will also know the sweet relief from bowing, in humility, in utter helplessness and submission before their Creator – like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus… like Mohammed, peace be upon them all.
I was reminded of this day, while watching a You Tube video featuring a group of protestors, led by fiery politicians, shouting down Muslim men, women, and children, as they approached the entrance to an event raising money for U.S. charities, aimed at stopping hunger and homelessness in America.
It is horrifying to watch and words do not do justice. I should warn you that it is not appropriate for young viewers, although you will see that many of those who attended the charity event were children.
Among the protestors, you will see more American flags than at a Fourth of July Parade, which begs the question- what does pure, unadulterated hate have to do with the symbolism of our flag? The answer is so obvious, the question doesn’t even seem worth asking.
I protect their right to wave our flag. In fact, if that right were in serious jeopardy, I would hold it up for them, swaying it high over my hijab-wearing head (with giant ear-plugs). While I support their right, I disdain their work to make the symbolism of our flag the functional equivalent of a swastika. I wish they would don the disguise of their forefathers– a white sheet and pointed hood. It is, after all, an honest badge for those who cannot feel anyone’s humanity but their own.
This targeting of Muslim inter-faith leaders and community builders, along with their children, will be featured in a documentary aired on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. It is called, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. Click on this link to see the trailer. I am hopeful that a mass media outlet is bringing this issue to light.
I will say goodbye, now, with a statement from the trailer. It was made by a Muslim mother who will be featured in the documentary. When asked whether she thinks fellow Americans hate her, she stated: “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think people understand what Islam is and (what) Muslims are.”
I also want to conclude with a word of sincere thanks to a high school classmate who contacted me recently to say she made an appointment at her local mosque to address for herself negative assumptions about Muslims. So far so good; they gave her a warm reception over the phone. I hope the inter-faith relationships she encounters will last a lifetime. She’s collard green, of course. I know they are just going to love her.