LIFE HAS EVER BEEN in search of answers to basic questions -- What is Life? Who is God? Why?
As a boy, this quest took me to the oddest places. When Mama dragged us to church, it seemed more for her solace, than ours. A woman who spent most of her life in the South, she must've felt tremendous social coldness up North. "Down home" was "down South," for even after over a decade, the brick and concrete jungle we walked daily didn't seem like home.
Only at church did it seem that Mama returned home. It was a refuge where women her age sought a few hours for the soul's rest while the preacher performed. In a sense, Sunday trips to church were her weekly "homegoing." They were islands of the South -- its camaraderie, its rhythms, its spiritual community -- come north.
Yet for myself, as for most of my siblings, church was a foreign affair. We had never lived (and seldom visited) in Mama's southern birthland, and the raucous, tambourine-slapping, sweat-drenched, organ-pounding milieu couldn't be more alien. We weren't southerners.
Black preachers, especially those of southern vintage, are extroverts in style, diction, and cadence. They may yell, shriek, hum, harrumph, or sing. Some strut the stage. Some dance. Black Baptist preachers, especially, are never dull or monotonal. Their sermons aren't particularly cerebral. Nor should they be. They preach to congregations whose spirits have been beaten down and battered all week long. To them, Sundays are thus days when the spirit, not the mind, needs lifting. So preachers must perform, and sermons become exercises in exuberance.
I remember staring at the preacher -- his furrowed face shining with perspiration, eyes closed, lips locked in a holy grimace -- and wondering to myself, "What da hell did he just say?" His thick, rich, southern accent, so accessible to Mama, was Greek to me.
Part of me was embarrassed, but the other couldn't give a damn. I couldn't care less what the preacher was saying, and he couldn't care less what I was thinking. I was thinking: I am bored to tears.
The only "salvation" I felt in church was the rapturous joy I felt when I looked around me. Here, I thought, are some of the most beautiful girls in the world.
I was lost in a reverie, in rapt adoration, my eyes locked on a girl a few pews back. She had fresh pressed hair; a crisp, starched dress; patent leather shoes that shone brighter than the real stuff. Her dark brown legs shimmered with the luster of Vaseline ...
Then a painful pluck would pull me from my rapture, and Mama's clenched lips whispered, "Boy! Turn yo' narrow behind around now! Straighten up!" I would simmer. Who would choose to stare at an old preacher when there was a pretty girl to look at? If I hadda choice between 'em -- well, that wouldn't be no contest. But I was only ten. Mama made the choice for me. I turned, glowering.
It was only several years later, when I was no longer forced to go to church, that I really began to explore the realm of the spirit. Sometimes I went to Dad's church. Although Mama was a bred-in-the-bone Baptist, Dad was Episcopalian. He had taught me how to read by using the Bible, and seemed to take pleasure in listening to me read Holy Scripture.
After the raucousness of Mama's Baptist church, Dad's Episcopalianism seemed its quiet antithesis. Whereas Second Pilgrim's was cramped, Episcopal was spacious. Baptists sang and danced; Episcopalians were reserved and stately. Mama's friends shook their tambourines in North Philly. Dad's sang hymns in the foreign outlands of Southwest Philly.
Dad's church was vast, reflecting substance and wealth, yet it didn't feel like home. Maybe Mama's church was a sweatbox. Dad's seemed a cold fortress. Soon I began to seek my own spirit-refuge, going wherever I felt the spirit lead me. Like to the synagogue.
THROUGH READING the Bible and other books, I knew that the Scriptures were supposed to be the Word of God. I thus reasoned that among the Jews, whose faith is rooted in the Old Testament, I would find this Word in a purer form. One day I went to seek it.
In North Philly's bustling black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Jews were a distinct and rare minority -- old men, and a few women, who sold chickens, clothing, or peanuts. Their house of prayer, however, was hardly distinct: a small synagogue, it stood recessed, tucked in between the storefronts that margined it like the edges of a book cover.
Inside the vestibule, six or seven old men stood, chanting in an unknown tongue. They wore yarmulkes on their heads, and prayer shawls fastened across their chests covered their stooped shoulders. The room was dark, and what little sun seeped in hardly penetrated the dimness. Dust motes swam like goldfish in thin ribbons of filtered light. To this day, I remember the dust; the dust of old stones, of old men. And the smell of old men.
The rabbi, his eyes enlarged by bifocals, shuffled over to me, his shoulders stooped, his eyes sharp. "Can I help you, young man?" His speech was guttural, thick; colored with Yiddish isms. There seemed to be -- or was I only imagining it? -- an aura of fear around him stirred, perhaps, by my entrance. Who was this big, beardless youth confronting him?
As tall black men learn to do, I made myself mentally smaller, and looked askance as I explained my reason for entering the synagogue.
"Yes, sir. I -- umm -- I'm -- umm ..I wanna learn about Judaism."
"Vy iz dat?"
"Well, I'm interested in learning about the religion that really began Christianity."
"Vell -- Vy?"
"Umm ... becuz I think I wanna become a Jew."
"Dyou vat? Vat you mean? Vy dyou say dat?"
"Well -- I'm interested in a pure religion. I've read that the Bible has been tampered with; there are different translations and stuff. I wanna study what God really said, you know ... "
The rabbi stared at me. He was trying to formulate an answer, but the words stuck to his tongue. I looked into his eyes and saw incredulity dueling with quiet surprise. Is he serious? silly? he seemed to be asking. Then he turned and looked around, as if searching for something.
"Vait uh minute."
"Zis vill help you, young man," he said, handing me an envelope, and walking me to the door.
"Ven you are finished, come back, ya?"
"Thank you, sir!" "By ze vay, dyou know, zair ah black Chews. Haf you efer heard von Sammy Davis chunior?"
I nodded assent.
"Vell, he is a black Chew, you know?"
He bade me farewell. I left the Market Street Synagogue high with expectation, racing home.
Once in my room, I tore apart the thick brown envelope and found a slim, rust-colored volume bound in leather. I opened it, but stopped short in dismay. What was this? There was not one English word within its covers! It was entirely in Hebrew. Tears leapt to my eyes. The search was sure to continue.
MY FIRST VISIT to a Catholic church was a visit into a place of contrasts, a place where the visages in stone radiated reverence, but faces of flesh reflected unmitigated hatred.
I remember sitting in Mass, listening to the strange intonations of the priests -- Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi ... miserere nobis. -- and noticing their turned heads, faces tight with spirals of hatred, aimed at me, a lanky black youth kneeling in the white midst.
"Do they know me?" I wondered. "Why are they angry at me?"
Confusion warred with amazement: how could the House of God so plainly be a house of hatred toward one who sought the divine presence within its walls? Wasn't this the Church Universal, the Mother Church?
Although barely in my teens, I knew what I saw, and I acknowledged the feelings of the people around me. Matronly heads covered in firmly-knotted scarves, these silent, solid, middle-aged Poles, Ukrainians, and Slavs (there were also a few Puerto Ricans) never said a thing, but their faces -- their coldly darting eyes, and tight, wrinkled mouths -- spoke to me louder than screams:
"Nigger! What are you doing in this church? Our church?"
Day by day, week by week, month by month, I began to ask myself that very question.
Where once the church had offered a quiet place for spiritual reflection on its catechismal mysteries, it now pulsated with resentment at my dark presence.
When I went to catechism I heard of one world; when I walked into church I saw another.
The straw of severance came on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was on my way to catechism, and as I trudged my way to the rectory, my slowing gait seemed to reflect my inner reluctance. A weight hung on my mind like an anvil.
"King believed in nonviolence -- and still they killed him!"
"They? Who they?"
"White folks -- white folks couldn't bear to hear him -- to see him!"
My conversation with self went point-counter-point ... By the time I got off the trolley near St. John's, my legs were leaden. I walked at a snail's pace.
Sitting down with Father to begin the lesson, he noticed my reticence.
"What's wrong, young man? You seem distracted."
"Father ... "
"Yes, go on."
"I heard on the news today that Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated ..."
"I heard it too. Some of the Fathers and brothers are glad."
"Yes. They saw him as a troublemaker."
"Really? Really, Father?"
"Some -- not all. Especially not one of our Fathers."
"Why 'especially' not one?"
"Well -- how do I put it ... Well -- one of our Fathers is half-Negro."
"Do you think I could talk to him?"
"Well, Father -- perhaps ... maybe he can understand how I feel."
"That may be, but, uh ... you cannot talk with him."
"Why not, Father?"
"Well ... it's a secret. I can't tell you which Father it is."
A man, a priest, ashamed of his race? I had come to catechism that night seeking peace for the tempest that raged in my soul. Now, leaving St. John's, I was more at sea than when I arrived.
All those months! A half-black priest! Ashamed of his race? Priests who were glad that King was killed? Where was I? What was I doing here? I wept bitter tears. Not for King -- I felt he was wrong, a soft-hearted non-realist -- but for my parents and all others who revered him. King was an educated preacher of nonviolence, yet to these priests he was just another nigger.
What was I doing in this place, a place that hailed his murder? If they thought that way about him, how did they really feel about me?
I cried for the loss my mother and her generation felt -- the assassination of their dreams, the scuttling of their barely-born hopes. I cried for the loss of a boy's faith. I cried for a nation on the razor's edge of chaos.
A BLACK NATIONALIST even in my pre-Black Panther youth, it was perhaps inevitable that my search for meaning would bring me, sooner or later, to test the waters at a local mosque. Little more than a storefront on an out-of-the-way street in South Philly, the building seemed the antithesis of all the religious sites I'd been to before. Christian and Jewish houses of worship were ornate as a rule, especially their cathedrals. This place could not have been plainer: walls painted white, with the front of the room adorned by a chalkboard that faced the assembled. There was also a flag featuring a white star and crescent in a bright field of red, with a letter in each corner: F, J, E, and I -- Freedom, Justice, Equality, and Islam.
It was a summer night and mid-week, so the gathering was small, yet Brother Minister, a dark-skinned man in navy suit, glasses, and bow tie who went by the name of -- was it Benjamin? Benjamin X? -- preached passionately. The captive audience punctuated his every sentence: "Uh-huh!" "That's it!" "Teach, bro minister! Wake 'em up!" His baritone was smooth, colored by that ubiquitous southern accent I was to find later in almost every mosque I visited, whether north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. His message was not.
"Brotha ... I say to you here and now, the white man is the devil! Why, when you look at how this man has stolen millions of our people from Africa, sold our mothers and fathers into slavery in the hells of North America for four hundred years; beat us, abused us, lynched us, and tortured us -- well, how could any man be anything but a devil?"
"Preach it, Bro. Minister!"
"Our leader and teacher, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, teaches us, brotha, that the devil's time is almost over!"
"That's it, brotha!"
"Wake 'em up!"
"I said, 'The devil's time is almost up!' Why, look all around the world -- from Vietnam to Detroit -- and you'll see the white man catching hell! Am I right, brothas?"
Minister Benjamin X spoke for what seemed to be hours, and after his lecture, a collection was taken.
Returning home, I reflected on the similarities between my Baptist and Muslim experiences. I was struck by how the Muslim minister -- though his mouth vibrated with the rhythms and cadences of the black South, and though his message was shaped in a way that spoke to my ethnic, historical, and cultural realities -- sounded for the most part like a Christian in a bow-tie.
The main difference, perhaps, lay in their views of evil. Where the Baptist spoke of a metaphysical devil, the Muslim preached of a living one. I couldn't bring myself to believe that the white man was supernatural, even supernaturally evil -- if anything, they were sub-naturally human, I thought to myself. Yet it seemed as improbable that they were devils, as gods. The search would continue.
________________________________________________Thoughts on the Divine
An interviewer once asked the Mahatma Gandhi: "Gandhi-ji, it seems that you worship sometimes in temples, sometimes in churches, sometimes in mosques. What is your own religion?" Gandhi replied: "Follow me for a few days. Watch what I do; how I walk, what I say, and how I conduct myself generally. That is my religion."
THERE ARE AS MANY religions as there are cultures, and equally many names for the divine presence that is the heart of each. The energizing influence of belief keeps them apart, for to each adherent they contain truth that, from his or her perspective, is the only truth. All the same, it seems they flow in one direction, like many streams seeking release into one mighty river.
My youthful search for meaning revealed that no matter how differently the Infinite was clothed in the garb of a certain religion, it was there. In each, I found a new perception of the greatest good, that is, a belief in God or some other personification of the divine principle. I found, as George Bernard Shaw puts it, that there is "only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."
DON JUAN. My dear Ana, you are silly. Do you suppose heaven is like earth, where people persuade themselves that what is done can be undone by repentance; that what is spoken can be unspoken by withdrawing it; that what is true can be annihilated by a general agreement to give it the lie? No: heaven is the home of the masters of reality: that is why I am going thither.
ANA. Thank you: I am going to heaven for happiness. I have had quite enough of reality on earth.
DON JUAN. Then you must stay here; for hell is the home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness. It is the only refuge from heaven, which is, as I tell you, the home of the masters of reality, and from earth, which is the home of the slaves of reality. The earth is a nursery in which men and women play at being heros and heroines, saints and sinners; but they are dragged down from their fool's paradise by their bodies: hunger and cold and thirst, age and decay and disease, death above all, make them slaves of reality: thrice a day meals must be eaten and digested: thrice a century a new generation must be engendered: ages of faith, of romance, and of science are all driven at last to have but one prayer, "Make me a healthy animal." But here you escape the tyranny of the flesh; for here you are not an animal at all: you are a ghost, an appearance, an illusion, a convention, deathless, ageless: in a word, bodiless. There are no social questions here, no political questions, no religious questions, best of all, perhaps, no sanitary questions. Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your pretensions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melodrama. As our German friend put it in his poem, "the poetically nonsensical here is good sense; and the Eternal Feminine draws us ever upward and on"—without getting us a step farther. And yet you want to leave this paradise!
THE DEVIL. What is the use of knowing?
DON JUAN. Why, to be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of the least resistance. Does a ship sail to its destination no better than a log drifts nowhither? The philosopher is Nature's pilot. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer....
THE DEVIL. Well, well, go your way, Senor Don Juan. I prefer to be my own master and not the tool of any blundering universal force. I know that beauty is good to look at; that music is good to hear; that love is good to feel; and that they are all good to think about and talk about. I know that to be well exercised in these sensations, emotions, and studies is to be a refined and cultivated being. Whatever they may say of me in churches on earth, I know that it is universally admitted in good society that the prince of Darkness is a gentleman; and that is enough for me. As to your Life Force, which you think irresistible, it is the most resistible thing in the world for a person of any character. But if you are naturally vulgar and credulous, as all reformers are, it will thrust you first into religion, where you will sprinkle water on babies to save their souls from me; then it will drive you from religion into science, where you will snatch the babies from the water sprinkling and inoculate them with disease to save them from catching it accidentally; then you will take to politics, where you will become the catspaw of corrupt functionaries and the henchman of ambitious humbugs; and the end will be despair and decrepitude, broken nerve and shattered hopes, vain regrets for that worst and silliest of wastes and sacrifices, the waste and sacrifice of the power of enjoyment: in a word, the punishment of the fool who pursues the better before he has secured the good.
DON JUAN. But at least I shall not be bored. The service of the Life Force has that advantage, at all events. So fare you well, Senor Satan....
THE DEVIL. [gloomily] His going is a political defeat. I cannot keep these Life Worshippers: they all go....There is something unnatural about these fellows. Do not listen to their gospel, Senor Commander: it is dangerous. Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human. To a man, horses and dogs and cats are mere species, outside the moral world. Well, to the Superman, men and women are a mere species too, also outside the moral world. This Don Juan was kind to women and courteous to men as your daughter here was kind to her pet cats and dogs; but such kindness is a denial of the exclusively human character of the soul.
THE STATUE. And who the deuce is the Superman?
THE DEVIL. Oh, the latest fashion among the Life Force fanatics. Did you not meet in Heaven, among the new arrivals, that German Polish madman—what was his name? Nietzsche?
-- Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, by George Bernard Shaw
In Judaism, the ancient ancestral warrior is revered as all-powerful Yahweh, or Jehovah; to Christians, the Jewish carpenter Yeshuah is God yet also Man; for the Muslim, the ancient Meccan gods find fusion in one supreme being --Al-Lah, the God. In Hinduism, Lord Krishna emerges from a vast pantheon of ancient deities as a blue-black god who twirls and leaps in an eternal sacred dance. To the Buddhist, the insights of Gautama Siddhartha form the central core of a faith that holds the promise of enlightenment and the discovery of the true Self. In Santeria, Condoble, and Voudoun, the ancient gods of African antiquity have survived to smile behind the faces of the Catholic saints.
In the essence of each religion, then, we see a projection of the greatest good. For a threatened, nomadic desert tribe, what greater good than the worship of a mighty and powerful ancestor, a prominent warrior -- Yahweh -- who defended the clans? For the maligned followers of a Nazarethan carpenter, one crucified by the mightiest Empire of the age, why not the greater good of his victory over the tomb? For contentious Arab clans who saw each other through the lens of enmity and conflict, why not the clarity and simplicity of One God to reign over the throngs who crowd the K'aaba -- One God to bring unity to a people, a region, a sphere of influence?
To Hindus, whose plethora of deistic personalities reflect the God-force that permeates all creation, Krishna -- the beautiful, playful, dark boy-god who loves cattle and dances with other cowherds -- turns the boring and mundane into a sacred act. For the Buddhist, Gautama's attainment of enlightenment seeks the void beyond which no personality, human nor divine, exists. It bespeaks a greater good that sees past the soul to ultimate nothingness, a spiritual place of rest.
To millions of stolen and enslaved African peasants, for whom return to the grasslands, forests, and villages of the black motherland was physically impossible, their religion was the only means of a voyage home. Under a new, cooler sky, ancient gods and honored ancestors came to life once more and provided the greater good of spiritual survival, of an inner Self that could withstand the most dehumanizing assaults and empower the soul to remain sane. Even in the midst of a powerless existence, the world of the invisible pulsed with names like Yemonja, the goddess of the river; Obatala, chief of the gods; and Shango, the god of war and thunder.
Many of our ideas about God and religions simply mirror the traditions we have inherited from our forbears. They are imbibed with mother's milk, openly, uncritically, freely -- illogical human expressions, exercises in irrationality. Others are perceptions gained only by leaping into the dark arms of faith. God comes, in various faces, and numerous personalities, depending on our myriad perceptions, needs, and histories. Yet if there are any miracles left, it is that GOD IS ONE.