Gods, Gays and Goodbyes

July 22, 2010

beersLast night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master’s Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to mention we both grew up in Minnesota. Ben’s been gone for a lot of the summer, working on his next album, so this was both an opportunity for us to both catch up and “say goodbye” (though we’ll be reuniting in August for some good ol’ Minnesota camping).

We decided to hit up our favorite spot, a little hole in the wall called The Anvil on Granville. As residents of Rogers Park, Ben and I frequented The Anvil a lot this year. It’s truly a neighborhood bar; a place that seems to have changed very little in the last 40 years, dimly lit and without a sign outside, a nook primarily populated by people who live within a mile of it. The Anvil is also a gay bar. For this reason it is especially fun to go to The Anvil with Ben, a straight man, and witness the cross-cultural confusion that ensues.

Though I can’t speak to how he operates when I’m not around, Ben seems to be terribly comfortable around gay men. Or, at least, he is terribly gracious. Every time Ben and I go to the Anvil, he gets hit on. A lot more than I do, I should add. Often aggressively: it wasn’t until a week after the first time we went there that Ben informed me that the man who’d been hanging around him that entire night had stuck his tongue in Ben’s ear. Ben had played it cool, not wanting to make a scene. His patience for situations that would make the average person uncomfortable and his willingness to engage contexts outside his own continue to inspire the work I do in facilitating religious and secular dialogue.

But back to last night. We were off to a good start: ten minutes in and Ben’s inner ear was still unmolested. We picked a spot on the back patio and got comfortable. As we lifted our mugs of miraculously cheap beer and clinked to my move and our friendship, we were approached by a man who began to compliment my tattoos, my feet (“can I touch them?”), my stretched earlobes and my smile. Well, guess I’m taking the bullet tonight, I thought, at which point he immediately directed his attention at Ben. We were both patient, but I had immediately dismissed this man in my mind. I’m not here to get hit on, I thought impatiently, I’m here to say goodbye to a close friend.

I closed myself off, but Ben had other plans. In his unending kindness, Ben continued conversation with this stranger. He asked if we lived in the area, and Ben said we did but that I was moving. The man inquired why and I explained that I’m relocating to continue my work facilitating secular and religious engagement. He asked me to clarify. I replied: “Basically? I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” He asked if I believed in God, and I replied with a strong and swift: “no.” He quickly took me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “God will reveal himself to you,” he said. “I’ll pray it so.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. But instead of getting insulted — instead of closing myself off even more — I smiled and said “thank you.” You see, what this man didn’t know is that God reveals him(or her)self to me every day.

For the last year that I’ve worked at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the Gods of my co-workers have had a sizable impact on me. Whether it’s the Christian God of my supervisor, Cassie, giving her the compassion to forgive my latest screw-up, or the Muslim God of my boss, IFYC founder and White House advisor Eboo Patel, inspiring him to invite a Secular Humanist such as myself to contribute to the public discourse on religion, I would not have had the opportunities I have if it weren’t for their passionate religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships that I formed with them — or with Ben, or even with the man who stroked my feet at The Anvil — if I had refused to engage their beliefs. I may not share in them, but they still matter to me.

After a bout of friendly dialogue, the man asked me: “Okay, but tell me this Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” I answered honestly: “I’m not a scientist, you know, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest that question doesn’t really matter to me. I could care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?” He clutched his chest, hugged me again and grinned, nodding his solid agreement. I’m so glad that Ben’s kindness inspired me to give this man a chance.

What will we do? I hope that we’ll engage one another’s deepest values with at least as much patience as Ben in a gay bar.

[That’s a wrap, folks: I’ll be at the Secular Student Alliance national conference this weekend speaking on a panel about interfaith cooperation. Check back next week, when I’ll try to have a report on that — though I’m moving across the country a week from today, so it may be difficult. I haven’t the words to express how much I’ll miss this city, so this post will have to do as my general goodbye. And if I don’t get around to posting something next week, be sure you check out Tim Brauhn’s amazing guest post from this morning in the meantime, which was featured on the front page of WordPress today!]

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11 Responses to “Gods, Gays and Goodbyes”

  1. sammy said

    Hi Chris! I stumbled across your blog via today’s Freshly Pressed, and just wanted to say that I thought your response to that question atheists and agnostics get so often is one of the most poignant and thoughtful I’ve heard (I quoted it on my own little blog, hope you don’t mind 🙂 So… thanks! Cheers,
    Sam

  2. global2858 said

    I hope that you write can be useful for the people and always to your success

  3. Andrew said

    Yea, congrats on being Freshly Pressed! I’m glad I started snooping around a bit– this is a great example of the conversations and stories that need to be experienced now.

    “What will we do?” — Sharing a drink is a great place to begin. (Something brewed is a good choice, but even something as sacred as simple water will do us all well!)

  4. Great blog, this is my first visit, and I think it is wonderful thing. To often people just shut down when they meet someone that carries around a different paradigm than they do. Namaste.

  5. Thank you so much for all your insightful posts. Very inspierign to read, I hope your work can reach out to many people. I don’t have many readers on my blog but I will post a link to your site and hope that someone takes a look.

    Cheers, Maria

  6. Pablo said

    It still amazes me how much attention is given to religion in general, especially in the USA. I truly cannot understand why so much time is spent on questions of God and belief. The way I see it, if one happens to have a religion it should be kept private, something to be cherished alone. And if you don’t believe in anything, it might as well be kept private.

    But people obviously want to discuss it, so congratulations on the blog. You write very well.

  7. […] Last night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master's Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University's Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to menti … Read More […]

  8. […] Last night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master's Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University's Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to menti … Read More […]

  9. You have an fantastic and intriguing blog and I’m going to enjoy reading it. I just happened upon it. I am a Christian, and though I don’t prefer the word “tolerance,” just in general, I feel in some ways similarly to what I think you’re referring to as Secular Humanism.

    The word “tolerance” makes me think of simply putting up with something or enduring something against a one’s will. It would be wonderful if everyone could respect whatever beliefs or non-beliefs others had. Agree to disagree, and yet still converse.

  10. Michael M. said

    At the risk of sounding churlish, I have to make an observation about something I’m finding increasingly discouraging about your blog, which I’ve been reading for a few months now.

    What attracted me to your ideas and the concept of Interfaith in general is summarized very nicely in this post: “I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” That’s such a worthwhile goal, especially in contrast to increasingly belligerent religious intolerance from believers and intolerance of religion from non-believers. As a non-believer, I do not seek to persuade believers to abandon their faith, nor do I hold them in contempt or as somehow “less” because of their faith. I try to avoid viewing them as good people who I hope will someday “see the light” and abandon their superstitions, and learn to see the wonder and magnificence of this universe without recourse to magical thinking. To do so, I think, would be patronizing — it would be anything but engaging “one another’s deepest motivations.”

    Yet that patronizing attitude is exactly what you describe here, with the man in the bar fervently praying that you will find God one day. It’s like patting a child on the head and saying “Don’t worry, you’ll understand when you grow up.” It’s an attitude all too commonly found in the religious: They see that you are self-evidently a good person, and since being self-evidently good equates with believing in God, they presume your non-belief is a temporary anomaly, something you’ll get past one day. Too often, they don’t even attempt to grapple with the idea the their own religious perspective isn’t a requirement for a rich moral or ethical framework.

    Certainly, many non-believers adopt this same attitude, coming from the opposite perspective. It was my hope that the Interfaith movement would point to ways we all, believers and non-believers alike, can move beyond that patronizing attitude. I’m just not seeing it yet. It is my hope that, going forward, you will spend more time on how you see your work moving toward developing genuinely mutual respect between both camps. Right now, so much of what you describe, in this post and others, has struck me as mostly a one-way street.

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