A few weeks ago, my boss asked me what kind of pool space I had available over the next few months for a group of about 100 people. I knew this group well, as I had chaperoned two of their overnights at the Y (read: played hide and seek with them at 2:00 a.m.).
“Anything they want, I will make it happen. If they want the pool dyed purple, I’ll do it. Need me to bake a four-tiered cake? Sign me up for whatever and whenever they want.”
My boss looked at me cross-eyed and asked what it was about this group that had me tripping over myself to work with them.
“Because they’re awesome. And I love them.” At the time, I didn’t have a better answer than that, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her question. Of all the groups I have worked with at the Y over the past year and a half, what is it about this particular group that has me so enamored?
So, dear readers, let me tell you a story.
Last year, we started Sunday Swim at the Y, an afterhours swim time for members of our community who prefer gender specific swim time. For a while, and sometimes still, some people are frustrated or confused about why we do this. Why do we spend hours papering the windows so that men and women can swim separately? Why do we stay late on Sunday nights? Why can’t they just swim during the regular hours? I’m sure these questions alone could provide for a great dissertation on gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and community, but my explanation is not one that can be explained through academics or best practices. I was prompted to speak to a woman I would have likely never met, and she inspired to start the program. I can pretty well guess how, “God called me to do it,” would go over in a conversation with my boss; for the purpose of professional conversations, all I can say is it feels like the right thing to do.
Papering the windows every Sunday became a sacred experience for me. For however mundane butcher paper and masking tape on windows may be, the fact that I was actively involved with creating a safe space for a person was a powerful experience for me. Probably more so than prayer or fasting, while I did come to understand them more fully, taping paper to windows made me feel closer to God. While I taped paper to a window, I felt an incredible appreciation for the things my Heavenly Parents have done to make sure I felt safe and loved. Papering windows was both an act of service for a community exercising faith that I wouldn’t screw it up and the alter on which I thanked God for taking care of me.
Working at Sunday Swim, I also met some of the most incredible men and women I would likely have never met otherwise. I typically have Sundays and Mondays off, so our paths rarely crossed. But it was important to me that Sunday Swim was an honest experience, so I was there every week. I met people who, like me, were just doing the best they could to live their faith in a world that constantly tells them it’s not a big deal. It was lovely to be with these members who, for as many ways as they were different than me, shared respect and reverence for faith in practice.
I’ve made a lot of great friends because of Sunday Swim. One man in particular, the father of one of our swimmers, asked me if we’d be interested in hosting an overnight for Utopia Academy, a community group of 80-ish Muslim kids and adult mentors. After we hammered out the details of the event, we talked about Islam and it became quite clear how very little I know about non-Christian religion. We had an honest conversation during which he patiently welcomed my list of questions, and he “upbraideth not.”
Like garments are for non-Mormons, hijab was what most fascinated me. It was also the only thing I knew about Islam, so it became the vehicle through which I learned (we started with the heavy stuff, clearly). As I learned more about my friend’s faith, I kept asking one question: how is this going to work if I think my faith is true and they think theirs is? And when I refer to “this working,” I mean eternally, of course. Are we going to get to Heaven and find out we were right all along, or will we get there and learn that we had it all wrong? In the end, who is going to have to convert? Who is right?
From the very beginning, and every time I ask, I have received one very strong answer. And as do most answers that come by way of personal revelation, this answer required much supporting evidence.
In 1 Corinthians 12 of the New Testament, we read:
12: For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.
14: For the body is not one member, but many.
18: But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
25: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
In Sura 5:48 of the Koran, we read:
To each among you, we have prescribed a law and an open way. If God had willed, he could’ve made of you one people. But he wished to test you in that which he gave to you. So strive with each other in good deeds.
Pope Francis stirred celestial controversy over who gets to go to Heaven when he said:
We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.
In my patriarchal blessing, summarized carefully, I learn that I have been blessed with the gift of reaching out to those around me and the opportunity to learn Gospel truths from them.
My boss asked me why I love this group so much and I learned that this is how being a member of a community is supposed to look like. We are supposed to find each other, teach each other, and work alongside each other. We are called to serve each other, love each other, and learn from each other. What matters most is that we do the best we can as a community; it might not always be easy, we might not understand each other, and we might not always get it right. But it’s important that we try.
A friend of mine wrote regarding religion:
So much of faith is about learning to live “in the tension,” in that space between what is comfortable and what is challenging, between what we know by faith and what others believe their faith dictates.
There is truth in every religious tradition which seeks to communicate with the Divine Being. One of my favorite descriptions of this concept is a passage from CS Lewis’ book, The Last Battle, from the Chronicles of Narnia. In this passage, Aslan has opened the door to the “New Narnia” and is welcoming faithful followers to come in. A young soldier of the Calormene Army came to the door. He had been for his entire life a follower of the god “Tash.” And yet, when he arrived at the door, instead of being blind to the beauties and reality of the New Narnia, as other non-believers were, he immediately recognized Aslan for who he was and gave him his allegiance.
Some of Aslan’s followers were angry that a man who had spent his life serving the evil Tash could be welcomed into New Narnia as a follower of Aslan. But Aslan told them that this young man had done good his whole life, in service, as he saw it, of Tash, but that anything that was good could only be in the service of truth, and, since Aslan WAS Truth, he accepted the young Calormene’s services as rendered to him, not to Tash. So it was the intent of the young man’s heart which Aslan saw and honored, not the fact that he had rendered that service under another’s name.
I think God values the love and the devotion and the service that each of us offers, whether we do it in one church or another, or even simply as individuals. Jesus said that “as much as you do these things for the least of my brethren, you do them for me.”
There is great good to be found in most every religious tradition, and you do well to find the one that reaches you and with which you connect, and do your best to give yourself to God fully within that context. It is not the context which “saves” us or which makes our service to God worthwhile. The context is what assists us in offering our best to God, and that context may be different for every person.
My boss asked me why I admire this group so much. It is because they brought me closer to feeling like I am contributing to a more heavenly community. They have taught me that whether I’m a Mormon at the temple, a Muslim in a mosque, or sweating in the pews at church twice a year, we make a better world when we serve each other. When we work together, we acknowledge that in our different contexts we may all be one.