Thursday, December 18, 2008

Religious Tolerance Needed This Season

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Photos from the Internet

In this season of good cheer, as the religious and secular supposedly come together, we are all drowned in ads to spend-spend-spend till our daddies take our T-Birds away.What I find astounding – and always have – is how the “orthodox” religious, no matter what the faith, keep insisting that it is their holiday and belongs to no one else but themselves. This is shown in people who demand that public displays of decorations must say Christmas rather than Holiday. Supposedly, this is a country of religious freedom and tolerance, but it seems that is only true as long as the religion and tolerance lines up the same as the “religious” person looking at it.

In my life, some of the most close-minded and evil-spirited people I have ever met have used religion as an excuse for their behavior. Below are some cases in point:

Many years ago while working in a corporate in-house print shop, I was a Phototypesetter. If you don’t know what a phototypesetter is, it really is a moot point because the position doesn’t exist anymore with present technology. When I was there during the 1980s, the shop was in Building 5 of the World Trade Center, and eventually moved to the sub-sub-sub basement (below the garages) of one of the Towers, just before I left.

In the area adjacent to mine was the layout tables, and one of the artists was a follower of Oral Roberts named Angela, who was in her early 20s. She prayed before she ate, she said “Thank you Jesus” often, and considered herself devout. Meanwhile, she tried to get anyone she did not like fired, and manipulated as many people as she could. She unabashedly told me she was justified in whatever she did because Jesus wanted her to be successful. An attractive woman when she arrived, she became more ugly to me every day as I got to know her. Punk was devil’s music to her (her favorite was the “Born Again” BJ Thomas). I once called him lame, and she refused to talk to me for a while, and my boss said she complained to him about everything I did after that, trying to get rid of me. But my boss knew who she was, and it did not have any personal effect on me.

Inside the darkroom, she had an Oral Roberts calendar. I was in there with a temp one day getting some chemicals for my processor, and we saw the calendar had an image of a hand floating in the sky and the message read, “I seek the Lord in the quiet places of my heart.” We starting improvising to the Bobby Fuller Four song, “Killing Jews and the Muslim / I sought the Lord and the Lord won / I sought the Lord and the / Lord won!” She walked in while we were doing this and started screaming at us. She tried real hard to make my life even more difficult after that. Note that we were not making fun of Christianity, but of the particular narrow thinking of who published the calendar, much as many of us protested the appearance of the JDL’s leader Meir Kahane when he appeared at Queens College for similar reasons.

But not only was she not the only religious zealot in the printshop bunch, but also I was not the most abrasive, by far. Another person working there was a huge man named Al who was a deacon in his church (he looked a lot like Cleveland on Family Guy, right down to the moustache). He used his size to bully many of the people there, but I refused to budge, all 120 lbs of me. To show you just how “devout” he was, He did some work there on the side for his church (service pamphlets and the like) and when he asked me to typeset them for him, I offered to do it for nothing because it was for his church. Later I found out that not only was he taking money for it from the church, he told them that I was also asking for money, and he kept that as well. From his church, I remind you.

One day, this religious man turned to me and said, “I hear your mother is good in bed.” And then he waited for me to react. Thing is, I had an uncle who was always instigating and obnoxious, and I did not like him at all. One day, I realized a formula for people like him: When someone says "A" expecting a reaction of "B," instead say "7." In other words, say something they totally don’t expect, and throw them off. I got along with my uncle after that. In the case of Al, what I very calmly said as the “7” was: “Yeah, that’s what your daughter was telling me last night while I drilled her brains out.”

Al turned bright red and said, “I oughta kill you for that!” After he insults my mother, yet. I said back, “You won’t touch me.” Looking sharply at me, he said, making and unclenching his fists, “Why not?” I responded, “First of all, you know you can beat me up.” He gloated, “Yeah!” Continuing, I said, “Secondly, I know you can be me up.” He looked confused at this point. “And most importantly, you know that I know you can beat me up.” He sighed and walked away.

There were other times he would try, but never succeed. I was quick back then. One day this righteous man (as he considered himself) said to me, “I got me 10 inches. Bet you Jews don’t know nothin’ about 10 inches.” Not even turning around, I said, “That’s very true. I don’t know any Jew that small.” He stormed off and I kept working.

Of course, these kinds of conversations could never go on now, because of rules that have come in (and rightfully so) about workplace tolerance. Al could have been gone after his first of many “Jew” comments.

In another job years later, for a time I worked in a room with a guy from Staten Island. He was really into speed and coke (though being the non-drug person I am, I did not know this). One day at home, high on PCP, he saw the face of Jesus come through the wall and tell him to stop. Two days later, his own brother shot him in the face in a botched drug deal. He came close to dying and lost an eye. After that he stopped taking drugs, and found Jesus as a replacement.

He was convinced, he told me, that God wanted him to convert me. And he sure did try. He kept turning to me, and quoting me scripture. But his minister was one of those “In the Old Testament, Jews were impure” kinds of guys (Adam and Moses turned their backs on God by disobeying him, etc.). One day, this guy says to me, “When Daniel was in the fire with Jesus…” I immediately said, “Stop! Daniel was with Jesus? Isn’t the story of Daniel in the Old Testament? If you can show me one place where Jesus is mentioned by name in the Old Testament, I will convert right now.” He said, “Daniel was there with three men, two of whom were named. The third one was unnamed, and that was Jesus.” I closed my hanging open in disbelief mouth and said, “Man, that is some conjecture. So anytime someone is left unnamed, it’s Jesus? Naw, that’s not right. Back to zero.” And I went back to work. He was let go about 3 months later, because while I didn’t say anything to anyone else, other people found his proselytizing intolerance intolerable.

But not all this small-mindedness has to do with Christians I would like to strongly add. Once evening in the 1990s I was taking a car service home from work one late night and had a Palestinian driver. I’d had many pleasant conversations with Palestinians who drove cabs over the years, and mostly we agreed that common sense should rule in the Middle East, and it should not matter what the ideology is, we all three religious pray to the same God. But this driver was different. Ariel Sharon had just been elected Prime Minster of Israel (though had not come into office yet), and this man was ranting on and on about how hateful the Zionists (and he clearly meant this as all Jews, not just Israelis) were, how under Sharon they were going to kill all the Arabs (a common misbelief in that region), and Zionists in America were all part of the plot to control the world. He was screaming towards me, though I have the idea he didn’t know I was a Jew. He said “the Zionists”, not “you Zionists,” so I am assuming not. Actually, I had him drop me off a block from my house because I did not want him to know where I lived. The next day, I called the limousine service and did something I had never done before or after: I made a formal complaint about him, not as a Jew, but as a passenger.

Yes, every group has its share of religious bigots. At the funeral of the mother of a good friend, I was at the gravesite. While they were preparing the way and we were waiting for the casket to be taken out of the hearse, I started talking to the rabbi-for-hire who would do the ceremony. At some point, he asked me, what was my sect, and I told him somewhere between reform and conservative (probably more to the latter in those days…now I consider myself a secular Jew). He grimaced and snarled, “No such thing, you’re either Orthodox or you’re not really a Jew.” I couldn’t believe he was saying this crap at my friend’s mother’s grave. As it was, I was close to her and was mourning as well. I turned from the hole in the ground to face him, stuck my finger in his face, and said, “Whether you believe that or not, we would have both been in the same gas chamber.” Then I walked away because I did not want to say something that would have been more disrespectful in the situation.

If I have any real prejudice left, it would have to be towards fundamentalist thinking like that, whatever the belief or creed.

On the flip side, my mother had an Italian friend nicknamed “Chickie” who died when they were still young women, and my mom remained close to her mother, Rose Dolce; I knew her as “Nana” and she was like a grandmother to me as my other two had died when I was a very young age. She was strongly Roman Catholic and spent her later years creating and mending the local nun’s habits from St. Finbars, in Brooklyn. Earlier in her life, she worked in the garment industry as was fluent in Yiddish, as well as Italian. One of my strongest memories of her was that she loved everyone, and she believed her religion taught acceptance, and that we all prayed to one God, and no matter what the differences we are all God’s children. While I don’t feel any need for any formal religion these days, I learned a lot from her and thank her for her open-mindedness.

1 Peter 3:8-9 "To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing."

Happy holidays to one and all.

No comments:

Post a Comment