Saturday, June 26, 2004

So many religions, so little time (I)

Today was filled with meetings of religious people. Different religions but the same fervor and eagerness to be loved.

It started with a visit to the National Mall. There was music, food and people everywhere. I was going around and noticed a smaller exhibit a bit further down the road toward the Capitol so I biked down there. The first thing I see is a brochure with "For Christians only" written on the cover. This took me aback. After the festival of diversity I had just left, this sentence rubbed me the wrong way. I suddenly felt the urge to start discussing with someone there. I stopped by an apple press near a small stage filled with children singing and playing instruments. All on stage was dressed a bit like Amish without the hats: long dresses for the girls, plain pants for the boys who all wear their hair a bit long and in stylish pony tails. They are all blond or light brown. The seem healthy and happy.
The man at the apple press starts to talk to me. I ask him about the group, the children, the all exhibition. It includes about 25-30 stands complete with a big cafe and a theater. There are potter stands, shoe making and weaving exhibitions. They are part of a religious group called "The Twelve Tribes". The way he describes the group to me, it sounds like a hippy community from the 60's with Jesus instead of pot. He laughs at my description, telling me that indeed he went from communities to communities but that all of them collapsed because they were all lacking the "glue" that Jesus brings them.
We talk for a long time. On children education "we homeschool them because we want to control the input they get" and their way of life. A simple life, building, learning trades, growing fruits and vegetables or working in an "outside" job (his wife is a nurse). I thank him and strolled though the campground, talking with a couple more people. They all seem at peace with themselves, thoroughly happy. In a surprising way, I envy their serenity.

I stop at the apothecary stand. It is full of dried herbs and plants and I very much would like to talk to the person in charge. There is a black woman sitting in the shade and I ask her "Are you the botanist? Are you part of this community?" She gives me a look that says "Are you out of your mind? Are you blind or just completely clueless?" and replies laughing in almost a whisper not to be heard by anyone around "I don't think they have my kind of people in their group. I asked and they say they have, but I don't see any". I laugh and tells her "Well, if it can be of any help to you, they don't have my kind of people either!" We're both laughing and starts talking about many different things. She is waiting for her friend (sister?) to finish with the woman in charge of the place, an older woman with long silver hair and the aura of the Mother-Hen.

We talk about religion, racism, herbs and medicine. When the friend finishes and they're ready to leave, the Mother-Hen asks me if they are my friends. "Now we are" I say laughing. Both of them leave and I start my conversation with the botanist.

As I am talking to her, I spot my friend A. strolling by. He is also enjoying a walk among the Twelve Tribes and has talked to some of its members. He joins the discussion and very quickly asks "So? Are you people all really nice or are only the nice people in your group allowed to come here?" He speaks completely seriously, as if he was asking about how to join the community, nothing bretrays his utter irony. The woman is clearly torn between her impulse to answer the provocation and the desire to keep presenting us her nice and happy face. She smiles for a minute and then says "You'll have to come to see for yourself" and in a minute we are invited to join them at their campground outside the city where they're staying during the festival.

As we were ready to leave, I see two kids standing by themselves. I go to talk to them. Kids won't give us the "party line". They'll tell us the real deal. And so they do. It turns out that one of the kid is actually not really a kid. She is 19 years old, leaving in Boston in a community house belonging to the group. Her family and others members of the tribe, for a total of 20 people under one roof.
She admits that it is hard sometimes. "We are all different people" she says. She says that she was not sure that she wanted to stay in the community, but she made that choice and is happy with it. "We have love and that's what really counts". She works as a Emergency Medical Technician and she loves the work. Does she minds all the questions from people (including us)? No, she says smiling. She does not, although she recalls a conversation with someone who wanted to convince her to go to college. That it was the only way to advance, to get somewhere. I feel she resented the arrogance more than the message of this person. His or her certitude that they had the right to walk up to this young woman and lecture her about a better way to live her life.

I ask her about her impressions of the city. She has not seen much. On a whim, I suggest that she should go to the Air and Space museum just across the street. She hesitates and I volunteer to take her with her younger sister who has been silent all the time. I see both faces lighten up in anticipation. Yes! They would very much like that. OK then it's a deal. I will come back tomorrow.
A. suggests that they spread the word and ask any of the other kids if they'd like to come. We'll make a complete "outing" out of this. The two girls are all for it.

We are walking out after another tour of the compound when I'm stopped by one of the adults. She is French and I enjoy very much speaking in my mother tongue. She invites me to come to her play the next day and I mention that I will be back for the "field trip" to the museum and that I will stopped afterwards if I can. She was not aware of the trip and I'm not sure she likes the idea. I suddenly realize that I am a stranger, literally off the street and that I am offering to take the children to a Museum of science. They try to shield their kids from the bad influences of the modern world and here I am offering to show them the wonders of space. She does not say anything but I suspect a long discussion between the elders tonight at the campground.

We leave shortly after that. A. is sure that they won't allow me to take the kids to the Museum. I bet that they will, but that some adults will tag along. It's ok by me. Even adults can appreciate the beauty of the Universe.


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