Sunday, June 27, 2004

So many religions, so little time (II)

This is still from yesterday's visit to the National Mall. I just could not write it all up yesterday.

After the visit of the Twelve Tribes and the promise to come back today to take a bunch of kids to the Air and Space Museum, A. and I were stopped by two teenagers standing by a large display on the meat industry and its cruelty to animals. With no intended irony, a large picture of Pamela Anderson exhorts people passing by to consider the pain and suffering inflicted on chicken. Kids flocks to the video only to discover that it could qualify as a R-rated film. Shocking images of cows being killed. Blood splattered everywhere. We start speaking to a young kid wearing a sticker that says "I am not a nugget!" He is from Austria and speaks English without the smallest hint of an accent. I would have sworn that he was an American kid from the suburbs. He has been here for about 2 years, studying in Boston and spending his summer handing out PETA's brochures at the entrance of the Museum of Natural History. He is intense in his speech but avoids a preaching tone. He is telling us about his cooking abilities and the way he changed his father's diet and cured him of all the diseases that his family had. A miraculous recovery!

We leave with a booklet of vegetarian recipes and I just have the time to stash in my bag before we arrive at yet another festival going on in town: A national BBQ competition. A. insists that we go in to sample some of the stuff. I'm happy to go and talk to people but I know I won't touch any of the meat they just cooked.
As it turns out, the day is almost over for the contestants. Lining on the north side of the street, they are all cleaning up or shooting the breeze around beer and food. We stop at one stand that says "New York". Two guys sitting on beach seats, looking at people strolling by. One of the guy is wearing a T-shirt so dirty with grease and blood (?) that it takes me sometimes to decipher the BBQ place it advertises.
I start asking questions, forcing my French accent to let them know that it is OK for me not to know. They are very gracious and answer all the questions, laughing at my complete ignorance of the matter, looking at each other before starting an answer. I must say that even the concept of a competition for BBQ seems weird. What is there to judge?? It's not like there is a recipe involved! I mean, you throw the meat on the barbie and end of story! The two can't believe their ears. The guy with the dirty T-shirt is looking at me with a sorry look. A. is trying to convince them to give him some samples and even though it is against the rules (people in the festival only get their food from accredited vendors who sells the standard street fares), I can see that they would have done it if it was not for the fact that they are done for the day. The meat is cooking and will cook all night before the end of the competition tomorrow.
I enquire about the logistics. They will stay up, guarding their stand, taking turn to sleep in the camper parked nearby. It seems to be part of the fun. Drinking and talking among friends while keeping an eye on their competition. The judges will come tomorrow to taste their work and recompense their devotion. Only the true believers will be saved. Vegetarians will fry in Hell.

A. and I leave the BBQ festival to head out to a nice restaurant but we are both diverted by music coming out from the park in front.
As soon as we arrived though the music has stopped and as we make our way through the crowd, someone starts to speak. We are surrounded by kids, most of them wearing yellow T-shirts marked "Camp Love". The man on stage is talking about the homeless they helped in this park. The group came with a shower bus, a barber shop, clothes and food. I notice now that mixed with the kids in the crowd are 30 or so men standing. The preacher instructs the kids to go and talk to someone they don't know. A. and I. are soon surrounded and bombarded with questions. I realize that some kids think that we are homeless too. They come from a small town in Ohio. They have never seen a homeless person. It does not occur to them that going around in short and T-shirt, sun glasses, a bike and a back pack is not the common face of homelessness. I see the disappointment in their face when I told them that I actually have a place to go back to tonight. They are still happy to be here. Happy to travel, to be with friends. Religion seems far away. After about 10 minutes of chatting, the man comes back on stage and asks everybody to bow and pray to Jesus. The young kid who was, a second ago, laughing suddenly becomes serious and whispers with a sense of urgency as he bows "We have to pray!" The prayer is simple, filled with reference to the infinite kindness of the Lord and the promise of eternity. And then comes the song. A nice pop song about the goodness of God, whose chorus sends the kids screaming "I believe he is good!"
The music is coming from a boom box but the woman and the man on stage sure know how to bring up the heat. In no time the children are jumping and clapping, singing all the while "for generations and generations".
They know all the words to the song and they are still clapping when the music stops. I can't help thinking that this is why they come. Nothing to do with religion or anything else.
It's clean up time and time for us to go. As we make our way out, A. goes up to one young man wearing one of the yellow T-shirts. He wants to return the bible that was given to him by one of the person in the crowd because otherwise, as he says with his characteristic frankness, he will throw it out.
The young guy does not want to take it back. He is arguing that we should give it to someone in the street or even read it ourselves. The discussion probably started from there. A reference to the Jehovah Witnesses and the young man just took off in his criticism. There is no stopping him. He is clearly totally certain of not only the value of his faith but the worthlessness of the others. I can see that there is no arguing but A. does not let go. He jumps at a statement made that there is evidence of Jesus resurrection. "Show me the evidence" he keeps saying to the guy who is reciting lines that he has obviously used before. "So Jesus is crucified and the apostles are pissed saying "Man! You promised so many things and now you're dead dude!".
More than anything else, I think it's the use of pop-culture language, and the argument peppered by "Man!" and "Dude!" that infuriates A. Later, he will quote that sentence back to me, half laughing about how the guy seemed to think that it would convince everybody because it was spoken in "Man and Dude"...
It is very clear early on that the young guy has already crossed the line between a seeker and a believer. There is no more convincing to do. He has his own world view and there is no discussion possible. A. is trying to make him accept the view of Jehovah Witnesses, at least respect it as "as legitimate as your own" but I know it's a lost battle. Among all the religious people we met today, each with their own battle, he is the only one not even willing to accept that there is another side to the story.
We leave shortly after his boss (supervisor?) comes to ask him to keep an eye on the children, to make sure that there is no "one on one" with the homeless. The contrast between their professed love for these guys and the ways they act, unapologetically suspicious toward them, said more to me about the group than all their songs and dances. I still kept their bible. I'd be curious to read it.


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