A group of Green Muslims signed up for City Year’s day of service last MLK Jr. day of service. City Year put together projects to give a major make-over to the Ron Brown Middle School in Northeast, DC. The projects ranged from painting inspirational quotes such as Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage and all the Men and Women, Merely Players,” in the huge theater, to outdoor clean-up work to patching holes in the roof, to making and painting benches to decorating the school’s mascot (a rocket ship) up and down the halls of the school.
It was a blessing being able to help beautify this space. When we think of service projects, often we think of hard manual labor, such as planting trees, or building a house with Habitat for Humanity. Beautification of space can be just as important. As I painted the school’s halls with the rocket ship mascot, I thought about how these simple strokes of paint created a new, brighter, shinier environment for the children who attended this school.
Rain was falling faster and it was getting late as we both sought refuge under the shelter at the bus stop that evening. I was waiting for the S2/S4 there at the corner of 16th and U, just down the street from my apartment. He was probably just there to wait out the rain under the shelter, if not make it his apartment for the night. So I was in his apartment and he was at my neighborhood bus stop. We were both sharing each other’s space. In fact, we were sharing the same bench. I was on one side, he was on the other, and his overstuffed bag was in the middle.
The man, visibly drunk and in a talkative mood, was the first to say something. I was feeling quiet, but I responded. Then he asked me my name. My response changed everything. His response was to move his bag, from between the two of us to the other side of the bench. I wish it stopped there. Instead, he asked me what I was doing here?…
Whether I was going to blow him up? Why my people always blew things up? Why didn’t we go back to where we came from? What was I doing here, anyway? Was I going to blow him up?
Then he grabbed his bag and crossed the street, under the rain, to the bus stop at the opposite side of the street. Talking loudly to himself all the way there. I should note that at no time during this interaction, from sharing a bench with the man to listening him berate me about “my people,” did I feel threatened in any way. Though I hate to admit it, he – poor, drunk and homeless – simply was not in a position of power or dominance. I was recently asked to reflect on a time when I felt powerless, not dominant (i.e. subordinate) when interacting with someone. “What did it feel like?” they asked. This was my response:
JFK at the mouth of the jetway with the police officer holding my passport. Only my passport. “Randomly.” I felt small, short of breath, nervous, self conscious and myopic. I couldn’t think clearly, almost paralyzed, frozen in place. Just wanting for it to end. Biting my tongue, but wanting to scream and fight. Or simply just to walk away. To have the freedom to walk away. Or the freedom to have control over my own emotions. Not have someone else control them.
Tell me, which is scarier? An armed police officer trained to pick out my racial profile in a crowd or a homeless man with little to no vested interest in discriminating against me, but doing so anyway. Both these scenes speak volumes about how far we’ve let our fears (over)take us. As far as I’m concerned, the latter scene speaks much more clearly and more loudly. But what does this have to do with the environment? Nothing. And everything.
As intense as that exchange at the bus stop might sound, the homeless gentleman and I were only just scratching the surface. The questions that encounter raises, albeit implicitly, have more to do with race, gentrification, suburban sprawl, social services, poverty and health than anything else. These are all environmental issues. They are also social justice issues, without doubt. These very issues, if championed by American Muslims as I believe our faith impels us to do (and as the groups I linked to above are doing), could begin to address the sad reality of those scenes at the airport and the bus stop that I described above.
I believe in reframing false frames. The guru of how arguments are framed is George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley who wrote the book on cognitive framing. It’s called “Don’t think of an elephant!” Which, of course, is exactly what you think of when you hear or read that title, an elephant. Another Lakoff framing example is Richard Nixon’s classic line, “I am not a crook.” Sure, Dick, sure. Finally, and more to the point of this post, is the fact that Islam/Muslims/Muhammad and terror don’t belong together. Not even in that sentence.
The point is to focus on what we are or stand for, not what we’re against. The difference is subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world. I stand for a vision of the world that is peaceful, serene, loving, forgiving, merciful, understanding and whole. I’ve been there before and it is blissful. That is where I want to live. Not by myself, but with others. Not in a far off time and place, but here and now.