By Dr. Stewart Bitkoff
Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of God
Recently, there has been much discussion about building a mosque near ground zero; many people feel that its location dishonors and insults the memory of those who died in the 911 tragedy. Yet, people forget that innocent Muslims died in this event, Americans fought a revolution to enjoy religious freedom, and the real place of worship is inside us. On some levels, my take on this disagreement is that it may be about racial and religious stereotyping- not just proximity of a mosque. Let me tell you a story that helps explain why I feel this way.
Years ago, when I was working as a counselor in a YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) residential camp on the Finger Lakes, in upstate New York, I learned something about the location of places of worship. Now YMCA camps are open to all campers and staff alike from any religious background, but are Christian in orientation, with certain activities, and you have to understand this going in. There is no pressure of any kind to change your faith, but certain activities (saying Grace before meals, weekly Sunday Vespers) of camp life include these aspects. Our camp was, and still is, located on beautiful Lake Keuka with one of the best waterfront programs for YMCA Camps in the country. The Chapel sits right up against the Lake and its interior is designed with an outdoor rustic flavor; the benches are made from trees cut in 1/2, the altar and the organ are both made primarily of rustic looking wood. The roof is the sky above and the floor is the dirt at your feet. As you sit in this natural outdoor cathedral, with the sun shinning and breeze blowing, breathing in the aroma of the Lake- you literally can feel God all about you.
Yet, because I was born Jewish and this was a Christian place of worship, at first, I had trouble feeling completely at ease. For you see, as a youngster I was taught, that to go into a Church of any sort was a sin and God would be ‘really angry if I did this.’ And Jewish history was filled with many examples were God got ‘pissed off’ and took care of business.
In the beginning, on Sunday mornings as a sat through the service filled with the name of Jesus, I fully expected to be hit by lightning. One particularly beautiful Sunday morning, I noticed a young camper crying during the service. His counselor was walking this youngster (maybe 10 years old) up to me; the counselor whispered, this young guy was Jewish, it really spooked him to sit through the church service and would I talk to him?
So, together this young guy and I went outside to talk. Together, we found a quiet place and sat down: I told the young fellow I was Jewish also. These seemed to surprise and help him. Also, it appeared to put him a little at ease; he said, “You know, I’m afraid to sit in the chapel. I’m afraid that God will get mad at me.”
I said, ‘at first I was also afraid and had been working at the camp for 2 years. Each Sunday I had to sit through the service. During the service, what helped me and seemed OK with God was to replace, every time, they said the name Jesus with the name, God. This worked for me and I bet it would work for you.”
The young fellow, looked at me, wiped the tears from his eyes and said, ‘he would try it.’ I offered to sit next to him during the rest of the service, but he declined and said, he wanted to sit with his counselor and friends. So I followed him back into the chapel and watched him find his seat. At the end of the service, as he walked past me he smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up; the replacement technique worked.
Some 30 years later, the Camp was doing a fund raising telephone out reach, and the solicitor who called me introduced himself by saying, I bet you don’t remember me, but I was the little guy you helped through that Sunday service by sharing you were Jewish. I said, sure I remember that day, and we had a great talk about camp, and how, over the years, camp had become a regular part of this fellow’s life; as a counselor, fund raising, and now introducing his own children to camp activities.
Way back then, sitting in that glorious outdoor cathedral, taught me and at least one other fellow- that the real place of worship, no matter how finely built, was really inside us. By repeating the name of God, in our minds and hearts, we traveled past the troubling externals of the situation and made the situation work for us.
So when I hear reports on the television that people are concerned about the location of a mosque so near an important/sacred site for them, I know something else is at work. Perhaps, they are still deeply hurt and angry about by their loved ones passing, or perhaps someone is firing-up the flames of hatred and bigotry. Using ‘the old scam of religion’ to pull a power play and getting things their own way.
Never forget- America is the land of religious freedom and God lives in our minds and heart, not a church, synagogue or mosque. These are just buildings to help us gather together.
Many Americans, died to protect our religious freedoms . . . even those religions we don’t understand or agree with.
Also by Dr. Bitkoff, A Commuter’s Guide to Enlightenment, Llewellyn, 2008 and Journey of Light: Trilogy, Authorhouse, 2004. These books are available on Amazon.Com or from publisher.
To contact author go to: www.stewartbitkoff.com.