Saturday, December 26, 2009

Umoja and the Proselytizers

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, and I am doing what I do every year: wondering where in Albuquerque I might buy a black candle for the center of the kinara.

Red and green candles are plentiful this time of year; I have finally figured out that the best time to buy muhindi (ears of corn) is just before Thanksgiving - one ear for each child in the family is tradition. The mkeka (straw mat), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup for libations), and mazao (fruits of the harvest) are all ready to be placed in their spot of honor. But first I need a black candle!

So I'm kicking myself for not buying any of the Kwanzaa candle sets I saw in DC earlier this month, and wracking my brain for a possible solution. It'll come.

Meanwhile, the Kwanzaa principle today is Umoja, or unity in family, community, nation and race. (I interpret that last one as the "human race" though I suspect Ron Maulana Karenga had something different in mind). Communities are where the cultural lines emerge for me, not race, which everyone knows is a social construct anyway.

My first Umoja challenge of the day was an elderly couple who appeared on my doorstep. They were too conventionally dressed to be artists/writers/community activists and too old for me to place them as my kids' friends. The woman wore a hairstyle that was Pat Nixon-esqe, and the man wore a dapper tweed porkpie hat. I guessed that they were peddling something - religion, most likely.

So I girded my loins for compassion (not battle), and opened the door. They smiled kindly and asked me about my family - one person in particular. I thanked them for their kindness, and looked at them inquiringly, upon which they told me they were Jehovah's Witnesses and that they had been invited to return and converse more with said family member. I forced my smile (after all we are all humans just trying to find our way through life) and mentioned that I was the only one here and I was not interested in their message for me, thank-you-very-much.

So they left, introducing themselves as they made their way down the steps and handing me copies of the December 2009 issues of The WatchTower and Awake!

I felt as though my morning of music and solitude and good coffee and the written word (Sylvia Plath and Uwem Akpan) had been marred by this imposition and intrusion on my time. Had it been a neighbor in need or a visit from someone stopping by, my response would have been much different. I would have thrown the door open and offered my time and energy.

These folks elicited another response from me entirely - I did not want their message or their presence in my day.

And in my recognition of this, I realized that I was stepping away from that principle of Umoja -unity of humanity. So I stopped, recognized that these people were doing what they believed would be helpful, and that they probably had no idea that their presence on my front porch was unwelcome, annoying, and bordering on harassment.

I've grown tired of proselytizers knocking on my door and banging on my windows and approaching me as I garden.

It would be one thing if we could actually talk about religion and faith - I'd love to have a proselytizer offer some up Bonhoffer or Niebuhr or an analysis of the filoque controversy of the Nicene Creed. Given that I work in a Philosophy and Religion department, these discussions are not hard to come by, but I'm always eager to learn more.

The folks who come to my door are more interested in converting me to a flatfooted faith that involves no questions without answers. Unfortunately for them, uncritical acceptance is missing from my deoxyribonucleic acid. This thwarts their mission.

Once I got past my annoyance, my next thought was how can I recover that sense of Umoja - how could I take what these proselytizers had given me and create some unity from it?

Art is a great unifier - perhaps I could create something transcendent from this moment.

And so I pick up the pamphlets they have given me, looking past the poorly argued article on Paley's argument from design and begin cutting out words, phrases, and images that will become a collage.

What better way to reflect on unity than to tear out bits and pieces of what makes us human and to reassemble art?


Teresa Blankmeyer Burke said...
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Teresa Blankmeyer Burke said...

just dug through the candle drawer and found a black candle. Apparently last year's purchase of a black candle was for a pair, so we are ready for Kwanzaa to begin!