I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in a small Southern town in southcentral Georgia where, as is true in many Southern towns, the Baptists and Methodists substantially outnumbered members of other Christian denominations, not to mention those of other faith traditions. Born into a Southern Baptist family myself, it would be a few years before I realized other traditions even existed, much less thought about what it might feel like to walk in the shoes of people whose spiritual journey was different, but as intrinsic to who they were as mine is to me.
But I would realize it and think about it, and the reason was basketball.
The catalyst for me was the delayed implementation of the Supreme Court decision in the Madalyn Murray O’Hair case ten years before, which prohibited official prayer and Bible-reading in public schools. Unlike some recent ones, that Supreme Court’s decision was one that, though I continued to be devoutly Christian, I agreed with and agree with still.
I liken my transformation to the reaction of Timothy Buskirk’s character in the movie Field of Dreams at the end of the movie when suddenly, after being completely unable to see the “baseball” men, and on the verge of buying the note on his sister and brother-in-law’s farm because he didn’t agree with the fact that they’d built a baseball field in the middle of their corn crop, the scales had fallen from his eyes.
Part of the change had to do with the fact that a couple of my friends and I had started a group at our high school that met every morning to pray before school, and no police or governmental official had said a thing about it. In fact, the principal had given us the library to meet in. We even had our picture in the yearbook, along with the other organizations. What happened is that the old “they’re trying to keep prayer out of schools” routine that’s still parroted today by many who didn’t give a tinker’s damn about prayer of any kind when they were in school…fell flat. If that was the intent of “they,” they sure came up short. Besides, Jesus said he would be there when two or three gathered in His name, not when their school made them sit through an invocation or in the moments before a football game.
The other reason was that some of my best friends from elementary school on turned out to be Jewish. Another couple of friends were Roman Catholic, which in a time not long after people had been concerned about the possibility that JFK would yield to the Pope instead of the Constitution, put them in a what must have been a quandary of sorts as well. Several of them were my cohorts on the girl’s basketball team.
I got to thinking during the “Christmas” holidays that year about what it had been like for those Jewish kids. I knew they probably hadn’t minded the time off from school, but I wondered how it had felt to them to be kids and not really understand why they didn’t get to leave milk and cookies for a jolly fat man in a red suit named after a saint (which we didn’t have in the Baptist church, but no matter) who supposedly delivered gifts to kids all over the world, but only Christian kids. (On another note, where the Catholics were concerned, I wondered about something called mass and something called Lent and having ashes put on your forehead and communion services where they actually served baked bread and wine in a cup and not saltines and grape juice in little tiny glasses.)
I came to the conclusion that the spiritual beliefs of every girl on our team, whatever they happened to be, were as meaningful to her as mine were to me, and that our abilities to play basketball together made the fact that we were Jewish and Catholic and Methodist and Baptist—and even Hindu or Muslim, if there were any I didn’t know about—a lot more interesting, and I was always curious. It bothered me, though I doubt I ever said anything about it then, that we NEVER played basketball on Sunday, because it was the Sabbath, but Friday and Saturday were okay, despite the fact that the Jewish Sabbath starts on Friday night. No matter what, however, come Monday we were back on the court together, jumping rope, running “suicide” drills, doing “ape drills,” shooting foul shots, running laps, all manner of things that made us so sore that students could easily tell who was on the basketball team the next day if they were paying attention.
It was those experiences—the wins, the losses, even the soreness we shared that mattered to us, not the things that were different about us. To do anything that in any way suggested that one of those things that made us different made one of us superior—especially our faith traditions or lack of them—wasn’t just dis-unifying. It was ill-advised. It was ignorant. It was wrong. It still is.
We were kids—American girls who just happened to also be Jewish and Catholic and Methodist and Baptist, and when we stood and put our hands over our hearts and said the Pledge of Allegiance, we weren’t pledging allegiance to the Christian United States of America or the Jewish or the Muslim. We were pledging allegiance to a country that’s by no means perfect, but holds, as one of its ideals, respect for every citizen—not the superiority of one over the other on any basis except behavior. That’s the whole point of the separation of church and state. It’s the reason we haven’t turned into Syria or Iraq…at least so far.
When I first heard of Duke University’s decision to do a public Muslim call to prayer, the powers that be had already reversed the decision. And I was frankly glad to hear it. I was equally glad to learn that a Muslim group had been meeting and praying in the basement of the chapel for some time and would continue to, just as our little group in high school did for a few more years even after I was gone. Despite the fact that the school had the good intention to attempt to “unify” students, it was a bad idea. Unless the plan was to alternate between faith traditions every day, which would take about nine years for the 2,500 or so that exist in the U.S., the best solution was not to do it at all, just as the Supreme Court said back in 1963, and let the people who choose to pray together pray together. (See above.)
Then I heard that Franklin Graham had called for Christian donors to hold back their gifts if the school didn’t reverse the decision, and I wondered if we would have heard even a peep from Billy Graham’s illustrious son if the school’s decision had been instead to read a New Testament passage. And I’m pretty sure, based on other of Mr. Graham’s actions, that I know the answer to that question, and it makes me as sad today as thinking about Jewish kids on Christmas did in 1973.
Despite all, though, I still have faith in the truly marvelous things we can do together if we just stop and show honor to the unique experiences of others, but we obviously still have quite a way to go. To earn respect, you have to give it. And until we manage as a so-called “civil” society to figure that out, I think that if Duke really wants to “unify” students, it should go back to focusing on basketball.
After all, it worked wonders for me.