Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘faith’

My Son Ryan and AIDS

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In 1984, one week before Christmas, Jeanne White was told that her son Ryan had contracted AIDS from a blood product he’d used to control his hemophilia. The doctors gave him six months to live. Struggling to make life as normal as possible for her thirteen-year-old son, she attempted to have him return to school as soon as possible. She did not realize the amount of fear and prejudice that would result when the school heard of his illness and refused to allow his return.

After numerous court battles, which brought he and his mother to national and international attention, Ryan was allowed back in school only to be inundated with hate, ignorance and abuse. As a result of their struggles Ryan was befriended by numerous celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Phil Donahue and began to educate children and parents about AIDS by speaking at schools, appearing on numerous talk shows and news programs and having a movie about his life broadcast on national television. On April 11, 1990, five and a half years after his six-month prognosis, Ryan died. His funeral was one of the most publicized services of that decade.

Shortly after Ryan’s death his mother Jeanne, who had always been behind the scenes publicly, was asked by several senators to speak about Ryan to Congress in order to pass national legislation for AIDS education. She reluctantly agreed and was instantly thrown into the media spotlight. The bill, THE RYAN WHITE CARE ACT, was subsequently passed and Jeanne White became one of the most sought after speakers in the country. She founded the Ryan White Foundation and continues advocating for AIDS education and prevention with children, teenagers and their peers.

JEANNE WHITE:

A lot of times it takes a little push. Everybody likes feeling sorry for them selves over the death of a loved one. That’s kind of normal. With me it was Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch who got me going and I fought it every step of the way. Ryan was always the public speaker not me.I was just following Ryan around. Senator Kennedy and Hatch had just named a bill after Ryan called the Ryan White Care Act and they wanted me to come to Washington DC. It was too soon. We had just buried Ryan two days before and they asked me to come anyway. They knew it was going to be hard, but they said, “You know, this is the first chance that we have of getting something done for people with AIDS.” They said, “Ryan’s death is so fresh on everybody’s mind, his illness and funeral was carried by every network for the last week and a half. This is the first chance of someone being in the public eye that takes the focus off the disease and puts it on to the fact that ‘anybody can get it.’”

I said, “Yes”. I said, “No”. I said, “I can’t, I really can’t. Ryan used to do that, not me.” On the second day people from Senator Kennedy’s staff called me again. They said, “Terry’s going to be there.” Terry and others had helped me through a lot of bad times. During all the years that Ryan fought AIDS the more people I knew that died of AIDS. And I had seen so many families just like me. Even though I didn’t want to get involved, so many people helped me that I kind of felt like I owed it to them. Then Senator Hatch called me and said, “You know, we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I have twenty-three senators lined up for you. All we want you to do is tell what it’s like to watch your son live and die with this disease.”

So I went to Washington and I’m so glad I did. It made me feel good. I didn’t feel I did great, not like I wanted to. I could have done better but I knew I was sincere in what I felt and said. After that, people wouldn’t let me stop.

Phil Donahue, who was a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become a very good friend of the family. When he was in the hospital visiting Ryan he noticed all the mail and could not believe how much was pouring in. He took a bunch of the letters back to New York with him and called saying, “Do you realize these letters are all from kids?!” I said, “Well yeah, that’s who generally wrote Ryan.” He said, “Jeannie, you’ve got to continue this work. You’ve got to answer this mail.” Phil said, “I’ll hire you an assistant.” There were over sixty thousand letters! Phil kept his word and with the help of Marlo Thomas and the St. Jude volunteers, they were able to find a lady that lived close by.

I was so impressed with Ryan, so proud of him. Sometimes I’d think, “Golly, is he really my son?” To me he was just my little kid, but to the nation, he was this celebrity and hero. I hated to even think that I could follow him, his impact was so great and people listened. When I speak I’m always a nervous wreck, even though I’ve been doing it now for years. I’ve messed up a lot, but I’m me. When I introduce myself I say, “I’m just a mom. I’m a mom just like your mom and because of this misunderstood disease called AIDS, my life changed overnight.” I say a prayer every time I go out. I say, “Lord, please help me to get through this. Help me educate these young people. Help me make a difference in their lives with my story.” Then I say, “Ryan, please be there with me.” Then I have this kind of surge that goes through me and I feel like its Ryan saying, “OK, Mom, I’m with you.”

I think we’ve made a lot of progress. By “we” I mean everybody who has committed so hard to fighting this disease with education and through therapy and drugs and medical treatment. I think we’ve come a long way. The people who have to be commended the most are the people that are not here. Their lives had to be lost for us to get where we are today, to show compassion. Even though I’m tired I’m still doing it because of the Terry Burns, the Mike Callums and the family members that I’ve seen.

One day we were riding in the van and Ryan reached over and grabbed my hand and started swinging it. I looked over and said, “OK, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t want anything.” “Come on Ryan, what do you want?” I continued. He replied, “Can’t a son hold his mother’s hand? ” I said, “Come on, you really don’t want anything?” “Mom, I just want to say thank you for standing by me, for always being there for me.”

I remember that moment when I speak to teenagers. You know, we always think everybody’s going to be here tomorrow, but one day you’re going to wake up and somebody’s not going to be there. I say, “You might think this stupid old lady up here doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I do. The next time you go home from school, even if you think it’s the corniest thing you’ve ever done, write a letter to your parents. If you think you’re real cool and you can’t go up and hug them around their neck and say, ‘Mom. Dad. Thank you. I love you.’ Then write a note and put it on their pillow. Do something so that you’ll never be sorry.”

It would have been easy to be mad all the time at the people who ridiculed us, who discriminated against us, but we had to put our lives in perspective and look at what was really important and what wasn’t. Everybody saw on the news that it was this fight for Ryan to go to school, but the number one priority in our life was keeping him healthy. Second, was keeping my job at General Motors, because we had great insurance and it paid for all his medical bills. And the third part was my daughter Andrea, keeping us together as a family.

At first, it’s like, “Why?” Everybody wants to know why. Why wasn’t he given a miracle? All my life I was taught if you pray hard enough, if you believed hard enough, that you would get a miracle and you could never doubt that or you wouldn’t get one. I never thought Ryan was going to die. I just couldn’t quite understand that. I thought nobody had more people praying over them than Ryan did. I prayed, “Lord, wouldn’t it be nice to show this kid a miracle in front of the whole nation.” Everybody knew he’s lived with AIDS for five and half years. He’d been in and out of hospitals. He’s been blind twice. I mean, this kid had a heck of a life, why couldn’t he be given a miracle? When he died, it was like, “Why? What more could we have done?”

When he died I was really taken aback. I started questioning my faith. I think that’s normal. I mean, I started wondering if there really is a god? How does God let things like this happen? I see people around me all the time asking that question. “Why do young kids have to die?” I mean, anybody really, lots of other good people have died too. So then I started trying to find reasons.

After awhile it started to get clearer. “Look at all the things he’s done in his short life. He’s educated so many people. Wouldn’t we all like to say we had accomplished as much as this kid did in only 18 years?!”

I tell the kids that when I get to heaven I’m going to be angry. I hope the Lord forgives me for being angry, but I’m going to say, “Why did you have to take Ryan?” Then I say, “You know what I think he’s going to say? He’s going to say, ‘You know what, he was only supposed to live three to six months. I gave you five and a half years and you’re still not happy.’” Maybe I got a miracle. We had quite a few Christmases that we never thought we were going to have.

I didn’t want to lose my faith. I was mad at my faith. I was mad at my church. I was mad at my religion. I was mad at God. But I wanted to find a reason. I eventually started seeing things around me like the Ryan White Care Act and Elton John go through rehabilitation and get off of drugs and alcohol and I thought, “My goodness, Ryan touched more lives than I ever knew. Perhaps those people got miracles and they don’t know it.”

Michael (Jackson) was a real good friend of Ryan’s. When Michael called Ryan in the hospital once, Elton said, “With all the money that’s in this room, we can’t bring this boy back to life.” That was a real big realization to Elton . . . that he had all the money in the world, he had everything he could ever buy, but he could not buy his health. That’s why he entered rehab. When Michael called me after Ryan died, just to see how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing OK but what made you and Ryan so close?” When Michael would call, they would have long phone conversations. He said, “You know, most people can’t get over the awe of who I am, so nobody can ever act normal around me. Ryan knew how I wanted to be treated, because that’s how he wanted to be treated. I can’t trust anyone because everybody always wants something from me.” He could tell Ryan anything and Ryan wasn’t going to go blab it or tell it, you know. “I promised Ryan he could be in my next video and now that he’s gone I want to do a video for him.” He made a video called Going Too Soon, which was about Ryan.

It’s hard to talk about death. I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t really think he was going to die. I can remember him saying what he wanted to be buried in. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about it but he went on anyway, “I know you like me in a tux but I don’t want to buried in one.” I said, “OK, Ryan, what do you want?” I mean, it’s like, I’d say anything to get this conversation over with. He says, “I want to be buried in my Guess jeans, my red T&C (Town and Country) shirt, my Air Jordan’s and my Jean jacket.” He pauses, as I’m fading out, then says, “You know how people are when they’re lying in a casket and everybody is watching their eyes to see if their eyes move? I want my sunglasses on and I want to be buried in my boxer shorts.” “Your boxer shorts?” I exclaimed. He’d just switched from wearing briefs to boxer shorts and really liked them. “Why your boxer shorts?” I deadpanned. “You know that hernia I got? I want to make sure I . . .” He had a hernia that they couldn’t operate on because he had no platelets. “I want to make sure I’m comfortable.” And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re dead, I mean . . .’ “OK, just talk,” Ryan said. “You know, as a mom.”

One of the best things after Ryan died was when people talked about him. I think it was also good for me to get involved in something I truly believed in, doing something, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. That’s the easy way to go . . . feeling sorry for yourself. People didn’t let me, although that’s what I probably would have done if not pushed. But people were always talking about Ryan and people still do and that kind of keeps him alive within me.

CONTINUED

Lockdown

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

“We ask for forgiveness, hope and redemption,” John prayed, as Marcus walked in. “Make us a vessel of your peace,” John continued, his brawny hands turned toward the heavens.

Marcus joined the circle of two and closed his blue eyes to the surrounding maroon drapery, scented candles and large marble cross crucified to the wall.

“Our plan is your plan,” Alan interjected, his blond hair and wire-rim glasses both askew. “You are the source of all we do; you are the light that guides our way.”

“Amen,” John concluded, his booming voice matching his six foot seven inch frame.

“Sorry I’m late,” Marcus said, looking up at John.

“No problem,” John replied, his full red beard stirring with each syllable.

“It was Lois,” Marcus explained. “You know how she gets.”

“Yeah,” John said aloud; then whispered to him self, “I know how she gets.”

“She gets scared,” Marcus went on, “whenever we make this trip.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Alan replied, putting his hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “It’s safer than walking the streets downtown,” he insisted, getting his lunch and coat from the red velvet coach and turning back to Marcus. “Statistically speaking, it’s even more dangerous at home.”

“That’s true,” John affirmed.

“You don’t have to convince me,” Marcus replied, clutching the Corrigan sweater in his pale sweaty palm. “It’s Lois who’s all worked up about it.”

They left the prayer room and walked towards the Volvo in the church parking lot. “Oh yeah, Lois sends her love,” Marcus said to John, “and she said she’s sorry for everything.” John cleared his throat, but didn’t reply. “I guess she finally got tired of blaming you for taking me on these trips,” Marcus grinned knowingly.

“Why couldn’t it be closer?” Alan mused from the back seat. “Six hours round trip is a long way to save a few souls.”

“It’s nothing compared to what the Lord has done for us,” Marcus replied solemnly, as he looked out the window at the dusty farm land of the central valley.

“Amen,” John and Alan agreed, as the car cut through the murderously dry heat. The men unbuttoned the top of their collars and rolled up the white sleeves of their dress shirts. It wasn’t long until they closed the windows and turned the air conditioning on high.

“If you want a break, just holler,” Marcus offered.

“Nah,” John replied, “You know I prefer driving . . . gives me something to focus on.”

“Focus on God,” Marcus exalted.

“Of course,” John’s lips curled into a half grin. “I do.”

“I didn’t say you didn’t,” Marcus corrected. “I just meant . . . you know . . . thinking of others . . . letting go and letting God.”

“Yeah,” John replied. “I got it. I think about some folks all the time Marcus,” his grip tightening on the wheel, “some more than others.”

“Yes, yes,” Marcus replied. “You’re a saint.”

“It’s all God’s work,” Alan surmised.

“There you go, “John grinned, the tension drained from his shoulders as quickly as it had arrived. “It’s all God’s work.”

“Why don’t I read a few passages from Luke?” Marcus suggested, pulling out his gold-leafed bible.

“Read it loud, so I can hear,” Alan insisted.

“No problem,” Marcus replied joyfully. “Here we go. I’ll start with the fifth chapter, twelfth verse.”

It didn’t take long to arrive, only forever.

“I’m beat,” Alan said, as they ate lunch in the garage designated for visitors.

“We just got here,” Marcus mumbled, his mouth full of an avocado sandwich Lois had made, “and you’re already tired?”

“I know,” Alan replied, wiping mayonnaise off his chin, “but that’s a long time to sit on your rear end.”

They finished up lunch, locked the car up tight and joined in prayer.

“Help us to help them to see the truth,” Marcus pleaded. “Let your truth bathe them with your glory. May they be cleansed of sin? Amen.”

“Amen,” Alan chimed.

“Amen,” John added, his eyes wide open, staring at his baby brother’s seemingly blissful and serene profile.

After the meticulous searches, sign-ins and checkpoints, the officers escorted the men from God’s House Church past the towers with guards holding binoculars and high-powered rifles, to the D Block chapel, which stood alone in the center of the state penitentiary built for 1200 men, but holding 1700 plus. It was their fourth visit of the year.

The guard, named Jim, but better known as Big Preacher, due to his size and professed faith, allowed the inmates with passes to enter single file.

CONTINUED

Islam, Peace and Prison.

Iman Michael Salaam (photo)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while talking on Meet the Press about President Obama’s faith being Christian said, “He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is what if he is (Muslim)? s there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Mr. Powell went on to speak about a photo essay he’d seen which showed a mother at the grave of her son, who had served in Iraq and been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His tombstone had the crescent and star of the Islamic faith. The young man, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, was an American who had given his life for his country. In spite of such examples of patriotism and calls for tolerance, stereotypes about the Muslim faith and those that practice it, especially those in prison, are buried deep in the American psyche.

The Gallup Poll of the Muslim World estimates there are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, which is about 22% of all people on earth. If it continues at its present rate of growth, those who identify as Muslims will bypass Christianity (holding steady at 33%) by the middle of this century. A survey by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research said that close to 2 million Muslims attend prayer in U.S. mosques. They also found that in one recent 5 year period, the number of mosques grew by 25 percent and the people worshiping in them rose by 300 percent. With one of the largest prison populations in the world, per capita, it is not surprising that people practicing or converting to Islam in America’s prisons has also risen over the last 50 years. Most people imprisoned in the U.S. are eventually released back into the community. If a large portion of them are Muslim, how they believe, act and practice their faith and our re actions to their faith, affects us all.

“I’m not a terrorist or violent. I’m Muslim,” says inmate Kalain Hadley at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) in Coalinga, California. “My God and the Islam I practice has nothing to do with killing innocent people or suicide. The Koran says to only fight to protect oneself. Jihad means ‘struggle’, an internal struggle with self, not something political or violent.”

The program manager for Hartford Seminary’s Islamic Chaplaincy Program, which is the only accredited program of its kind in the U.S., says she has had to deal with such prejudicial views about Islam throughout her career. Ms. Mumina Kowalski was the first contracted Islamic female chaplain in Pennsylvania. She worked at a women’s facility for 8 years and says, “We still experience a lot of prejudice. It’s tough. We use to get criticism about inmates because they were Muslim, as opposed to other inmates being criticized strictly for their behavior and not their religious beliefs.”

John E. Colbert, another inmate at PVSP, claims, “Mainstream Islam doesn’t believe in terrorism. It’s against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The radicals have moved away from the Koran and Muhammad’s example and drifted towards tribalism, culture and nationalism. One of the verses in the Koran says, ‘I made you as nations and tribes to learn from each other, not to fight one another.’ Islam recognizes all religious faiths, including the prophets Abraham, Jesus and Moses.”

Harry Dammer, Professor of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Scranton points out that, “We forget that Islamic inmates have been recruiting each other in prison for almost 50 years since Malcolm X and his colleagues brought it to the forefront as a prison religion. Only now, with the fear of terrorism, are people concerned about the abuse of the faith (Islam) after release. We also forget that looking back at prison riots over the last 40 or so years, you can see that in fact the Muslim inmates helped in numerous instances to quell the prison riots and keep the lid on escalating violence. I can say from my research that prison is just like general society. There are people in prison who are sincere in their religious faith and those that are not.”

The word “Islam” is defined as “surrender into God’s will”. “Allah” is simply another word for “God” and is close to the same words Jesus used for God in his native tongue. An “Imam” is “someone who leads others in prayer”. The 5 Pillars or “tenets” of Islam are: faith or belief in the oneness of God; daily prayer (5 times); concern for and giving assistance to the needy; purification through fasting (Ramadan); and at least 1 pilgrimage to Makkah (the hajj), for those that are able.

The former Muslim chaplain at PVSP, Imam Michael Salaam, has been in the faith since 1971. He grew up in Memphis Tennessee and had always attended New Salem Baptist Church. When he converted to Islam, he says his mother “almost went into shock”. He remembers her saying, “Are you insane?! Are you crazy?!” Her initial reactions didn’t last. “After about 5 years, she saw my life change,” he fondly recalls. “I got a steady job and was helping raise my kids. One day she came up to me and said, ‘Come here son. What is this stuff you say you’re in?’ I said, ‘It’s Islam Mom.’ She said, ‘Well . . . do you think you could get your brothers into that stuff?’ She had seen the positive effect Islam had on me through those years. I think it also helped her practice her own faith more deeply when she realized that Islam wasn’t ritualistic to me, it had become my substance; my essence. Muslim means that natu re or that soul in each of us. Once that soul or entity submits to Allah or God, he or she is Muslim.”

Five years ago the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which records prisoners’ religious preferences, said that 5.5 percent of the federal inmate population were some type of Muslim. It is believed that a much higher percentage of state and county inmates are Muslim (where religious preferences are not always recorded), due to the larger number of African-Americans in such facilities. Although those who are or have become Muslims come from all ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, the Associated Press says that 30 percent of the nation’s Muslims are black.

“Allah is everywhere,” claims inmate Kevin Wilson. “I don’t know exactly why, but it (Islam) resonates. Maybe it’s because it’s a form of rehabilitation. It’s something we are choosing to do, as opposed to being imposed. If you follow the principles and tenets of Islam you can do nothing but be rehabilitated. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself hard questions and have that personal talk. It may hurt, but you’re going to find out who you are, what you were and where you’ll end up.”

Speaking about the incident he says changed his life, Kalain Hadley says, “I had just been in a fight and was sitting alone with a torn shirt. A guy came and sat next to me. He started talking about Allah and invited me to Friday service. I wasn’t interested in religion at all. I said I’d go just to get rid of him. I went and listened and have been showing up to listen for 4 years now. Imam Michael Salaam said what I need to hear and he is an honorable man.”

Whether these men’s change in belief and conversion to Islam will have a permanent positive effect upon their behavior and how they live their lives, is still out with the jury. Kris Rosenberg in Can People Change says, “Faith in human transformation is a phenomenon basic to our culture. We join Alcoholics Anonymous with the hope that we can become sober citizens. And sometimes it works. We can keep faith in the possibility of transformation and still be skeptical of quick-change artists with big pay-offs.”

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 600,000 prisoners are released each year and that almost 70 percent of them have alcohol and drug problems. Within three years, about two-thirds are rearrested and 50 percent return to prison. In a report by Florida State University researcher Dan Mears, which was funded in part by the National Institute of Justice, it was found that there is no hard evidence that “faith-based” or religious programs really work or cut down on recidivism rates.

Such reports do not dampen the spirits of Imam Michael Salaam. He believes there is not enough support for those released or solid communities to which they can return and there are few programs that exist within the prison gates. As a sponsor of a non-denominational and multi-faceted program for inmates at PVSP called the Impact Program (which is co-facilitated by Rev. Deborah Johnson from Inner Light Ministries, along with an inmate council of long-time residents), the Imam has seen the positive effects and transformations that can and do take place when such comprehensive modalities are employed. “They have to come to it with some sincerity though and with an open heart to learn and reform their life,” he insists. “There are many successes.”

There are some studies that confirm that change is possible. An Arizona Inmate Recidivism Study found that, “Rehabilitation program involvement was found to reduce recidivism by 25% after two years of release. A higher level of inmate program involvement correlates with a greater reduction in recidivism. High program involvement will reduce recidivism by 35 percent or more. The greatest reductions in recidivism occur for those who are involved in a program and serve ten years or more. Inmates released to supervision record significantly lower recidivism rates than do comparable inmates released without supervision.”

A number of programs for Muslim’s released from prison are scattered across the country, but very few of them combine all of the factors that have been shown to cut down recidivism and help people stay the course. “When the Nation of Islam was the dominant factor in the prisons,” says Imam Michael Salaam, “I think the success rate was better because you had one influence, one voice and when the guys came out there was a community there. It was a coordinated effort. Now, with different schools of thought there is some fragmentation. There’s no real group representing all the divisions.”

This concern with fragmentation and groups that cause conflict in prison are echoed by Ms. Kowalski. “Some people use a fronting of religion as Muslim, but it is really negative and simply a tool to rebel against the system. This type of ‘Islam’ requires no personal transformation. They use it to form an identity, which can be detrimental, because they don’t practice or look at their own issues. That is another reason why it is so important to have trained chaplains that understand these divisions.”

Once people get out of the penitentiary, they face the same lack of coordinated services that often exist inside. A report in 2004 to the Annie E. Casey Foundation by Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya and Dr. Ihsan Bagby identified a number of programs and mosques that are trying to help formerly incarcerated Muslims. They found that, “The city of Cleveland had the best Interfaith cooperative network, called Community Reentry, for reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons”. Other programs include: ICNA Relief and United Muslim Movement Against Homelessness (NY); Crescent Social Assistance Agency (NJ); Masjid Ikhwa (NY); Muslim Women’s Help Network (NY); ILM Foundation (LA); Small Steps (LA); Husbah (CA); Muslim Community Center (SF); Free at Last (CA); Community Re-Entry (OH); Masjid al-Muminin (GA); Islamic Crisis Emergency Response System (GA); Masjid al-Haqq (MI); Muslim Family Services (MI); Mosque of Umar (IL); Masjid al-Fajr (IN); Inner City Muslim Center (IL) ; Prison Committee at Islamic Center (TX); Prison Prevention Program (TX); and Masjid Taleem Muhammad (TX).

“I saw a study once,” Imam Michael Salaam recalls, “done by a Christian. He wanted to know why Islam was growing in America. He looked at the media and other factors and discovered that most who converted did so based on them knowing another person who they respected; based on that person’s good behavior; how that person treated them; their compassion and love. The best invitation for Islam is your behavior. The Koran says, ‘God is good. All good comes from God.’ If there’s something that is going wrong in your life, check your own hands and see what you did to bring that about. That is the key, for them to see that Islam calls upon you to improve your life so it can be of service to other human beings. I believe every human being can change. Not everyone will change, but they can. Until we can put that sense of self pride, responsibility and being of value in the men in prison, there won’t be any rehabilitation. You have to hit that chord with them. If Islam can make that man conscious and aware of his family, take care of his kids, become responsible and gainfully employed making honest money, that benefits everyone in our society. That’s what Islam is about . . . awakening that human being to his God given potential.”

“Michael Salaam has a unique way of putting things,” says PVSP inmate John E. Colbert. “It reaches the core of your soul. He is someone I respect. I could hear the same thing from someone else, but until I heard it from Imam Michael, it didn’t sink in.”

When former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell spoke about a 7-year-old Muslim-American child having the same right to dream of growing up to be president of the United States as any other kid in this country, he was presenting a vision of the potential that exists within our society, but has not yet been achieved. The reality of how American’s perceive and relate to their fellow Muslim citizens and their Islamic faith (those in prison and those without), is still embedded with stereotypes, prejudice and ignorance. Whether these negative images are changed by people such as Imam Michael Salaam, General Collin Powell or the over 2 million Muslim’s in the U.S., remains to be seen.

Deathbed Conversions?

I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.

When death approaches or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God or the hereafter the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief even after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.

A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.

A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God and she couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.

A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.

Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.

A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”

Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.

As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.

A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.

Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.

Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!

Are You Dead When You’re Dead?

How we feel, believe or think about what happens to us after we die matters. It matters because our thoughts about the after-life often effect how we react too and live in the present.

If one believes that their physical reality and what they see, feel and experience with their senses is all that exists, then the thought of its termination and our bodies decline may be frightening, if not down right terrifying. If someone’s faith tells them there is something that continues beyond the known physical realities of the world or takes them to a place of peace and happiness, they may be less inclined to fear their own mortality or that of others.

Both ideas and beliefs, that something continues beyond death and that nothing does, may also help us live more in the moment and appreciate the short, precarious lives we live or create continuing anxiety about how things are or where we would rather be.

The reason the word may is italicized, is because there is no omniscient law of nature, physics or human response, that such beliefs in life after death or solely in the material world, causes only those stated or expected reactions. We are far more infinite than the stars in our complicated, yet simple, desire for understanding, comfort and reassurance about the unknown and what happens to us after we die.

When I was a teen, I used to believe strongly in reincarnation. At the time, it made sense. As I grew older my beliefs shifted from Yoga and Eastern traditions to Quaker activism and social responsibility. Then it changed again and again, from the Catholic Church to Judaism and from Eastern Buddhist belief in transgression and karma, to natures continual recycling of all forms of matter, including human beings. Whatever I was practicing or following at the time, was my reality. Each exploration into the afterlife or spiritual nature of humanity gave me some answers and experiences I could hold onto, make sense of and say, “This is it! This is the truth! This is what happens!”

In my early work with hospice and later as a chaplain at the hospital, I met a number of people who had been clinically dead and revived or resuscitated. After hearing their stories and reading research that had been done with thousands of others who had had similar experiences around the world, I “knew” that some part of our consciousness or awareness as human beings (at least in the first few minutes) continues.

Most recently, after my acquaintances with a number of people whose cultural background and/or religious practices, has worshiped and spoken with deceased ancestors, I have begun to send blessings to and bring into the present, those in my family who have preceded me into death.

Because of my work as a grief counselor I have been granted the opportunity to explore the question of life after death with many people. Here are some of the answers, thoughts and beliefs that have been shared.

“Those who believe will find everlasting peace with Jesus and the Saints.”

“God is the only answer. I know they are with God.”

“My loved one always felt at home by the sea. When we scattered their ashes in the bay, it felt like he had been buried in his church.”

“As a Tibetan Buddhist, I know my wife went through different Bardos (spiritual worlds) and gained enlightenment. She is such a compassionate loving being.”

“When we’re dead, we’re just dead. There’s nothing more and nothing less. That’s why it’s so important what we do while we are living.”

“I believe there’s a white light and the peace and joy are indescribable.”

“The bible tells me there is heaven and hell. I hope I’ve lived a good life and go to heaven. I know my son is there waiting for me.”

“My sister has come to me several times and told me she’s alright. I have no doubt that she’ll be there to meet me when it’s my time.”

“The Lord is the way, the truth and the light. I will be with my Lord Jesus.”

“Maybe I’ll see my parents when I die, but I don’t know. I tend to believe that something better is waiting, that there’s something more than this, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“It’s all chaos. There is no rhyme or reason. I have no idea what will happen after I die.”

What’s your experience been? What do you think happens after we die? What have you been told? What does your family believe? What does your religion teach you? What do scientists propose? How has the media portrayed the after-life? Is death less frightening because of your beliefs? Do you think anybody “really” knows before they die what happens after we stop breathing? How does your belief or thoughts about life after death effect how you live your life now? Does it matter?

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