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Columns > Preaching on the Porch - Benji Feldheim

Published: 2006/06/10
by Benji Feldheim

Missionary Work

It warms my lower heart to plug in the word missionary’ to an internet search, and only two maybe three Christian web pages come up nuzzled between a plethora of sex sites detailing ways to augment Old Faithful for his and her pleasure. Last week, however, I was more irate than I’ve ever been after a stint of teaching. I needed filth and sleaze, whiskey and rock music at the day’s end. It was time to shed the affront of religious decency, smash bottles and bellow a Tom Waits dirge.

Well, Jesus goin be here
he gonna be here soon
he gonna cover us up with leaves
With a blanket from the moon
With a promise and a vow
And a lullaby for my brow
Jesus gonna be here
Be here soon

Don’t expect much else, for it’s not every day a sixteen year old Jesus freak tells you she will pray that you don’t go to hell. All because I asked her, “are you sure?” when she said without a stammer that God created the World.

With ten minutes left in the history class, the work was finished and the students quizzed me, unaccustomed to a substitute teacher who sports an orange beard, long hair, doesn’t scream furiously for them to shut up, and vaguely still looks eighteen. They want to know who I am. What else I do. Where I went to school. If I play in a band? Married?

Do I like teaching? Usually yes, but at times I wish some people didn’t have kids. And if they must, let them out once in a while. So the students talk about movies and someone brought up the remake of War of the Worlds. A pointless turd, so I said so. The aliens show up, kill a ton o’ people, get the flu and fucking die.

The girl said, “But the point is that God designed the Earth so only we could inhabit it. God made it for us and only for us. That’s the point.” If this were filmed and slowed down, you could see the point where her eyes glazed over, the color left her face and all emotion drained when she acted on some puppet string imbedded in her bloodline, bringing God in to answer a tough riddle.

It tugs a line in my nerves as well. From birth until I learned more truth at age twelve, I felt had some Blind Faith. At the Solomon Schechter Day School, you learn the Torah beginning to end almost every year and I had no reason to think events in existence were any different than what was in the book. It made a helluva lot of sense. The writings never bothered me, but the expectations were trouble. My dad the Rabbi and mom never demanded I live up to a role. But the teachers had it engrained that if the Rabbi’s kid acted out the rest would follow. The principal called my parents in after an armpit fart celebration in third grade.

My dad said, “Is he the only eight year old doing this?” When the befuddled principal said no, my parents left and never had a reason to return to that office. As far as I knew the only bullshit with religion was manifested in teachers who wanted me to take the fall.
Well I'm just gonnA wait here
I don't have to shout
I have no reason and
I have no doubt
I'm gonnA get myself
Unfurled from this mortal coiled up world
Because Jesus gonnA be here
Be here soon

“Seemed to me like the end of War of the Worlds’ was more of a scientific thing,” I said, getting over the glassy look.

“No. They say it. The narrator said God created this world so only we could inhabit it.”

The moment where I can just leave it alone. Let the sheep be stupid. Let it walk off the damn cliff, cause I don’t care. I _don’t_but At the age of twenty-four, I use an over the hill excuse, I want her to know what I learned through rough events.’ Such a martyr am I. Right.

“Don’t you think if there really is some form of a supreme being, it’s beyond just that word?”

“Are you saying you don’t BELIEVE IN GOD?!” her eyes narrow in disbelief.

“Not exactly but it’s complicated.”

“What could be complicated? If you don’t believe you need help,” she says, morphing more into a suffocating mother.

She walks over. Let her back off before I really am honest.

“You just haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart.”

“Wellyeah. I’m Jewish.”

And the game is on. Maybe anti-Semitism runs deep, and certain Christians don’t even notice, doing it like a reflex. But for some reason, whenever the missionary types hear those two words a missile explodes against the cracking dam and the real fury is unleashed. I get out of my chair, she comes to the desk and a handful of students get that eager open-mouthed, eye-widened look of witnessing an encounter.

“It’s a lot simpler than it sounds,” I say. “I don’t know for sure if there’s a supreme being because no one’s ever come back from dying to say so. I feel something is there far beyond what we can explain and the word God simply cheapens it. Puts it in human terms.”

“But, God has human qualities. We’re created in his image.” She’s got a bit to learn about women’s lib as well.

Barking up the wrong tree doesn’t even do it. She doesn’t realize Jesus would probably tell her to fuck off, I think to myself. I’ll save the brunt of my upbringing for her later. It’s the ace in the hole for these mock prophets.

I got to keep my eyes open
So I can see my Lord
I'm gonna watch the horizon
For a brand new Ford

I can hear him rolling on down the lane
I said Hollywood be thy name
Jesus gonna be
Gonna be here soon

The Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the occasion at which a young Jew is accepted into the adult community by reciting passages of the Torah, or the Old testament, written in ancient Hebrew. To some, the celebration is of greater detriment than a wedding. Right about now a real traditionalist will moan and wail at the degeneration of the once glorified right of passage into a dance party for kids getting that first sex arousal and for the adults to get awful drunk. That may be true to a degree, but no one becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah without learning some prayers in Hebrew. Religious significance aside, this is a cultural event. The Hebrew language is one of the traits of Judaism that defines it as a culture more so than a religion. On a few levels and even today, it’s a big deal and it’s a reason to celebrate.

Around this occasion, I was at the last stretch of Jewish schooling and swiftly losing patience with the way Jews interpreted the role of the Rabbi’s family. It started peeking out at synagogue and during youth group activities. A battered scowl the adults would show that said, “Aren’t you supposed to stay in line?”

I read as much as I could about as many religions as one could find. It helps to know what is actually in the books when you point out how utterly off mark they are in their missionary endeavors, whether a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, Hindu, Scientologist or whoever the fuck else tells you you’re wrong for living your life counter to what they believe. As pissed and cynical as I get about this dastardly elitist aspect of religion, I still found after reading enough that somewhere, somehow there was this great idea in all of them. It was connected to spirituality, and it instructed people to be good to one another. Even if it did so through guilt, and before the corruption in the many names of God, religion was a way to make sure people treated each other well.

Sometimes true stupidity isn’t in the name of one elucidation of God over another, but it strikes at folks for their thoughts. Early into high school I found revisionist literature that suggested the Holocaust was imagined, just a silly prank played on the world. Enough thinking people would gladly pulverize a person for saying such laughable idiocy, but it happens. For ten years, studies about the Holocaust kicked in around April near the time of Yom Hashoah, the Day of Devastation. But just in case I ever faced such a defect, I went to Poland and walked through the camps.

It helps to see these things for yourself before telling David Irving he should shoot himself in the head with a .22, to save the blood for all the people who deserve to be alive. Since the Seventies, he’s written many books and articles saying we all made too big a deal about the Final Solution. In 1989, Irving gave speeches in Vienna, Austria trying to convince listeners that the concentration camps Auchwitz and Majdanek had no gas chambers during the war. Last March, he was convicted of denying the Holocaust, a crime in Austria, and sentenced to three years in jail. You can always make a career by claiming a false insult to be true, unless you really stand by a bad idea.

Nothing is left at Sobibor, but the house of the camp’s commanding officer. Young kids play in the yard around it. Majdanek is the exact opposite. All the generators, barracks, gas chambers and crematoriums are in such good shape, it could be up to full killing and disposing speed in twenty four hours. A No Smoking’ sign rests outside the showers. Zyklon B is flammable. A room just past the showers has a vent up top where the gas was released, leaving blue splotches on the iron walls of the room. Around the door and down the walls are dug out lines just wide enough to have been made by fingernails. Lines of teeth lie past the round steel doors of the ovens. A large metal bowl was built at the end of the main road into the camp and has a canopy over it to keep the wind from blowing out the human ash. The bone pieces scattered in the pile look like people trying to claw out of the grey dust.

Auschwitz was more of a shipping center, but in case the Nazis got swamped with newcomers they had a large dark box of a room to kill a couple hundred in one shot. It has the same blue stains and scratch marks on the walls. Much has been changed at Auschwitz to make it more of a museum. While it’s no chamber, rooms full of shoes and hair say a lot. Treblinka, a death camp, was destroyed like Sobibor leaving nothing but a memorial. Along the main road Communists, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally and physically handicapped, Poles, resistance fighters, Russians, Jews, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war from many nations and others whose identity may never be recognized would walk from cattle cars to their death. Today 17,000 large rocks lie on the road. One for every person killed each day the camp was in action.

After thirty odd years of selling books and publishing articles alleging that the gas chambers were built after WWII to save face, Irving is going to jail and will be someone’s bitch real soon.

Call it an extreme interpretation, but demanding that people change their beliefs, their heritage, is how it all starts.

The girl asked me if I believed. The only proof I’ve ever seen was in the sky while walking out of Birkenau. The camp was for work and had a train track through the middle. More efficient. Upon leaving, the sun came out from rain clouds and a rainbow formed. For a handful of moments it became sharper and brighter than any I had ever seen before and since. A second rainbow formed over it. I’ve seen the double bow since, but not before. That sky over a group of Jews walking out of a concentration camp fifty years after it was used to end many people from existence is the single moment when whatever else is out there showed itself to me. The message was a good one.

Well I've been faithful
And I've been so good
Except for drinking
But he knew that I would
I'm gonna leave this place better
Than the way I found it was
And Jesus gonna be here
Be here soon

After the faith argument, I saw two bands that embody how beautiful religion can be if taken as cultures and not as dominations of people. The acoustic Masada with John Zorn, Joey Baron, Dave Douglas and Greg Cohen played at the University of Chicago and showed the possibilities of taking the roots of Jewish music and expanding on the ideas with one’s own creative madness. Oteil and the Peacemakers played at the House of Blues in Chicago the two nights after Masada. No matter what that band of master musicians play, there is always a tinge of soulful gospel lurking under the funk. The lyrics are very glib about the powerful belief in Jesus felt by Burbridge and fellow mates Chris Fryar, Matt Kimbrell, Paul Henson and Matt Slocum, and Oteil will gladly tell you all about it. He won’t tell you you’ll burn in Hell if you don’t convert. These two bands took religion as a cultural entity and adapted their arts singularly by simply keeping an open mind.

We waste a lot of time when we insist that people change to be more in line with our ideas on how everything should be. Think of how many people brutally die all the time just because of that silly misinterpretation of the true essence of religion. Our beliefs are not our actions, and at the core we’re only supposed to treat each other well. I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing Jesus really said.

Therein lies why I chose to take up the argument with this young and unsuspecting faithful.

“No matter your lofty intention, telling people they are wrong for what they believe, implying they will go to HELL if they don’t change their minds is not caring for your neighbor. You trivialize God for your own comfort.”

“But I do care! I don’t want you to go to Hell.”

“Now listen. I’m more spiritual than religious. Do you understand what that means?”

“Yes, I’m faithful more than I am religious.”

“I don’t think you get me. You see, a man wrote that book that you think is the word of God. A man with flaws and biases and life experiences that shaped his view. Through my own life experiences I feel these beliefs very deeply and I cannot believe the supreme being would be proud of me relinquishing what I feel in the core of my soul, because I’m afraid of imaginary punishment. You curse me for my beliefs, what about actions? Do those mean anything?” Tempted to bring up molesting priests and ask her if she thinks they’ll go to Heaven while I won’t.

“I hear you but if you take that path, you will always be missing something. If you just let Jesus love you, it will fill that hole you feel. That’s why you question everything.” This is getting nowhere. Let’s see what the ace does.

“You should know my father’s a Rabbi and I’ve studied many religions for a long time.”

The other students go dead silent, waiting for her retort. She pulls her own ace.

“I’m going to pray for you. I will do you that favor, because that’s how much I really do care. I will pray that you get into Heaven. I’ll help you even if you don’t want it.”

“If you do as you say, you’ll only do that to make yourself feel better about what we’ve discussed. You don’t really care about me. If it puts you at peace, go ahead.”

“I’ll pray for you.”

“Only if it puts you at peace. Think about that.”

The bell rings.


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