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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Mormons, Hare Krishnas, and a Man Called Fr. Froelich

It was my junior year in college, and our assignment was to write a research paper on some topic Indian. The class was taught be a professor I was quite close to, an old, absent-minded priest who spent half of each year working in Tanzania. We would spend hours in the cafeteria talking about social justice, chatting until, with no sense of social justice, the cafeteria workers would unceremoniously boot us out so that they could get ready for dinner. When he suggested I spend part of my senior year working with him in Tanzania, I saw the whole course of my life changing before my eyes – horizons spreading with such rapidity that any previous notions of what my future might entail were flattened in seconds. Bye-bye law career. Bye-bye Midwest. Bye-bye 9-5 job, kids, and a house in the suburbs.

Sadly, I never made it to Tanzania. Fr. Froelich died after contracting malaria the summer before my senior year. I still think about him all the time. The fact that I am in Taiwan now, and that much of Asia and South America are to follow can be directly attributed to his influence. I still think about tracking down the mad mess of papers and notebooks that covered the floor of his room and collating them into a biography of his life. I think of the positive affect he had on those around him, of his selfless devotion to change and to the less fortunate and I wish he were here to guide me away from my self-absorption (can someone tell me why we don’t spell this absorbtion?) and toward a path more beneficial to man-kind.

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about. We were discussing India, and while I was interested in much of what we the subject matter, nothing came to mind when I thought about potential topics. Over lunch one day, I sat down with Father Froelich and asked him what I should do.

“What are you interested in?”
“Native Americans.”
“Why don’t you write about them, then.”

When Fr. Froelich was in the U.S., he was a very busy man. Besides teaching three or four classes, he spent time with abused women, wrote letters to prisoners, and worked with impoverished Native American groups. It was he who brought the topic I was interested in pursuing to my attention. When I told him what I wanted to write about, he smiled and told me to go for it.

This is how I came to write a long paper on Native American usage of hallucinogenic drugs, and how the Supreme Court of America had denied certain tribes the use of peyote for religious ceremonies. I remember this now because of a news item I saw recently. The U.S. Supreme Court is soon to rule on the use of a hallucinogenic tea originating from Brazil (the leaves contain DMT) by certain religious sects in the U.S.

Yesterday I was sitting at a police station waiting to have my papers processed so that I could renew my ARC (residency card). This was my second attempt at taking care of this. Last week I waited two hours and still my number did not come up, so as I walked in yesterday I was already in a bit of a bad mood, anticipating the long wait ahead. As I went for a seat, I passed two young Mormons who flashed welcoming smiles at me. I did not smile back. I sat, took out the book Angels and Demons by Dan Brown and began reading.

I don’t read many thrillers these days, and while I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code on the flight to Cambodia and on the beach in Sihanoukville, I was not blown away by it. I had little intention of reading Brown’s other books until one of my co-workers suggested I take a look at Angels and Demons since part of the plot revolves around a conclave to elect a new pope. This being a rather timely topic, and as I will be traveling this weekend and in need of a fun read, I decided to check it out.

As in The Da Vinci Code, there is much in the book that might be interpreted by some as being anti-church. I think it would be more appropriate to say that the characters look at questions of faith and science with a level of honesty one would not expect to find in a mass-market beach book. The book touches on many of the problems that I have in my own struggle to come to terms with the church I was raised in, especially now when the newly elected pope seems set to pursue a conservative path in dealing with the problems of the modern world.

In one section of the narrative, there is a discussion of the weakening influence of the Catholic Church, of falling numbers of new followers, of those going to mass, and of monetary contributions. While I don’t know the accuracy of these statements, especially as the book was written in 2000, I suspect them to be true, given the many scandals in recent years. This is not meant to be a discourse on my feelings for the Catholic Church, though, and I am going to stop myself here. I am still too confused about too many things.

While I was reading yesterday, I kept glancing over at the Mormons sitting one row of chairs over. I always see Mormons in Taipei. They are always in pairs – young, pale white men riding bikes along busy roads. They are dressed in white button down shirts, black ties and black pants. They smile at everyone and shout hello. They engage foreigners and Taiwanese alike in conversation. They seem just about the friendliest people on earth. Why is it then, that when I see some Mormons approaching on bike, or emerging from an MRT station I change my course so that I will not pass them. Barring this, I fix my gaze intently on the ground. If by chance we do make eye-contact, if their smiles come lighting up my world, at best my expression will remain frozen. At worst, I will scowl.

I have often asked myself why I do this. Is it a response borne from being in Taipei for so long that I anger at the sight of the freshness, the excitement of these seeming new-comers? Do I have an unknown dislike for Mormonism, a religion I know little about? Or perhaps, is it some sort of instinctive reaction to having others, no matter how subtly, proselytizing their religion?

Thinking about Mormons led me to think about another religious sect I have come across once or twice in my travels – the Hare Krishnas. I first came across the Hare Krishnas in Prague. Though I have seen them in other cities since, it is Prague that will always be associated with them. I always heard them before I saw them. Beating drums and cymbals clashing. Hand clapping and a catchy chant: Ha-re Ha-re Ha-re Krishna. I didn’t even know what they were saying, but it was cool. Then they appeared. A line of young people dressed in bright clothes, heads shaved with a single ponytail remaining. Trailing behind the main line of believers, a group of blissful stoners, foreigners most likely, perhaps under the influence of some gypsy hash, behaving as if they were at a Phish or a Dead show. People stopped to watch them, entranced it seemed. A small parade on an ancient cobble-stoned street. I followed them that first time, as they wound their way through alleys and onto main roads, eventually coming out to the Charles Bridge. Now this is religion, I thought.

Over time, the vibrancy of the Hare Krishnas faded as the novelty of their displays faded. Every day I would see them, and every day the moment of entrancement was shorter and shorter. By the end of my time in Prague I scoffed at the foreigners who had tagged along, wondering if they knew how silly they looked.

It has been a long time since I saw a group of Hare Krishnas. It has been a long time since I thought about them. Now that I have them in mind, I realize how nice it was to have a little color injected into religion. I think about the various colorful, rhythmic ceremonies I have seen in temples around Asia. I have a picture of Native Americans sitting in a steaming hot room, letting visions from the peyote in their bloodstreams guide them in the decisions they must make. I have a picture of southern churches in America, women and men singing with all their hearts, shaking their bodies and clapping their hands. I picture these and then I picture the Saturday afternoons of my youth. A somnolent atmosphere where words of praise drifted lifeless through the air, their progress stopped by echoing coughs, shifting bodies, and heavy sighs. Dust hanging in the air, dancing in wide blades of colored, subdued sunlight. Standing, kneeling, sitting. Repetition of words. A young boy inside on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, a captive against his will. A young boy looking around the church, dreaming of baseball, of books, of girls.

Someday I will come to terms with faith. I may not have faith in much, but I do have faith in that. The face of a wise man is fixed in my mind. His hair is white and wild, his clothes wrinkled and stained. His face is wrinkled as well and perhaps on first sight one might think him just a bit mad. Then the eyes come into focus, the twinkling kindness set deep inside.
A belief grows that there is a purpose. That the potential to do something good exists deep inside of me.

It scares me, the uncertainty of memory, the way memory fades and falls away. I have no physical picture of the face that I see, that of Fr. Froelich. A beating of drums, then, and a smile to the Mormons. A bowed head and a boy wishing it all made sense, praying that this face, this belief, this faith does not go away.


Anonymous Natalia said...

That's why there's a saying in Chinese that says "look at God, not at the people".
Nevertheless, I do hope you find your faith some time soon.

And please, next time you see Mormons or whoever, please, smile back. At least they are taking action for what they believe in, no matter whether you agree with them or not.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Lindsay said...

It was so nice to read your memories of Fr. Froelich. I think it is impossible to know how may lives he truly touched.

He holds a special place in my memories from college as well...

7:04 PM  

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