I write this at a time in my life when I have been looking freedom straight in the face. I left my job as a college chaplain at TCU to move to Michigan for my wife’s position at a Presbyterian Church. Then we moved to Virginia, her home state, for another ministry position for Emily. Since leaving my job in Texas, I have realized that I can be whoever I want to be, pursue whatever I want to pursue, I am free. It was the first time I authentically paused for reflection, to think about who I am and who I want to be.
Unemployment gives you the haunting gift of unlimited possibilities. If you can overcome the crippling fear that this infinity brings, you can become, you can transform, you can mean something. During this time of about 18 months, I have struggled mightily to become who I want to be. I’ve discovered by looking into the abyss of freedom that one theme of my life has been spiritual pilgrimage and that I must continue this quest, if I am to maintain and perpetually create more meaning in my life.
The vision to ride my KTM across the USA, meeting people who belong diverse religious and spiritual communities, is the continuation and ideally the fulfillment of my life’s spiritual pursuit for meaning, my wrestling with existence’s deep questions, and my thirst for knowledge and experience.
Another life theme that facing unlimited freedom unearthed is my compulsion, my drive to care for others and do justice. Over these 18 months, I have served part-time as a hospital chaplain, empathizing with people in moments of crisis, listening to patient’s sacred stories of life, love, and grace. My drive to care for others originates in experiences from my childhood and adolescence. Looking back, I was never part of a group. I never really fit in. I was a straight A academic geek. I played the trombone in the marching band. I played three varsity sports. I was a youth leader in church. I rode motorcycles and loved the outdoors. I loved video games. I wrote short stories and poetry. The combination of all these interests and activities creatd difficulties for finding peer groups. While I had friends in all these groups, that did all these activities with me, not many overlapped. While my band friends all hung out together and felt a part of a group, I didn’t because I couldn’t devote all my time to “band” stuff. Likewise, the jocks didn’t really accept me. Neither did the geeks because I played sports, and maybe that threatened them. So I found myself pretty lonely with no peer group to call my own, no sense of specific identity, no sense of peace. I was always in between. I felt like I was on the margins of the Pickerington, Ohio social scene. This sharp pain of being and feeling an outcast initiated the motivations to embark upon a lifetime emotional roller coaster of a spiritual pilgrimage and gave me the pure and overwhelming empathy for others who are outcast, on the margins of society, who are struggling, and who are alone.
I cannot really separate these two parts of myself, the interfaith motorcycle adventurer and the hospital chaplain. In both cases, I yearn for meaningful and new experiences, I try to build new relationships, I listen to stories and tell a little of my own, I hope to heal and be healed, I hope to help other’s grow and grow myself, I try to make this world a better place for others and for myself.
I was faced with freedom and I chose to be a interfaith pilgrim on a motorcycle and a care-giver of others. I chose to be those two things because they are who I have been, who I have failed to be, and who I hope to become. Here is my story of how living a life full of interfaith/spiritual adventures (on a motorcyce) and caring for others became my life’s passion.
My first memories of life are at the Leo Yassenoff Jewish Center in Bexley, Ohio. I probably played basketball against Josh Radnor from HIMYM, but didn’t realize it. I was a four year old white, Christian kid praying “Baruch Atah” and eating latkes with the ethnic Jewish children. I didn’t know I was different. And in a very real way, I wasn’t. We just played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the playground together. My first close friends in life, that I recall, were Jews. In a sense, so was I.
Around the same time, my parents were one of a hand-full of families who gathered together to start a new church, a Presbyterian Church (USA). These families didn’t have much in common. Well, they were Christian, but different flavors of Christian. We had Catholics, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Methodists, Lutherans, and even Greek Orthodox. And oh yes, Presbyterian. The families were ecumenical or interfaith within themselves. Gary, a Presbyterian, was married to Grace, who is Greek Orthodox. Debbie, a Roman Catholic, was married to Bob, a Protestant. Even my father, Raymond, was an eclectic mix with a Lutheran and Disciples background (it was my mom with the Presbyterian influence, and she won).
Looking back, I wonder what brought these families together to start a church. Maybe, they liked the diversity. Maybe, they had a similar goal of being together with people, no matter the denomination. Maybe, they expected that the forming of a community conversely celebrated each person’s uniqueness. Maybe, it was coincidence, or providence. Maybe, these families merely took advantage of the opportunity that the PC(USA) gave them.
What I do know is this: a cornucopia of people with various faith backgrounds began to become a church together under one roof. While I inherited my PC(USA)-ness from my mother (I was baptized as an infant at Bryan Presbyterian Church in Ohio), this new church plant of misfits become my church home and deeply influenced my spiritual identity.
As a toddler, being Presbyterian meant being around, interacting with, and drawing upon the influences of my Jewish pre-school friends, of my ecumenical church family. Being Presbyterian meant being influenced (in various ways) by those who were divergent in spiritual background.
I am reminded of the Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
‘Listen, my darling, if you’re going to be religious, you must be a Hindu, a Christian, or a Muslim.’ ‘I don’t see why I can’t be all three,’ Pi responds (to his mother. ‘Mamaji has two passports. He’s Indian and French. Why can’t I be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim?’
This echoes my reality as a child and names my spirit. I was born a child of religious diversity (and I am thankful). The character Pi also highlights a child’s open, optimistic spirit. Young children are not quick to draw boundaries or to claim group identity. They love all. And this just might be the optimal, spiritual posture. Jesus in the gospels emphasizes having faith like a child. I wonder if Jesus’ admonishments on faith would encompass a pluralism like Pi exhibits. My heart exclaims a resounding, “Yes!”
While I’m not claiming that as a child I thought I was Jewish and many different types of Christians at once, or that a person should claim several religions like Pi, I am claiming that the openness and optimistic posture towards religious difference likely leads to a life of spiritual depth, richness, and complexity.
Openness to religious diversity is a discipline that is taught. My parents taught me this or atleast they gave me opportunities to learn from my environment. Instead of isolating me from different religious beliefs in a fear-driven attempt to coerce me to “Christian-ness,” they enrolled me at the JCC in hopes I would, from a very early age, be exposed to alternative beliefs and people of various backgrounds.
I recall my close relationship to my friend, Simon, my classmate at the Jewish Center. After we prayed in Hebrew before a meal at the JCC, I asked, Simon, “What Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu mean?”. He answered, “Blessed are You, LORD, our God. We say that before meals to give thanks to God for the food.” “Oh neat.” I responded. “At my house, we say, ‘God is great. God is good. And we thank you for our food. We thank you for the birds that sing. We thank you God for everything. Amen.’ And sometimes we say the Lord’s prayer.” Another time, we ate apples and honey. I remember the teacher saying the words Rosh Hashanah, but I was too busy enjoying the sweet, crispy goodness of honey-drenched macintoshes to learn what it was all about. Later, I asked Simon, “Hey, what doesn Rosh Hashanah mean?” “It’s our new year! Happy New Year, Jake!” “You, too, Simon!” We ate matzah for Passover and latkes for Hanukkah. I told Simon how we would have communion of bread and juice on Sundays. I learned much about Judaism and told Simon a little about Christianity, too.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of what was happening, it was merely instinctual. But looking back, I see something quite profound.
At the JCC, we didn’t necessarily tackle dire issues like systemic racism or poverty, but we were able to play transformers, throw the baseball, and cross the monkey bars together, with toddlers of many different backgrounds (though admittedly mostly Jewish). I learned that friendships across religious boundaries were one of life’s greatest gifts. I learned multitudes from Simon and from my non-Christian friends throughout the years.