Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Umar Lee and Me

Umar Lee, Father Augustine Wetta, and Moji Sadiqi (Thanks to Tony Rice for the photo!)
Umar Lee, and Moji Sadiqi, and Me
(Thanks to Tony Rice for the photo!)

            For the last two weeks, I have been driving over to Forest Park in Saint Louis, Missouri to pray the rosary beside a statue of our patron saint, the thirteenth century crusader king, Louis IX.  I’ve been going there to pray because Umar Lee wants to tear it down.  He says Saint Louis was antisemitic and Islamophobic, and there appear to be more than a few people who agree with him.  I don’t know much about thirteenth century religious sensibilities, so I leave it to historians to sort out Louis IX’s culpability, but I get nervous when people start defacing artwork.  So too, I saw the videos online of old men being punched and priests being shouted down, and I figured that if dialogue wasn’t an option, at least I could be there to pray.

When I arrived at the statue around a quarter to seven last Sunday, there were over a thousand people already there.  Most were praying their rosaries, but there were also banners and flags and armed security.  It felt more like a rally than a prayer.  I have nothing against rallies.  But I wasn’t there to protest, so I found myself on the fringe of the group.  One person I talked to mentioned “a line in the sand,” another spoke of “standing up for ourselves,” so I backed further and further away.  I had about a hundred copies of the Prayer of Saint Francis, and I resolved to read the prayer quietly to myself: “Make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

            I backed so far up that by time the rosary ended, I looked around and noticed that no one around me was praying.  These didn’t feel like “my people”—they were a strange mix of hipsters and Muslims and inner city youth: blue hair, piercings, long beards and hijabs.  Dressed in full monastic habit, I felt out of place.  I turned to the kid on my left.  He had long dread locks, and his arms were covered in tattoos. “So…what do you think?” I asked.

            “I think there are some racists in that group,” he answered.

            I looked back at them.  “Well…there probably are,” I said.  “But then again, I think you can find bad people in just about any group.”

            He nodded.

            I smiled, though I doubt he could tell because I was wearing a face mask.  Pretty much everyone was wearing face masks.  No one wants to get sick.  “You’re not here to pray the rosary?”

            “Nope.  You some sort of religious person?”

            “Well now,” I said, “are you stereotyping me just because of the way I’m dressed?  A man can’t wear a black hoodie in public any more without being judged?”

            He laughed, and the kid on his left laughed, and just like that, we were talking about racism and religious convictions and white privilege and police brutality and Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and Marxism and class warfare...  He admitted that he had never been roughed up by the police, and I admitted that his dread locks and tattoos kind of frightened me.  “I’m not a Marxist,” he said, “and I don’t really care whether that statue stays or goes.  I just wanted to be here in case some of these white nationalists get out of line.”

            “This Umar Lee character, though…he’s kind of a bad guy, though, right?”

            “Ask him yourself,” my friend with the dreadlocks answered.  “He’s standing to your right.”

            “Nice to meet you,” said the burly, bearded, megaphone-wielding man to my right.

I figured at this point, I had nothing to lose.  “Mister Lee, I read online that you are a violent, evil man.”

            “And you believe everything you read online?”

            “You were in the news.”

            “And the news always gets the Catholic Church right?”

            He had a point.

            “Do I seem like a violent, evil man to you?”  He looked surprisingly calm.  Not quite the ‘radical Islamic extremist’ I had read about.

            “Honestly, the beard scares me a little,” I said, “but you seem okay to me.”

            He nodded, smiled, and moved to pat me on the shoulder, then thought better of it.  Coronavirus.

            “I’ll pray for you,” I said. 

            “You can pray with us,” he answered, and before long, I was handing out copies of the prayer of Saint Francis.  The Muslims in the group were particularly enthusiastic.  Moji Sadiqi handed me a bottle of water.  Then a megaphone.  I looked around.  There were photographers present.  I could imagine the look on my abbot’s face if my photo made the news the next day leading a protest.

            “Honestly,” I began, “I don’t think I agree with most of what you stand for, so I came here expecting to be yelled at or spit on—or worse.  And even now, I’m a little scared.  But Jesus told his followers ‘whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple… he will surely not lose his reward.’ And a few minutes ago, you offered me exactly that.  So if you’re here to pray, then I’m honored to pray with you.  Because I do believe that black lives matter.”  Then we all prayed together:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy. 


O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive, 

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

            I still don’t particularly like a lot of what Umar Lee has to say.  I’m guessing he’s not a big fan of Catholic theology.   But next Thursday, just outside my hermitage, he and I are having coffee.   So maybe there’s room for dialogue after all. 

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