Sunday, June 28, 2009

All God's People

At the risk of alienating Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews all in one post (that would be a feat but likely more easily accomplished than one might think), I would like to suggest that perhaps God does not care as much about HOW we worship as we care or about how we worship as that we DO worship. On a regular basis, ecumenical questions arise in my prayer group or in general conversation among people in my parish, and I find myself defending Jewish and Muslim believers. Last week, I found myself doing the same thing in Jordan: defending Catholics and Jews.

Yes, there are significant differences in beliefs and practices among the Abrahamic religions, but we all do originate from the same forefather and the same geographical region. It would seem that we could, then, respect each other, if not love each other as brothers and sisters and worshippers of the same God whether we use the name Lord, Allah, or Yahweh.

The greatest irony, it might seem to others, is that it was a Sufi Muslim who started me down the path that led to the Catholic church. To me, though, it is no irony at all, for we are all God's people.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tareq Died Today

To protect the privacy of the individual involved and that of his family, I will use an alias--Tareq--to share with you a remarkable story.

Tareq was one of my employees, and it came as no surprise that he died. For more than three years, he battled tumors and heart disease and rarely missed a day of work. What was a surprise was that Tareq managed to spend three years with us that he supposedly did not have. More than that, Tareq was a reminder to all of us of God's love and power.

I came to know Tareq right after I had taken up the position as his boss's boss's boss. I suppose, given the managerial distance between us, I should not have come to know him at all. However, early on, Tareq had a problem, a serious one. An immigrant to the USA from Iraq, he had family members back home, ones who had not wanted to leave Iraq. Among them was a son. Somehow, members of the insurgency learned that Tareq was working with an organization in support of the US government and targeted his son. (Of course, just being Christian in northern Iraq has, even before the war, been enough to put one in danger.) In the case of Tareq's son, first threatening messages were left. Then, another relative was killed, a case of mistaken identify. Tareq's son went into hiding, pretty much in the same area where Saddam Hussein was able to go undiscovered for weeks. Tareq went to his supervisor for help; the situation was overwhelming for that supervisor, and he sent Tareq to his supervisor. In this manner, Tareq was passed upward until he rather quickly landed in my office in pretty desperate shape. Rather than send him to my supervisor, the "proper" thing to do, I helped him call the Washington office of our senator, which I considered the proper thing to do. It would be much faster, and the worst that could happen to me would be a reprimand for working out of channels. In the interim, we just might be able to save Tareq's son--and we did. The senator leapt into action, contacting the US Embassy in Iraq, which was able to ferret Tareq's son out of the country (one of those exciting adventures that does not get reported and should not, for the safety of all involved, be reported in any more detail than I have provided here).

And so, I knew Tareq, and Tareq knew me. In fact, after that he felt bonded to me in some way, as to a protector, both because of my assistance with his son's rescue and also because I extended his contract a couple of months past the surgery period so that he could continue to get medical benefits. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that he would want to say good-bye to me. He had worked every day throughout his period of chemotherapy for cancer, but once the tumors were shrunk, he was cleared for a long-needed quadruple by-pass.

On the morning before his surgery, Tareq cleaned out his office. He did not plan to return to work, the doctors having given him only a 3% chance of survival, the cancer and heart trouble being a deadly combination. He said an emotional good-bye to his colleagues, then headed for my office. I was out of the office. He left a note. I found the note and went to his office. He was gone, saying good-bye to other colleagues. I left a note. And so it went all morning until he had to leave without saying-good-bye.

The last thing he sent from his computer was an e-mail note to me, thanking me for my support and asking me to pray for him. Now, I had a dilemma. I work in an organization where not only is separation of church and state expected, it is required, and as the senior leader in my division, it is up to me to enforce it (along a myriad other rules). Was the prayer of one person enough? I asked myself. Well, yeah, probably it was, but I wanted more for Tareq. I wanted the prayers of his colleagues. And so, using careful wording to avoid raising many objections, I forwarded Tareq's note to the 400 employees who work for me with a request from me: "If you have a belief system that will allow you to honor Tareq's request, please do so."

Well, many people (actually, most people) responded to that request. We had Christians of several denominations, Jews of various persuasions, and Sunni & Shia Muslims all praying together, often in the same office. Even Buddhists joined in. They prayed, as well, in their churches, synagogues, and mosques and relayed that information to Tareq. We also sent flowers and cards to Tareq. All this cheered him up during his recovery. It was the prayers, though, that were special. They not only bonded all of us to Tareq but also bonded all of us to each other. My organization went from a place where religion had been sidelined to a place where one could feel the spirituality of those working there as soon as one walked through a door.

Three weeks later, I happened to be in the office area where Tareq used to work -- and there sat Tareq. "What are you doing here?" I asked in surprise.

"I beat the odds," he grinned, "and the doctors are still in shock!"

Those extra three years that we have had Tareq with us have continually reminded us of the power of prayer, of God's love, and of how God's people can work together, regardless of religion, for the good of each other and for the glory of God. Since that time, God has always come to work with me and with most of my employees. Not that God was not that before, but now we allow ourselves to speak of God, turn problems over to God, and deliberately include God in our work life. As a result, our organization has gone from being a business-as-usual, impersonal, unemotional set of offices to an involved, gentle, loving, happy, huge family of God where coming to work is something to look forward to every day.