Shine a Light on the Good and Beautiful

Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 5:35am
Photo by Doug Kentner

Shine a Light on the Good and Beautiful

This past week, I had a chance to spend a few days giving talks in Utah’s Salt Lake City. It was the first chance I’ve had to spend an extended period of time in the state with a majority population of Latter Day Saints (“Mormon”). My time there has left me thinking about how we have a tendency to shine a light on conflict, instead of amplifying the good and the lovely. I want to start, in a small way, to shine a light on the good.

A coalition of peace and justice movements from Utah pulled together an invitation for me. They were very open about the fact that it would be a lot of work: seven talks in three days in four different institutions. I was delighted to accept. I was honored to be talking about important topics like our current discourse on Islam, the fate of our American experiment, racism, and social justice.

It was also an opportunity for me to visit and learn about the LDS Church, which admittedly I had not known too much about. Our neighbors across the street are a beautiful LDS family. Their angelic daughter and our daughter have been the best of friends for years, soul-sisters truly. My respect for the LDS Church is inseparable from my love for this family.

It is one of the realities that has been with me: the most powerful way of changing about a person’s attitude towards a religious tradition is to have face-to-face, human-to-human encounters with people who embody the teachings of that faith. Ideally, it includes opening one’s heart, one’s home, and sharing a meal with them. The heart-to-heart connection with this family has left me eager to learn more about the Latter Day Saints tradition.

I visited the Latter Day Saints landmarks in Salt Lake City, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I learned about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and the history of the persecution of LDS Church. I struggled with how to process the story of God’s revelation to Joseph Smith.

The angel Moroni declaring the everlasting gospel of Christ from atop the Salt Lake City Temple, a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Paul Smith / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

I wondered if Joseph Smith’s account of hearing the voice of God and the experience with the angel Moroni and the golden plates is any more “weird” than Jesus coming back from the dead, or Muhammad seeing an angel fill the horizon and convey the words of God to his heart. Every religious tradition looks a bit strange from the outside, but perfectly truthful from the inside.

It was a lovely visit, getting to speak in front of some thousand people at four different colleges and universities. But, something (not) funny happened after the talks. Someone vandalized seven of the posters for my talk at the University of Utah, and wrote some obscene statements about Islam and Muslims on them.

It was reported on the local news, and then it was picked up by a national Muslim advocacy group. Oh goodie! Crisis! Controversy! At the same time, a right-wing group of bloggers quoted that I had said something really controversial, like “America has a bigotry problem.” (As if that is somehow a revelation.) More crisis!

I would show you the images from the vandalized posters, but that’s precisely the point. I don’t want to. I don’t want to give them the attention they so desperately crave, but do not deserve. Why shine the spotlight on the hate?

This is somehow part of our national discourse. Someone does something offensive and crazy, and we immediately advertise it. I am not unmindful of bigotry — with the caveat of these categories not being mutually exclusive — against Muslims, gays/lesbians, Hispanics, African Americans, women, poor people, etc. But I do wonder about the mindset of always being quick to rush to publicize bigotry against us — and forget about the many who rise to connect their humanity with ours.

I am all for standing up to the structures that produce bigotry and oppression. But I am wondering, even struggling with, how to do that without amplifying it.

Sister Expósito takes a selfie with friends. She currently serves as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Temple Square.

(Elvira Expósito Ruiz)

I want to shine a light on the good and beautiful. I want to talk about the good and beautiful people I came across in my journeys in Utah. I want to shine a light on Sister Exposito, a Spanish Latter Day Saints missionary who gave me a tour of the LDS grounds, sharing her faith with me, and talked about what has led her to the Mormon faith from Catholicism.

I want to shine a light on Safiullah, the Bangladeshi head public librarian, who is committed to the notion that a well-informed citizenry is essential for a vibrant democracy. I want to shine a light on Dayne, my socialist intellectual/community organizer who worked for 38 years as a janitor, and pulled the whole visit together.

I want to shine a light on Claire, a Pakistani-American who deeply cares about issues of racism and Islamophobia. I want to shine a light on John, an academic dean who is thinking about how to integrate Islam in the curriculum of community colleges in Utah.

I want to shine a light on Leo, who is teaching about the history of Hispanic migration in America, and connecting it to anti-black, anti-Muslim racism. I want to shine a light on Christine, who sees the beauty of Muslim poetry. I want to shine a light on Val, who shared his deep faith with me at the recital, and kindly offered a CD of LDS recital to me before I left.

I want to shine a light on the thousand people who came to the talks, and brought their own light, and insisted that together we are stronger, more beautiful, and more whole. I want to shine a light, instead of giving a spotlight to those who would curse the darkness.

So, friends, let us stand next to one another, shoulder to shoulder, mirroring the good and the beautiful. Shine a light on the good. Applaud the good. Become an advocate of the good and the beautiful. Let us hang on to the faith that ultimately light overcomes darkness, and love conquers hate. It is the only thing that ever has, ever will, and does today.

A monument at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City.

(Jacqueline Poggi / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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Let there be light!

Thank you so much for sharing this. Time and time again, you rise above and bring centeredness and peace inside one's soul. Keep writing . Keep sharing.

Thank you from my heart and soul for sharing from your heart and soul. The world does need more sharing of the good, the helpers, the compassionate, all that is good!

Desmond Tutu's direction that " we are made for goodness" serves as my centering mantra. Like Mr. Rogers', " Look for the helpers," Omid's determination mirrors these. We are called to notice/see/share the light . This intentional illumination sparks more enlightened moments and the resulting energetic reverence can then gracefully guide through those unpleasant moments when we chose to not feed the monster!

I'm a lifelong member of the LDS church and resident of Utah, and the daughter of a U of U alumnus. Your post has been on my mind since I read it this morning, and I want to thank you for your generosity of spirit toward my faith and the people you met while visiting here. I'm sorry for the ugliness you experienced, and I appreciate your ability to recognize it for what it was and then shift the focus to the light. Your writing consistently inspires me to live the best of my religious tradition and see the beauty of other traditions as well. Thank you for your work, and for living the peace that you teach. I wish I could have heard you.

Thank you for this beautiful reminder of hope. Negative focus in the press pulls on fear and creates more fear and hatred. I, too, want to focus on things that pull me to be better than I am-that lead me to recognize the hand of God at work in the world so I can participate in God's work.

"the most powerful way of changing about a person’s attitude towards a religious tradition is to have face-to-face, human-to-human encounters with people who embody the teachings of that faith."

In the case of the religious ideology -Islam-
that I was indoctrinated in as a child (the way faiths -claims of absolute knowledge not justified and often contravened by evidence- are usually instilled) so powerful that you might not survive the experience. To which thousands of victims of islamic terrorism attest.

Moreover, the lie is swiftly put to the reliability of this notion if you consider Osama bin Laden, by all accounts a soft spoken mild mannered paterfamilias.

The foundational fairytales of Joseph Smith's religion are indeed no more "weird" than those of any other religious tradition, and no more true. Every supernatural claim made by religions look false, because they are, under the scrutiny of the scientific method -the most powerful agent of human progress and determiner of truth ever devised by man.

That every religious tradition looks perfectly truthful from the inside is because scientific scrutiny and reasoned inquiry is kept out, often under threat, to safeguard from its otherwise inevitable destruction the mass delusion that has been cemented in during our formative years.

Dear Omid Safi,
My deep gratitude to you for all your sharing from your heart and your mind,
for calling us to be a light in our world and always to lift up the good and the beautiful!
Your teaching through your sharing is so very inspiring!
How blessed I am to have discovered your work and the writings of so many on Krista,s site over the past few years!
All is gift!
Thank you!