Everywhere In Between is a road trip across spectrums. Produced by residents of the flyover states, this podcast will tell the stories that aren’t always outlined on the map.
MORGAN: It’s no secret that Religion exists on a spectrum. It’s a spectrum that has started wars across countries and across dinner tables. Some people spend their whole lives figuring out where they fall on the spectrum, and some spend theirs outside of it completely. And of course, there’s a million stories that exist everywhere in between. But in just one episode there’s no way we can cover it all. So we’re narrowing in on a couple stories that touch quite a few people in ways you may not expect.
You don’t have to be religious, spiritual or even curious to listen to today’s podcast. I, myself, have always been in a bit of an “It’s Complicated” relationship to organized religion. But that’s not the point. The point is that religion has been a part of world history forever, and if history classes have taught us anything, it’s that the story changes quite a bit depending on who’s telling it.
Our first story is from Hema Rengasamy. It’s about a religion you’ve heard of, but people whose stories are sometimes left out.
HEMA: Christianity is the largest religion in the world. So diversity within the religion is a given. Contrary to the more mainstream poster image of what Christianity looks like in America, the people who practice the religion do not simply come from one culture or even just one part of the world. Christianity originated in the Middle East and made its way to the Americas. So migration has been a long part of the story of Christianity and it continues to be a part of the story of many of its followers. The diversity in the Christian churches in Des Moines, Iowa is simply a testament to the vast practice of the religion.
In the 70s, Governor Robert D. Ray, welcomed thousands of Southeast Asian refugees to Iowa. Since then, many immigrants and refugees have sought asylum in Iowa, and many have found a home in various churches.
Leading displaced populations fundamentally alters the role of a church and religious leaders. Ekram Kachu, a pastor in the First Arabic Presbyterian Church, is more than pastor to these communities.
EKRAM KACHU: We visit them, we give them ride. We ask them if they want to go to the doctor appointment, if they need interpreter. Sometimes there is a translator or interpreter there but I just go on as a support to if there is something clear for example, especially the Arabic, if somebody speaking Iraq or Lebanese or Egyptian, if you are not going to school you would never get it because of the accent.
HEMA: Pastor Kachu’s roles include being a translator and a support system. The language barrier is a common struggle faced by immigrant populations, since it is impossible to find a translator for every dialect of every language spoken. Because of this, refugees especially aren’t always prepared for the jolting reality of life in the United States. Pastor Kachu herself was in a similar position when she came here from Sudan in the 2000s. Unable to speak a word of English, she had to survive in a country foreign to her. She understands first hand that interpreters may exist to translate words but one simply cannot interpret the pain, the anxiety and the struggles of being a refugee. She has made that another one of her roles as pastor.
EKRAM KACHU: We are here for you and we explain to them, we tried to help them support them financially or sometimes just being there for them, take them to the place that food pantry, take them to a place where they can get the free clothes or food or something like that and to help them how to go to school.
HEMA: Pastor Kachu emphasizes that the refugee population needs more than an affirmation in their faith. They need a support system and a relatable community.
EKRAM KACHU: We share our testimony, our life, how we, we making it up to now.
HEMA: The Arab speaking Sudanese populations are not alone in their struggles.
The situation is very similar with Father Jose Renaldo and his role at Christ the King Parish, St. John Basilica and Saint Anthony Catholic Church. Catholicism in Latin America is more than a religion—it is a part of cultural identity. The Hispanic congregation Father Jose Renaldo leads is not only responsible for organizing mass, but also for creating an environment that resembles home. Creating a familiar environment is especially important when it comes to Latin American Christmas celebrations.
FATHER JOSE RENALDO: We cherish time with the families. We, Christmas Eve usually well we go to the mass and after that we go to our families or our friends or we met to the house. Uh, and this is somewhat the same in English speaking because they, they go to the mass and after that they share time with the family.
HEMA: The structure of American society doesn’t always make room for less mainstream celebrations of Christian holidays. The week leading up to Easter is celebrated in Latin American countries as Holy Week, but it isn’t given the same attention outside of some of these churches.
FATHER JOSE RENALDO:
We have Holy Week. The problem here is the for Holy Week. Is that in our countries for Holy Week we have is holiday, we don’t work that week. And here the problem is that everyone work the school they attend the kids attend the school and this is, this is a very big challenge and hardship for our culture because most of the Latin America countries we don’t work at Holy Week—is a holiday.
HEMA: The nature of religious celebrations in Latin American is clearly far more immersive than it is in the United States, and this shift is difficult for the immigrants. Although the church attempts to create a familiar environment, the other facets of their lives prevent them from being able to immerse themselves in activities like the Holy Week celebration.
As a result, religious leaders of minority populations work to replicate celebrations from home and provide various kinds of support for the members of their churches. Pastor Weiss of the Trinity Lutheran Church explains that religious leaders are revered even more so in minority communities compared to the average American church community, and they are looked upon as not only spiritual guides.
PASTOR WEISS: The pastor is required to be much more than pastor. He’s, he’s looked upon, um, I won’t necessarily say higher status, but, um, we say that a pastor, it comes from the word shepherd really is where it derives its name. So, um, for some of the fellows of like the Asian church or the Nuer church, they really are shepherds of their sheep. And that’s how they’re supposed to do things. You know, if something happens, they come talk to pastor and pastor’s going to take care of it.
HEMA: Father Renaldo and Pastor Kachu mentioned that they are a part of the families in the congregation. They are aware of the struggles and are sought after for solutions. Deacon Boun Chanh who is also part of the Trinity Lutheran church and is the leader of the Laotian congregation also said that he takes it upon himself to personally help those in need through his faith.
He recently encountered someone in the community struggling with anger issues and being an integral part of the community, he offered his services and help without prompt.
BOUN CHANH: Him and his wife are arguing all the time and like explosive kind of anger. So I’m after maybe about an hour he talked and he said, okay, you know, I, I have nothing to lose that’s what I told him too, “You have nothing to lose, only give God a chance.” And uh, we pray over him. He say he felt good afterward. Like something’s been lifted off and you’re at peace.
HEMA: Boun Chanh finds that religion is often the simplest thing to offer someone. To welcome a person into the church is to hand them a guide to peace.
Boun Chanh himself was sponsored by the church when he arrived in the United States from Laos. For many of the immigrants from Laos who have been a part of the religious hierarchy within Buddhism, the exposure to Christianity is revolutionary. The access to the word of God was a novel idea for many from this region.
For the up and coming Laotian deacon in the Trinity Lutheran Church, the ability to find the information in the Bible and help others with this information is a vital part of his practice and the services he conducts. The mobility within the hierarchy of the church is not something Boun Chanh is familiar with. Religion in Laos is restricted and the general population does not have access to religious scriptures. The average person is forced to rely on the interpretation made by the priests.
BOUN CHANH: We were Buddhists by traditions and religion, not because, you know, we read scriptures or Buddhist Bible or anything like that because the Buddhist Bible is kept hidden and secret. Nobody has access to it except high priest or High Monks, for us we are supposed to only do what we told to do. And we just have five commandments in Buddhists. We have five amendments that we follow.
HEMA: The stark difference between Buddhism and the Lutheran church combined with the church’s support towards the immigrant population definitely drew people like Boun Chanh towards the faith. He converted to Lutheranism and has taken the opportunity to educate himself and become a larger part of the church. He is currently working towards becoming a pastor.
Their stories may differ and their plights may not resonate with all, but religion has brought many people together, even when they’re far from home.
MORGAN: In the current political climate, finding a common ground can be necessary for survival. Islamophobia in America has turned into acts of violence and threatened the safety and stability of many Muslims residents. But on the spectrum of religion, Islam and the more widely accepted Christianity aren’t that far apart. So Daniel Helmee is here to teach us a lesson in similarities.
DANIEL: Throughout my whole life, I have been going to mosques. It’s a place of worship for muslims. Yep, I’m a muslim. I pray there, listen to sermons, recite books and learn about Islam. I’m from Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, but we are liberal; not like in Saudi Arabia. So, there are lots of other religions there like Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, so we could see many beautiful churches, temples and shrines along the streets. But, the thing is, I’ve never even bothered to learn about those religions.
Coming to the US, I could clearly see that the majority of the people are Christians. I see more churches and just a few mosques that don’t even look like the ones I was used to seeing in Malaysia where they have beautiful structures and majestic domes. After getting to know more Christian people here, I’ve started to become more curious about their beliefs, so last year I went to a church.
The pastor gave a speech about Moses. I was kind of shocked to hear that name and to hear the same story I had been taught in Islam before. Imam Jaafar, a refugee from Ghana who is now a leader in the Muslim Community Center in Des Moines, Iowa, described a similar story of Moses.
IMAM: We have Moses—Moses is another powerful messenger, prophet of God. His name is mentioned in the Quran and in the Bible, in so many ways about how he treated or interacted with the people of Israel, the way because he is one of them, he was in Egypt, the way he grew up; we have his stories in many many places.
DANIEL: It has been years since I wanted to explore the similarities of the views in Islam and Christianity. I never got the chance to fully do that until now. A colleague of mine connected me with Ryan Arnold, a former congregational minister.
Ryan got his undergrad in Business Administration before going to get a Masters of Divinity. Sounds like Hogwarts, if you ask me. After school, he was a minister for around 10 years starting out in Texas, then moving to New Mexico, and eventually Des Moines. Now he works as the neighborhood and community engagement manager at Drake University.
Both religions of Jaafar and Ryan have their own holy book. Islam has the Quran, a book that talks about the history, the past and the future of the world, and also gives guidance and instructions on everything Muslims (or anybody) need to learn about the way of Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity has the Bible. It talks a lot about Jesus Christ the savior and the way of living like him. It promotes love for neighbors and a guide to live and walk in the path of Christ.
When it comes down to interpretation, the books aren’t that different.
IMAM: The content and everything came from God directly, which the Quran, called the Quran. Recitation is a reicting of the content. We use it for so many things. It’s used for guidance because our instructions and everything about Islam comes from that book. And we recite it in our prayer. We recite it for protection. We recite it for many many things. You know, so that is our book, the source of Islam. And then the second book that we have that is the tradition, the speech and the talk, the instruction from the prohpet. The word is not from him but the meaning and the content is from God.
DANIEL: How about the Bible?
RYAN: I believe that the Bible is essentially about loving your neighbor. I think that there’s this great story where jesus is asked, “What is the biggest commandment, or what is the best commandment or the most important commandment?” And he responds, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind,” which is a very important commandment that you get in the hebrew scriptures. and then he follows it up by “Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” and so I think that those two things are combined that in the words of one scholar, the way that we love others is the way that we love God. And that we can’t profess great love for god and then turn around and then hate your neighbor and that’s what the scripture is really all about.
DANIEL: Although they are different books, they interpret God quite similarly.
IMAM: When we say God, God in Islam is the being that created everything, everything else and he the one that created everything. And, he created everything for a purpose. The main purpose for creation is for those creation to worship him. To worship him means to adore him, to obey him, to do whatever he wants us to do. And he has power over us and control over his creation. Allah is used by all the Muslims, used by even the Arab Christians, they use the same name.
Ryan: I believe, and I keep prefacing this because I think there’s a big difference in opinion, believe that ultimately God is a loving, powerful, super-person, so non-human presence that exists in the universe. I dont know if I can describe what God is, as if God is a human being like me. I believe that God is that loving force that is moving the world toward peace and justice.
DANIEL: So both talk about the same omnipotent being, but with a different context. In Islam, there is only one God and he has a name. But for Christians, it’s still one God, in different forms.
RYAN: What you have is the God the father, which is what I would ascribe to being the super personal force of love in the world, God the son, which is the human being that took on the super personal force of love in the world as an existence of the human being, and then God the holy spirit. and that’s the continuation of the presence of Jesus in the world even with Jesus absent from the world. So those three make up the trinity.
DANIEL: Interestingly, jesus is also described in the quran. Muslims actually believe in Jesus. But, with a different belief in his existence.
IMAM: Jesus is one of the messengers of God, or Allah. God, in order for him to teach people about him. He sent many messengers, so one of him is Isa. We call him Isa in Arabic, but in other books, they call him Jesus Christ. We call him al-Masih al-Isa. And he himself said the same thing in so many places in the bible, he referred himself as the messenger of God. Son of God. It means the servant of God, a person that obeys God.
DANIEL: Almost as commonly known as Jesus, the story of Adam and Eve was also mentioned by both Ryan and Jaafar. In both books, the story is the same, about them eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.
Prayer is also central to both Islam and Christianity, though it’s practiced differently. Muslims pray at certain times, which should be 5 times a day, with some sort of different actions in one prayer. They pray at dawn, afternoon, evening, dusk, and at night. Meanwhile, Christians don’t have a certain time or ways of praying to God. They can pray anytime they wish, and anywhere.
After learning about all the connections between Ryan and Imam’s religions, I shouldn’t have been shocked to hear that they had met before. It was at a time of crisis when Islamophobia in the US was rising.
RYAN: With some of the political rhetoric that came from the last presidential election cycle, where there was some Islamophobic statements promoted by a leading contender for the presidency, there was an opportunity where I was able to reach out in an act of love to, not just me but the whole congregation to the Muslims; the mosque on 42nd and then the Bosnian mosque on Beaver so I got to know folks through that. So I’ve had some of the most lovely, intimate conversations with Imams and just normal people of the faith. I truly and deeply appreciated Islam. I don’t understand it all. I’ve read portions and parts of the Quran and I find some really great inspiration in them, in the portions that I’ve read. I get really frustrated at how people mischaracterize Islam and demonize it. That’s deeply hurtful and I think that every interaction that I’ve had with a Muslim person peer to peer, every one of them has just been filled with such gravity, graciousness and hospitality and I think that there are things that I have learned. How to be a more loving human being from Islam that I didn’t necessarily— It’s probably in Christianity but it just didn’t influence me the same way.Whenever I’ve gone to Muslim prayer services, it’s around Ramadan and is that right, do I have it right? Where you fast all day, and then there’s the prayer service and then you break the fast together, yeah, that’s when I’ve gone. And so that’s where I had the evening in my mind, because the food is phenomenal! And I’ve been so honored to be invited to services around Ramadan.
DANIEL: Although forces have tried to divide Islam and Christianity, we share many of the same stories. We are closer on the spectrum than we think. We may worship God in different ways, but what we ultimately want is to love each other and eat good food.
Graphic by Mia Tirado.