Attendance was down at the Poplar Park Community Church the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It happened every year.
That’s one reason Pastor Walt Mitty was surprised to see LaShaun Smith sitting next to his mother in the third pew from the front. Not only was it the day before Memorial Day but LaShaun had graduated from high school the day before. Mitty had assumed that his mother, Florence, would relax her rules a bit and let him sleep in, instead of dragging him to church with her as she did every Sunday.
What surprised Mitty even more was that at the coffee hour in the social hall following worship, he saw LaShaun sit down in the empty chair next to Gerhardt “Asch” Aschenbrenner. “What’s that in your lapel, Mr. Aschenbrenner?” LaShaun asked.
Pleased that a young man a quarter as old as he would take an interest in him, Asch responded with a warm smile. “It’s a poppy, LaShaun.”
“Yeah. When I was your age, we used to put American flags out on every grave of a veteran,” Asch said. “Everyone would buy poppies made by disabled veterans as a fundraiser, and as a way of remembering American soldiers who had died serving their country.”
“Did a lot of people die?” LaShaun asked.
“Didn’t they teach you that in your history class?”
“Maybe they did, but I don’t remember.”
Asch sighed and said, “Yes, LaShaun. A lot of people have died fighting for our country—600,000 in the Civil War; over 100,000 in World War I; and in World War II over 400,000.”
“Serious. When I was a kid,” Asch continued, “almost everyone in town had a family member or a neighbor or a coworker who had been killed. We would have a parade down Main Street right here in Poplar Park with veterans proudly marching past the crowds on the sidewalk and every time an American flag would pass by—and there would dozens in the parade—people would put their hands on their hearts.”
LaSchaun stared at Asch with his mouth open for a good 10 seconds until he finally said, “I never knew that. I mean, I might have read that in my history text book, but somehow it didn’t register. I thought that all of those politicians on TV who say ‘God bless America’ all the time and wear American flags in their lapels were just doing it so people would vote for them.”
“That’s a problem, LaShaun. I may be cynical, but I just don’t think a lot of them are sincere,” Asch said. “John McCain, he is, but a lot of them are just saying patriotic things to get votes.”
Pastor Walt Mitty kept thinking of that conversation between an old man 30 years older than he, and a young man 30 years younger, over and over until he and his neighbor Michael Rosenthal decided to walk to the Starbucks on Main Street yesterday and indulge in a cappuccino. But when they got there the door was locked and a note taped to the door announced, “CLOSED FOR DIVERSITY TRAINING.”
“Is today the day?” asked Michael.
“I guess so,” answered Mitty and then he laughed, “Maybe Roseanne could have used some of that training.”
So the two friends decided to walk over to Bernie Rolvaag’s History/Herstory book store and see what was new with him. When they walked in the door they found Bernie deep in conversation with Ehud Ahmadi. “Solving the world’s problems?” Mitty asked with a smile.
Ehud responded in kind and explained, “I was just telling Bernie what it is like to keep Ramadan.”
Bernie shook his head and said, “I can’t imagine going through a whole day without coffee.”
Ehud smiled and said, “You get used to it after a couple days.” Then he got serious and added, “in the Quran, Allah commanded us to do it, so we do it. End of discussion. There’s no individual interpretation of what God meant.”
Michael laughed and said, “That attitude would never get any traction in my synagogue. If 50 people are keeping shabbat at temple, you’ll have 50 interpretations of the Torah passage read that day.”
For some reason Michael’s comment made Mitty think of the conversation between Asch and LaShaun two days earlier. After telling his three friends the story, he asked them, “What do you make of that?”
Ehud was the first to respond. “You know that I love this country,” he began. “There is nowhere else that I would want to live, but I hope my children don’t get so Americanized that they lose their respect for authority and tradition. All of us in the Islamic community around here may have started keeping Ramadan because we had to, but the older we get the more we keep it because we see how it makes us better human beings.”
Bernie, Michael and Mitty looked at each other and realized they were hearing a narrative they didn’t often hear. Their friend was talking about respect for tradition and authority, but without a hint of polarizing rancor. Their Muslim friend wasn’t trying to win and argument. He was just telling them where he was at.
Ehud concluded by saying, “Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about their rights, but not much about their duty.”
“You know,” Michael said to his neighbor as they walked home, “Ehud made me think. The word “conservative” has been co-opted by people like Newt Gingrich, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. But if Ehud is an example of a real conservative, I wouldn’t be ashamed of people accusing me of being one.”