"There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range,
His horse and his cattle are his only companions.
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,
Waiting for summer his pastures to change."
- from Sweet Baby James by James Taylor
One of my closest friends died yesterday. He collapsed on a sidewalk in California. He was on his way to work. The cause of death was probably the chronic high blood pressure that my friend struggled with for many years, a problem that presents a severe health risk factor for many African-American men.
There's plenty of grist here for a strident column of stirring social commentary. A quick mental check of books that I own with relevant story lines turns up titles such as, The Overworked American; America: What Went Wrong; and The Souls of Black Folk. But as I sit here at dawn writing thoughtfully, I realize that on a very deep level, my friend's death was not so much about the ills and pressures of society. And the real story is less about a departed soul than it is about a great and ever-present spirit.
Perhaps I feel this way because just about every time my friend and I got together, we prayed. For a number of years, he and I worked about a block away from each other in downtown San Francisco and we would meet at lunchtime to pray in his office or in mine. And on Fridays at midday, we would often travel together to and from the Muslim congregational prayer service. Our sons were also in the same Boy Scout Troop, so I have memories of all of us praying together amidst tall trees, overlooking a breath-taking vista, at a simple roadside stop, or just at someone's house during a meeting.
From the above it may sound as if he and I were pillars of the religious community. Far from it. I'm pretty sure that nobody thought of either one of us as particularly religious. For the two of us, I think it was a matter of seeking a constructive approach to our own imperfections. What I call, "the prayer of the drunken sailor" comes to mind: "Dear God, if you please get me out of this one, I promise to try and get myself out of the next one."
Neither one of us made it to as many community religious gatherings as we might have liked. To me it seemed as if the pressure of making a living and raising a family consumed all of the time and more energy than was available. My friend, however, while working longer hours than I thought humanly possible, still managed to maintain energetic and perpetual motion as a full-time community servant.
He was an active Boy Scout leader who also donated many long hours, utilizing his own skill in the field of audio-visual and computer technology to assist with community events. A number of young men, including my sons, would assist my friend during these events. They would sleep over at his house on Friday evenings in order to get up before dawn on Saturday mornings; and would work almost non-stop through Sunday evening. You kind of have to be there to really understand what all of this means ... like last night when a strong, bright and confident young man whose voice has changed and who has grown taller than his father, burst into tears upon hearing the news. You just have to be there.
So last night after my family heard the news, we prayed. And then after we prayed, we sang. We sang cultural songs, religious songs, blues songs and folk songs. And for some reason, I decided that the words from the song quoted at the beginning of this column provided a fitting close to the evening. These words were also on my mind this morning as I awoke. Perhaps it's because of the times that my friend and I spent camping together. Perhaps it's because when he and I met for the last time, for lunch and prayer at his work place, we talked about life on the trail - the wear and tear of seemingly endless stress and how he was hoping for an early retirement. Perhaps it's fitting that the name that many people knew him by meant in Arabic, "patient perseverance."
During our last meeting, he and I also talked about religious rituals in life as being not just things that you do, but things that you become. We talked about the prophets of the great religions as people who struggled with life, underwent deep spiritual transformations and then shared what they learned with other people. The point was that rather than just imitate what those great prophets did after their own transformations, somehow each of us has to enter our own individual transformation process. In that context, our religious rituals become reminders of the crucial tasks that we need to perform, rather than being mistaken for the tasks themselves.
Seen in this light, the many different religious and ethical systems that people espouse throughout the world also become sources of unity as opposed to conflict. They are all the songs that we sing while working, watching and waiting for our change of season. Each soul may have a different song, but in spirit, all of the songs are one. Imagine what the world would be like if each of us could realize and practice this.
Ibn Musa directs the Imagine Peace Project at http://www.imaginepeace.org.
Copyright 1999 Ibn Musa