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questionsI haven’t been blogging as much in recent weeks as I would like, not because I don’t have plenty I want to write about–I do–but because much of my creative energy has been devoted to my Five Questions podcast.

The podcast started as a fun project suggested by a friend after she watched videos of me interviewing Zeke. I’m having a great time coming up with the right questions for each guest and conducting the actual interviews, but I recently had an epiphany about the higher purpose of the podcast.

At the crux of our society’s crises right now is extraordinarily deep disconnection. We are disconnected from each other in terms of politics, religion, race, economics, sexuality, ethnicity, etc etc etc. We are afraid of each other. We feel contempt for each other. Maybe this doesn’t describe you exactly. Maybe you are confident that you’re one of the good ones, and you try to do the right thing and treat others with kindness and respect. But chances are there are some people or groups or ideologies you are averse to and afraid of. Am I saying you should rush out and try to befriend a gang of white supremacists? No. But I am saying that if we were able to have conversations with each other as human beings, you might find some common ground with those people it is easier and more palatable to distance yourself from. You might understand them, or they might understand you. At least a little.

I am not claiming that my podcast is going to lead to world peace. That would be nice, sure. But I feel strongly that any efforts to connect with others are worthwhile and usually bear positive fruit. So far I’ve produced (with the help of my sound engineer Chris Salazar) 14 episodes of Five Questions. I’ve recorded nine interviews that will air this summer and fall. And I have more than half a dozen guests lined up to interview. (I’m always looking for more guests! Sign up here!) Making this podcast has given me a great reason to talk with friends I haven’t talked with in years or even decades. My most recent interview was with someone who I went to writers camp with in 1989 and I have not seen or spoken with him since, but I do follow his life and creative genius on social media. Other guests have been people I see nearly every day. But whether I know the guests well or only a little–or I knew them well once upon a time–I find out something new about them in every episode. Their answers surprise and delight me and give me glimpses into ideas I would never have come up with on my own.

I’ve learned about how Harry Potter is used as a tool for faith formation for Episcopal youth. I’ve learned about how the decision to travel from a remote mountain village in China to the nearest big city two hours away to take a test changed someone’s life. I’ve imagined one person’s vision for a museum honoring the unsung Black women who take care of business behind the scenes. I’ve been inspired by another person’s dedication to daily artistic endeavor, including sculpting self-portraits out of food that quickly melt away. It is a privilege to hear these stories and to share them with others.

Another realization I’ve had during this project is that some people don’t think they’re interesting enough to interview. This baffles me. I’m not asking people to describe feats of daring or record-setting achievements or their road to fame. I’m simply asking what they think, feel, remember, wish, or desire. Anyone with a heart and soul can answer these kinds of questions, and every single answer is worth listening to and savoring. As Glennon Doyle Melton frequently reminds us, “We belong to each other.” Asking my five questions and soaking up and sharing their answers is an essential illustration of that belonging. We have to start understanding that we all belong to each other, and make those connections that lead to belonging. Five Questions is my small way of doing just that.

Ramadan e-belgique 1Our church shares space with a Muslim community, so it happens that I often see Muslims coming to pray. During the school year, preschool pickup coincides with mid-day prayers and the parking lot is a mix of parents emerging from minivans and Muslim men wearing a mix of Western clothing and kurtas and thobes.

I always make an effort to smile at these men and say hello in an effort to try to make them feel welcome. I always think about saying “salaam alaikum,” but I never do. Somehow I am always afraid I will pronounce it wrong, or not know what to say next, or that I will come across as inauthentic. When I articulate my hesitations, they seem absurd. But still I’m nervous and I just say, “hello.” They always smile back and say hello to me.

Right now it is Ramadan. This is a holiday I might have previously been unaware of, but the Muslim community at our church gathers at night to break their fast. Sometimes when I am leaving an evening meeting at church, Muslims are arriving to pray and eat.

My friend D was waiting outside for her ride and I heard her say, “Ramadan mubarak,” which means “blessed Ramadan.” All the way home I practiced pronouncing it correctly.

The next time I was leaving an evening meeting, I worked up my courage and said it to a couple individuals walking up the path. I said it out the window of my car to a man in the parking lot. They all looked pleasantly surprised and thanked me.

Today I had to get a routine blood test at the doctor’s office. The phlebotomist was wearing a hijab. I took a deep breath and wished her “Ramadan mubarak.” She said it was going to be Eid Mubarak, the celebration marking the end of the month of Ramadan, in a week. I wanted to ask her about it–what exactly Ramadan represents and what happens on Eid, but I didn’t. Partly because I was focused on making sure my vein and blood were cooperating, but also because I was embarrassed that I don’t know what Ramadan is about. Now I looked it up, and I know. She asked me if I was fasting, because I was supposed to in advance of the blood test, and I said yes. I wanted to ask her if she was fasting for Ramadan, but I didn’t. I thought it might be disrespectful to not assume she was because that’s what healthy adults are supposed to do. I wanted to ask her if she had any personal connection to the 17-year-old Muslim girl who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Sterling. I refrained, realizing it was ridiculous to assume they would know each other and not knowing how such a conversation would proceed. I was reminded of stories about my Jewish paternal grandmother spotting a Christian church in her travels near my mother’s hometown, snapping a photo, and asking my mom if that were her church.

I ask everyone I meet all kinds of questions all the time. It’s what I do. But for all kinds of reasons, none particularly good, I was reluctant to ask this phlebotomist about her religion.

I am still working up my courage every day to make these connections and have these conversations. It is absolutely necessary.

Ramadan mubarak. You can say it too.

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