The Conversation

By David del Valle

The evening comes earlier in the fall, and so the streets
were bathed by the blue glow of street lamps and neon signs. It was a cool breeze that seemed to come from
the East River, the kind that is brisk and makes one alert – a time for
windbreakers or light jackets. There
were still people sitting on wooden benches between the tall buildings that
comprise the Carver Projects in Spanish Harlem. Many conversations were taking place, some more animated than others,
some in Spanish and some in English. The
topics of discussion ran between the raising of children, husbands or the lack
thereof, sports, politics and religion.

 

Three young men were having a lively conversation about
politics and religion. The young men
had known each other for years. They all
grew up here, had gone to school together and had an intimate knowledge of one
another and the community in which they resided. In fact, all three were college students and
still living in the projects. Two of the
young men were Hispanic and one African-American, which pretty much represented
the majority of people who live in the Carver Projects and most of Spanish Harlem. One of the Hispanic young men Freddy and the
other Johnny had been raised together from birth and their mothers were the
best of friends. Duane the
African-American friend had moved into these projects with his family from the
age of four and had come to know Freddy and Johnny from the time his family
moved in. They were more like brothers
than just friends.

 

Across the street from where the young men were sitting a
Pentecostal Church was having an outdoor meeting, street evangelism with a
bullhorn (a somewhat noisy irritant that people in these parts had to put up
with). This was enough to fuel a
conversation between Freddy, Johnny and Duane.

 

“I don’t get it?” said Freddy, “Why do those people have to
rant and rave so much?” “Why don’t they
just take it inside?” 

“You got a problem with religion Freddy?” Johnny asked.

“No I got a problem with your face!” Freddy retorted, “It’s
not religion I got a problem, its superficiality and emotionalism, I got a
problem with. I just don’t understand
why so many poor people are attracted with all this spiritual fluff? Marx was
correct when he said that, Religion is the opiate of the people”

“Man Fred can’t you see these people need something to hope
in, something to ground them, apart from the hopelessness of the condition they
live in. Just look around you – housing
projects and tenements, low paying blue collar jobs and welfare. Anything that can provide a momentary respite
from the mundane, trivial world of Harlem is welcomed.” Johnny shared waxing
philosophical.

“My brothers,” Duane said in all seriousness, “It might be
good to note that religion has both a positive and a shadow side. The shadow side is the side most religious
folk don’t want you to see. That is if
they themselves can even see it. But the
shadow side is there nonetheless. One
need only go back to recent history – like Rwanda – or the segregated south of
Jim Crow. Some of the folk doing
lynchings down south were church deacons. People would go to church on Sunday and dress up in white robes and
hoods on Monday. There was a shadow side
to their religion. On the other hand
another form of religion developed down south. It was the religion of call and response. It was a Christian religion informed by an
African faith. It was birthed out of
oppression; a response to the task master’s whip. And that religion has always attempted to
raise the dignity of people who were oppressed, not always successfully and
sometimes prophetically.”

 

“Duane,” Fred replied, “My take on it is that nature abhors
a vacuum and that it will fill that vacuum with anything, as soon as it gets a
chance. People choose the path of
religious belief because of some emptiness they feel in side of themselves. It’s a crutch for those who fail to think
rationally.”

 

“You guys sound like Cornell West and Albert Camus,” Johnny
retorted, “A couple of kids from Harlem go to college and the next thing you
know they are waxing eloquently, as if they were members of the Princeton
Debate Society.”

 

“Look,” said Johnny, “Look around you. Look at these housing projects where we are
like so many cattle led to their stalls. Look at the tenements. I remember
my sister and me staying at my uncle’s apartment in one of those
tenements. We would sleep in the living
room and watch unmolested as rats would scurry to and from on the living room
floor. One night a rat climbed onto my
uncle’s bed crawled up his pajama leg and he killed it with his bare
hands. Twenty-one rabies shots
afterwards, he is alive to tell his ordeal. Why doesn’t the church talk about that? Why doesn’t it concern itself with the welfare of those who live in
these decrepit situations?”

 

“You need to chill out Johnny,” said Fred with a smile, “We
feel your pain, but the people on the twentieth floor don’t need to feel it as
well. Doesn’t it seem strange to you
that we can observe these things, and yet here we are students at Columbia
University? We have a window of
opportunity that is not available to all. And yet as we walk the halls of this Ivy League school we pass by
students, faculty and administrators who just don’t have a clue as to our
angst, our pathos. I remember sitting in
my music theory class next to one of the Duponts, and here I am a kid from the
ghetto who has known a type of suffering and pain that none of the Duponts
would ever know. They can get in their
limousines and go off to that cocoon of a world that they inhabit, that knows
neither pain nor suffering as the rest of the world knows it. I am sure they have their personal issues,
or their economic concerns, or their political issues, but they cannot
comprehend our world. They are much like
those people who ride the train to and from suburbia, faces hidden in their
papers and magazines riding on the tracks just across from us on Park Avenue. And yet, somehow we need, or some people need
the noise that comes from that church across the street. If only to fill the void in their lives, our
as well I guess?”

 

“Don’t get to deep on us Fred,” Duane replied, “We still
have issues we need to look at. For
instance, there are three world religions that trace themselves back to
Abraham. All three profess to be
religions of peace, and yet these children of Abraham have spread more havoc,
more pain, and more violence and have shed more blood than Al Capone. All three religions have raised the sword
when it has proved to them convenient to so – in the name of Yahweh, Allah or
in the sign of the cross. Now don’t get
me wrong, I have been nurtured in the African-American church, but I can’t help
noticing what is before my very eyes – the inconsistencies, the hypocrisies and
the flagrant disregard for life. Isn’t
it ironic that those who profess to be pro-life are also pro-war? There denominations that formed because
slavery was foundational to them and the lifestyle of their adherents and now
they profess to be pro-life! I can’t
help but think how this all seems to be part of some theater of the
absurd. Isn’t is strange how these
children of Abraham develop deep theological treatises and yet are themselves
the cause of much affliction? I say this
as one who is part of the long stream of church history, and who has to somehow
make peace of all this tension.”

 

“That’s heavy Duane,” said Johnny, “I mean that that is
really a deep thought. I imagine you can
throw other world religions into the pot as well. One would think that this would not be true
of a system that had atheism as its guiding light. And yet the dictatorial regimes of communism
and shown us that they are just as capable and efficient in the shedding of
blood. Stalin, Castro, Mao were just as
cruel a despotic as were Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. Mark Twain was correct when he said, “If you
pick up a starving do and you make him prosperous he will not bite you. That is the principal difference between a
dog and a man.” There is not only a
shadow side to religion, there a shadow side to humanity as well. Periodically, we see promise in the human
species, but more often then not we are disappointed. What do you make of this?

 

Both Fred and Duane responded, “We don’t know? We don’t know what to make of it?

 

“And that, said Johnny, “Is a conundrum. We are forced to live with the tension of it,
the ironies, with the unanswered questions. But I rather do that than live with an unexamined heart.” Meanwhile, as the outdoor service was winding
down the closing hymn was Amazing Grace. Johnny, Freddy and Duane all went back to their perspective abodes while
the train to the suburbs thundered across the tracks.

LLC