Religious Freedom at Seventeen

The scene: Photography trip at the local community college. I'm sitting in the "cafe" with a couple of students from another school in the county. We're eating lunch and talking about our respective schools, and we come to the topic of which musicals our schools are performing.

Me: We're doing Children of Eden.

Girl: What's that?

Me: It's based on the Book of Genesis. It has the story of Adam and Eve, then it skips to Noah and the Ark.

Girl: Really? And they're like, allowed to do that?

Me: Why wouldn't they be?

Girl: Well... it's religious, isn't it?

Me: But it's the Old Testament, so it's more universal. I mean, Jews and Muslims use the Old Testament, they just interpret it differently and call it something else. Besides, freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion, right?

Girl: Yeah, whatever.

End Scene
I didn't think much of this incident when it happened, but when I had the same conversation with my mother, her co-worker, and just about every person I told about the play, I stumbled upon an oddity of my high school.

The student body isn't expected to check their faith at the door.

I always suspected this to be true--what with the "In God We Trust" sign that hung in the old lobby before it was torn down for renovations, and the Christian youth speaker that came to talk to us about morality. And it should have been perfectly clear to me when our choir director selected Christian pieces from various time periods for the concert choir's spring performance. But it wasn't until I started going to play practice for Children of Eden that I began to appreciate the faith I shared with other students.

One night in particular stands out clearly in my mind.

After a practice that ended some time around 10:30, I began to think about all of the tasks I was leaving unfinished because I was exhausted from the play. And because I was tired, my emotions were close to the surface--until they finally spilled over. I had a breakdown as I was walking down the longest hallway in the school; the one that goes from the front door straight to the auditorium--a single path if all the doors are open. Anyone would have been able to see (and hear) me if they stepped out of the auditorium.

And that's exactly what happened.

My friend Soon was about 20 feet behind me the entire time, and I hadn't noticed him. He didn't say anything to me until we got outside, and I really began to sob. He called after me, and I almost kicked myself for not having a tighter grip on myself. He asked me what was wrong.

"Life," I said, throwing my hands up into the air.

Without saying a word, he came over to me and hugged me, and began to say a prayer for the both of us; that we would find peace from our trials, and strength in our Lord. Even now, his gesture brings tears to my eyes because he said the words I couldn't bring myself to say in that moment. When I stood in need of faith stronger than my own in order to pick myself up again, he was there to pull me to my feet.

Which really put this next incident into perspective for me.

Fast forward to opening night. The entire cast was really nervous, and even the most confident singers with the most beautiful voices were now beginning to doubt themselves. After a pep-talk from our choir director, someone called for a prayer circle and the entire cast gathered within seconds in a large ring in the back of the choir room. The buck was passed around a few times as to who was going to say it, until our choir director finally said, "whoever is going to do it, do it soon, because I'm not allowed to do it and we gotta get moving." He then stood off outside the circle as the guy playing Father (God) said our prayer.

That bothers me.

Our choir director--an admitted Methodist--didn't feel comfortable joining our prayer circle because of what the repercussions might be.

He's a younger guy, and has a relationship with his students that is pretty remarkable. Even though we don't really get much individual attention, I feel like he sees us for what we are instead of what we're trying to be. And because he sees the faith we're trying to put into our lives, he gives us the chance to do that during school hours--the opportunities we've been taught not to pursue, not matter what our feelings might be.

He gives us the chance to have a voice.

In our schools, which have been revamped to teach us to pass tests, it has been really liberating to be able to express my faith instead of parroting back answers "they" want to hear all the time.

It's to the point where even though I've taken Honors French IV, AP Calculus, AP English Literature, Photography, and a Shakespeare independent study I had to fight with the administration to give me, the class that taught me the most about myself, prayer, and faith was Concert Choir.

So even though our PC nation has tried to remove religion from our schools, they cannot succeed when we keep our faith with us and act on it anyway.

Let them raise their eyebrows at our play, our prayer circles, our way of life--because what I'm learning from them is infinitely more important than the rest of my public school education anyway.


Because of a late-night baseball game last night, I decided another visit to Newark 1st ward was only appropriate.

I arrived about 20 minutes early, which I figured would more than guarantee me a seat. And it appeared to do so, considering the chapel had perhaps a half dozen people in it at the most. So I took out my scriptures and began hunting for a particular verse in Isaiah that I could not find yesterday. I perused and skipped around while the Young Women practiced their song for Sacrament Meeting, and enjoyed the time I had to myself.

After being approached by a member of the stake high council (whose branch I regularly attend), the Bishop, and an older gentleman who politely informed me I was in his seat (which seemed awful unnecessary to me, since the pew directly in front of us was deserted, but old people are weird about strange things, so I moved down the pew), and the meeting began.

We sang our hymns, took the Sacrament, and the sermons began. After hearing a talk from one of the tallest Young Men I think I've ever seen, we heard from Sister W, a delightful sister whose family I sat near the last time I went to Newark 1st. She was masked by the podium, and we had to wait several seconds for it to be lowered before we could even see the top of her head.

She proceeded to tell us about an incident where prayer and the lessons she learned increased her testimony of the Church. The story bears repeating, of course, because it involved some car keys, a college class, a pair of pink Crocs, and some Skittles.

Brother W had accidentally taken Sister W's car keys, leaving her stranded at her house when she was due to be at her college to take some classes; one of which was a chemistry lab she needed to attend. After calling one of her friends from church to drive her to school (which I imagine must have been quite embarrassing), she arrived for her chem lab only to realize she was wearing her pink pair of Crocs. She had worn them the previous week, and her instructor had informed her that because they have holes in them, she cannot participate in labs if and when she wears them. She had become very distraught; visible in the fact that just retelling the story brought her to tears, and she told us of how she had asked for Heavenly Father's assistance as to what to do.

She then tried to think of a way to plug the holes, hoping it would be a sufficient solution for her professor. She tried dimes, but they were too large to fit into the holes. Her next solution was a bag of Skittles, which instantly instigated a quiet riot of giggling. She described how the Skittles, although they appeared bizarre, had seemingly settled her problem.

(Another reason to hate those horrid chunks of plastic, but this story isn't about my biases. Moving on!)

She then went to meet her lab partner, who couldn't help but question Sister W's odd footwear, at which point Sister W explained the entire hellish morning to her. Her partner then stated she had an extra pair of shoes in her bag if Sister W needed to borrow them. Sister W gladly did so, and then gave us the moral of her amusing, yet stressful experience.

In order to learn from the Holy Spirit, to be forgiven of our sins, to find solace in our Father in Heaven, or any of the many blessings that come through Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, we have to do the very best we can to meet our needs--like plugging the holes in our shoes with a bunch of Skittles--meeting our trials with our best efforts in order to overcome them on our own. Only then will our Heavenly Father answer our prayers and take us the rest of the way.

My initial impression of Newark was that of a very busy ward that somehow seemed impersonal. But today I saw a different side--especially when Brother W made a comment about how the counselor closest to him could have at least raised the podium "2 courtesy inches," and the counselor happily obliged him right when Brother W began to speak, which brought a chuckle from the crowd.

I see now that Newark 1st isn't just a building full of busy people. As they described it themselves, they are a "ward family."

It's good to see that my quirky, lovable Church family exists no matter where my adventures land me on the Sabbath.

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