By Judy Knotts
June 24, 2016
He stood off to the side, holding his plastic bag of food, watching other men from the halfway house waiting in line. Long and lean and looking different from the rest in a freshly-pressed tan shirt buttoned from top collar to hem, pink Polaroid sunglasses, and a gray well-tended ponytail, he caught my eye.
I walked over to him and said, “You look very handsome.” He smiled and said, “Will you marry me?” “I need to know your name first,” I replied. He said, “William is my first name.” “Fine name” I said and added, “Let me think about the proposal, OK?” William smiled another sweet smile. There we were on a hot June evening, two senior citizens gently reaching out to each other, exchanging pleasantries, and flirting in the most innocent way.
We both really understood the situation. He was an ex-convict, recently released from prison and I was handing out free food to men in the parking lot of a halfway house. When I mentioned his stylish shades, he mumbled something about needing them, so I never saw his eyes, the doorway to the soul, but the casual comment about needing the sunglasses and seeing his shirt buttoned tightly despite the heat made me wonder if he had some prison abuse or tat to hide.
William was looking for a job in a fast food restaurant and had been to Good Will Industries to see if there were any openings. Driving a folk-lift was his goal— there were no positions. Together we discussed how important it was to be willing to start at the bottom in a job search. William was not proud and said he would do most anything for a real job. I agreed with his thinking, yet anyone eavesdropping would be suspect just looking at us and hearing our conversation. To the outside world, we were two elderly and somewhat frail folks who probably could not haul trays of food all day or work a fork-lift endlessly.
William wanted to move out of the half-way house with its bedbugs and series of men coming and going. He needed work to be able to get a place of his own. And he declared, “I’m not going back to prison. I did a dumb thing once and learned my lesson.”
After these initial exchanges, things got serious. William asked if I had a faith. He could not tell as I wear no cross; it rests hidden in my heart. I responded, “Yes Christian — Catholic.” He said, “I am a Muslim, and as people of faith, we are required to respect each other.” I asked if he prayed five times a day, and he said, “Yes.”
Because I still use a paper calendar, I knew that Ramadan began June 6, and ends July 5. We discussed the feast, the most holy month for Muslims where they fast — no eating, drinking or smoking during daylight — as prayer and sacrifice. According to Robin Scher, a freelance writer from South Africa, during Ramadan in 2016, an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world will be celebrating their religion’s most sacred month.” Fasting, he adds, “helps to build compassion and empathy for the less fortunate, who may not always have the freedom to choose not to eat. By fasting, Muslims remind themselves what it means to experience hunger and thirst.” Something William probably understands firsthand without fasting, yet he will fast.
From a food truck run to a half-way house, an ex-convict recently released from prison and a former school principal connects. Beginning with compliments on attire and talks of marriage — harmless bantering — comes more powerful dialogue and meaning. We discuss that if we are people of faith, any faith, we are beholden to honour each other. Lent for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims consists of deep beliefs, sacrifice, prayer and fasting.
Tragically, in the past, and certainly today extremists can be found in any faith. These are those who have lost their way and believe they are little gods — belittling, exploiting and harming others. For William and me, the essence of our faith is worshiping the one true God wholeheartedly and loving our neighbour.