nathanielkidd on 1223900090|%B %d
Alfonz took the crucifix lovingly in his hands, turning it over a few times with care and reverence. He gave a sad, low “hmm.”
“It’s broken, man,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Any suggestions on how to fix it?” I replied.
Alfonz nodded at me and turned back to the crucifix. He lit a cigarette and pulled a couple boxes of tools from within his desk.
Except for his distinctive Middle Eastern coloring, Alfonz looks like he could have fallen right out of a 1970s disco flick. His head full of curly, black hair approaches mullet-hood, and his upper lip boasts an impressively thick black moustache. He wears his silk shirts buttoned only at the bottom, revealing a thick mat of chest hair.
Alfonz is a Kashmiri Muslim whose views probably represent the apex of Islamic interreligious tolerance. His little jewelry shop features Tibetan Buddhist malas made of precious stones, healing crystals, little figurines of Hindu gods, large silver and topaz crosses, and miniature carvings of Buddha heads. All this he sells to a soundtrack of happening Sufi religious tunes.
He clearly has a depth of spirituality, even if it sometimes hides behind his strong language and brusque personality. He was able to point me to the nearest church, and says he too goes there from time to time to sing the songs, and celebrate the Christian holidays.
“Old Testament, New Testament, Qu’ran, all part of the same story,” he said.
At one point, he told me how, in making conversation about religion with an Israeli customer, they made a snide remark about Jesus’ birth. “I was about to make an 1800 dollar profit,” he said, “but I put my things away, and I teach them to have respect for Jesus Christ.”
Alfonz has a personal passion for religious beads—actually, that’s how we met in the first place. After seeing the Rosary around my neck, he wouldn’t let me say no to a cup of chai in his shop. He asked eager questions about the Rosary, about how it is made and used. I also showed him two Anglican rosaries I had made that I happened to have with me, and the saints bracelet that my friend Jake brought me from Mexico. All this he found extremely fascinating.
“We too have prayer beads in Islam,” he said, gesturing to the purple set of stones wrapped thrice around his right wrist. Islamic prayer beads are used to recite the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah.
Our first conversation was quite enriching, and the proof of his craftsmanship and ingenuity filled the little shop. I was glad to have met him when my Rosary met with untimely and inexplicable doom. I brought a few tools along with me to repair my beads, but I had no idea how to fix the broken pewter loop at the top of the crucifix.
Alfonz worked slowly but confidently, using a pair of pliers and several small pieces of wire.
“What you do in America?” he asked me.
“I recently finished college,” I told him. “When I go back, probably Seminary.”
“Seminary—where people train for the Priesthood, or other religious vocation.”
“So you want to be a priest?” he asked, looking me in the eye. He gave me a nod. “That will be nice.”
“Of course, you never know what could happen,” I said, “Depends some on the American economy.”
“Yes.” Alfonz paused from his work and gave a thoughtful draw on his cigarette. “A lot depends on the American economy. American economy is shit right now, and also the rest of the world with them. F-ing Iceland went bankrupt. I don’t know what they’ll do. Whole country, just like that.”
“You know I see on the news the other day,” he continued, “Iran, their economy is up twenty five percent. Twenty five percent! Middle East is shitting oil money. And they pray that America continues to go down. Not primarily because they hate America, but because they believe it is the just punishment from God.”
“Punishment from God…” I repeated. “I might buy that. Our mentality in America, our addiction to ‘buy now, pay later,’ it is insane. Perhaps now we are starting to pay. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the world has to pay with us.”
“It is unfortunate,” Alfonz agreed, “but it is not surprising. You know the other day, I was looking in the dictionary. I think of this word ‘bastard.’ What does it mean? I learn it is a person who is born ‘without authenticity.’ That is, there comes a child without marriage between the parents. And I think, then, by definition, all these people in Europe and in America, there are many bastards. They cannot help what they do. If you do not learn properly to respect your parents, how can you learn to respect other people, or to respect God?”
“Interesting observation,” I commented, politely.
Most of us certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say America is mostly comprised of bastards, but there is something deeply fascinating in Alfonz’s observations. Our technological advancement and economic engorgement in the West has come in tandem with a fundamental rupture in the fabric of human social order: the dissolution of family and community.
Most Americans I know believe that the moral cost of our wealth has been too great in one way or another. People of a liberal persuasion tend to complain about the cost to the environment and the global poor. Conservative folk tend to bemoan the decay of the family, religion, and traditional values. In Alfonz’s estimation, these two things are inextricably linked.
“You know,” I offered, “that’s one key reason I feel drawn to the priesthood. We need seeds of change in our world, particularly in the West. If the system survives, its insanities needs to be challenged, and held accountable for its moral failings and negative impacts. If it collapses, we will need new models for our communities. And in either case, people need the Compassion of God and the Word of God.”
“Only God can solve these problems, my friend,” Alfonz announced. “The politics, the science, the economics, they have promised that things will only get better. They have only gotten worse. We Muslims, we too are waiting for the return of Jesus. He will return, and live again the earthly life, and only then there will be peace and justice. Only God can solve these problems.”
“I absolutely agree,” I responded. “That’s why I am considering the priesthood, not joining up with some social or political reform movement.”
Alfonz finished fixing my Rosary beads, and I finished my chai.
“You like the work?” he asked me. Jesus had an extra halo; a functional halo, that held in place a new loop connecting the beads to the crucifix.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Thank you; and thank you for your words of wisdom, and the chai. Do I owe you anything?”
He gave a wave of his hand. “No, no, my friend. Next time, perhaps you buy something.” He smiled, and bid me a good night.
And I left, pondering the significance of having my crucifix so graciously and reverently repaired by a Muslim.