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Thanksgiving Eve, I went to Church. How or why you may ask? I owed my broker DL, also a pastor, a phone call from last week. ((how he works in both real estate and religion is beyond me. Aren’t they essentially opposites??))

DL called the day before to check up on the status of exiting my lease with the landlord. I called him right before yoga to thank him for his concern and let him know everything was taken care of. He casually asked what I was doing Wednesday night (nothing. I just flew to NJ for Diwali two weeks ago and didn’t plan on going home so no plans for turkey day in SoFlo) . He suggested I come to Thanksgiving dinner held at a Baptist Church in Miramar, about 15 mins away. I hesitated yet, for one reason or another, I felt compelled to go. Maybe it was because I had no T-Day plans. Or maybe I just wanted to go to Church. Plus I’ve never been to a Baptist Church before, so isn’t now as good a time as ever? (said no one…but really, it was a good experience). I confirmed my spot for The Church’s Thanksgiving gathering. I assumed the dinner would take place inside the Church (again, first time Church goer here) so I wondered, what does one wear to a Baptist Church? I had no clue. I figured being formal was a safe bet: a black blazer, royal blue dress shirt and black pants it was.

AK came over for a quick catch-up and considered coming to the Church but opted out. Soon after, I left to pick up a small dessert at Publix before heading over to the Church later that evening. Once I arrived I called DL when his daughter E answered. She would come find me since getting into the gymnasium was a complicated feat. I waited till I couldn’t wait anymore and took it upon myself to navigate my way through the Church grounds into the gymnasium. How complicated could it be? Follow the signs for the gym, easy enough. I passed a room with Asian lettering hanging on a board above the door. I wondered where in the world I was. I entered the gym, DL seemed surprised I had found my way.

How did you get here? he asked.

“Two Japanese men unloading items from a truck let me in through the back gate.”

“Oh the Korean group!” Smooth.

DL immediately introduced me to everyone around him, including his family, his daughter’s fiance, his family, and basically anyone that came up to say hello to him. It was clear I was DL’s guest and he wanted to make sure I felt comfortable. I quickly realized DL and I had matched: a formal jacket, a blue shirt and black pants. I dressed like the pastor.

It was an informal gathering in the Church’s gym. I didn’t even know Church’s had gyms.  I chatted it up with E, her fiance, his brother, and mother whom I sat with. It felt nice doing something else, outside my realm of comfort. I somehow operate well in that indifferent space…

The evening’s proceedings were held in Spanish. DL would say a few words, offer a prayer, then members from their two churches would share testimonials about their experience with God (or as referred to in the Church, El Senor). The religiousness of the night somehow didn’t freak me out. I wasn’t looking to get enlightened or Go to God. I was simply an observer witnessing what it’s like to be amongst the Baptist Church folk. And so far, it felt welcoming.

E’s fiance worked as a part-time professor, had another part-time gig, and also sat with the homeless youth Monday nights outside of Starbucks in Young Circle. His mother was quiet, behaving as though she felt out of place. She was a sweet lady who looked like she’s struggled hard in life just to get by. She shared that she worked in Long Branch and Red Bank for a short stint. She would take the bus to New York, recalling its lengthy journey. The fiance’s brother went to Berklee for 8 months.

“Why 8 months?”  I asked. “It’s expensive”, he said.

South Florida has lots of financially struggling, homeless and poor people in its local bubbles, especially Hollywood. I never lived in an area like that before. Or the population had such extremes economic and social extremes, like Bombay (which is a different kind of poverty) or low-income households, that the contrast of rich and poor made up for any obvious signs of strugglers. Messed up I know but that’s life.

The dinner was potluck style. When dinner was being served people lined up quickly. Not as quickly as Indians in a buffet line but fast enough that I chose to sit out till the line calmed down. Bad idea. While Indians may be the most frustrating bunch in any sort of queue, they at least are speedy about it. They get their food and go. The Spanish folk seem to take their time. The line was moving at a deathly pace so I finally gave in and tagged onto the tail end, where I chatted with DL’s nephews. By the time I made it up to the table, the jerk chicken that DL so passionately spoke about was gone. I got the scraps. They were delicious. I ate other meats I don’t normally eat but it was all delicious. Especially that jerk chicken.

It was almost times for testimonials, but before that, it was music time. E and two others sang religious songs in Spanish. DL’s son manned the speaker system station, making sure he properly projected the Spanish lyrics of the songs on the overhead screen. I sang along because, why not? When in a Church gymnasium…

As people made their way up to the microphone to share their testimonials, I had to concentrate hard to understand them. It’d been awhile since I tried to understand the Spanish that floated around me. I got the jist of it but didn’t care enough to pay attention to the nitty gritty. Plus in Hollywood, I didn’t meet as many Latin Americans as in Miramar or Pembroke Pines. I wanted to know what they were saying and what their experiences were about so I listened so hard to the nitty gritty so much so that head started to hurt. WAY too much concentration for one night. Sad that my Spanish skills dwindled down to this point. I remembered the days of fluent Spanish to taxi drivers in Madrid.

But I understood the majority of what the speakers shared. I could even relate to some of their stories–It’s interesting how their ‘testimonials’ reminded me how in Buddhism we are encouraged to share experiences in faith. We also sing songs related to the fundamentals of Buddhism. It seemed so similar.

Here were some highlights from the night

-the first woman to share said how El Senor helped her to conceive and safely deliver to her daughter Sofi, who was there that night.

-the next person shared how they financially struggled that year but God helped them get through it.

-the older woman made her way up there. it was long-winded speech she made but the crux of it comprised of : “Some people say, yes I believe in God, I believe in God. But they don’t really understand what that means. They don’t carry God in their heart. Tests and difficult times are important and God does this to make your life even better later on.”

After awhile, I started to tear up. Even though I didn’t understand the details of what everyone had to share, it made me emotional. The way a person talks, even if it’s in another language, you still can feel their heart, the emotion of how they speak allows you to understand them even if the words aren’t there.

“This is so amazing,” I thought. how many people gather in this room to share their experiences in faith, with God, whatever you want to call it. Positivity poured through the microphone into the well-lit gym.

Towards the end of the night, we gathered in a circle to hold hands, forming a prayer circle. My first real prayer circle. A man who wasn’t DL said a prayer. With my head down, I held the fiance’s mothers hand in my left and a young girl’s on my right. It was powerful.

The takeaway for me?  Everything is the same. Religion is a conduit to the ocean of life. It is a means to an end. To get caught up in the specificities attached to any one religious brand is missing the bigger picture. Know yourself. Know your worth. Have faith and love. And in the end, know that we may all look very different but we are made up of the same things.

I was thankful for DL’s invitation. I was more grateful than ever that no matter where I go, I’ve relied on the kindness of strangers and been met with sincerity and an open heart. I hope to be able to return the favor to others someday.

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