People in my business (faith community leadership) often find themselves discussing trends in our denominations and faith traditions. But as we wring our hands about who’s not with us right now, we often forget that, in fact, the United States is by many measures “a robustly religious country and the most devout of all the rich Western democracies,” according to studies by the Pew Research Center, one of the premier watchers of global religious life.
Americans pray more often, are more likely to attend religious services of all kinds, and assign more importance to the place of faith in their lives than adults in other democratic nations, including Canada, Australia and most European states.
More than half of American adults pray daily (55%). Of 102 countries, the U.S. is the only country that has both above average GDP per capita and above average frequency of daily prayer. Interesting.
I am a person of deep, if ever-evolving, faith convictions. Recently, I had an experience that left me challenged about how, for most of my waking hours, no one who encounters me casually would ever know that fact.
Recently, my friend Fadumo Hassan, who is an observant Muslim, invited her non-hijabi and non-Muslim women friends to participate in World Hijab Day. She asked us to come by Umi’s Boutique, where we would be gifted with a scarf and receive a hijab tutorial. We were encouraged to wear hijab for the day.
I have a number of women in my life who wear hijab. To a person, they are strong, independent women. Dialogue with them has forced me to revisit my presumptions about what hijab represents. Likewise, I have a number of women in my life who are observant Muslims who do not cover, and for equally valid reasons. They have helped me understand diversity in unity, as well.
So I decided to jump in. Amani, one of the boutique’s designers, taught me how to drape the scarf. I wore it in the style of my Somali woman friends — there were options. Learning number one. I was invited to write a message for social media about what this meant to me. I wrote, “Hijab is solidarity with my Muslim sisters.” Other signs read, “Hijab is my pride.” “Hijab is cool.” “Modesty is beauty.” “I am not oppressed.” “Happy World Hijab Day.”
Probably the sweetest moment was right as Amani was done pinning. Simultaneously, Fadumo and she exclaimed, “Trish! You’re so beautiful!” Learning number two. Hijab, particularly when a gorgeous floral scarf, is also self-expression.
But my learning didn’t end there. I stepped out a Umi’s, and suddenly I had a brand new sense of visibility. And with it came self-consciousness.
I know from my extensive interfaith work that many of my Muslim friends undergo more intense scrutiny than I do, even in casuallife moments. Not long ago, I watched an employee of a local retailer hover heavily near three veiled teens. I stepped back to watch him. I couldn’t help but wonder if my daughter and her two best friends would be scrutinized in the same way as they shopped.
As I observed World Hijab Day that afternoon and evening, I was treated very kindly, for the most part. But when I wasn’t, I couldn’t help but wonder — when I rudely accelerated rather than yielded on 169, did the other driver make assumptions based on what would now be my perceived faith tradition? When I tried to make small talk that night with the gentleman sitting next to me at AMC and he gave me the cold shoulder, was it because I was being too friendly or because he didn’t like people like “me?” I can’t know.
It was a really good experience to enter into Fadumo’s and other women’s world. The truth is, in my religious tradition we have a very long history of veiling. Straight through my childhood, Catholic women who were professed religious wore veils — some nuns still do. And it was commonplace for women to wear a chapel veil or mantilla in Church (I have sweet memories of my grandmother bobby pinning Kleenex on my sister Sheila’s and my heads so we could duck in the back of St. Anthony’s in the Bronx and get a glimpse of a bride). If I had been born 50 years earlier, I suspect that my constant thirst for education, which is never satisfied, probably would have taken me happily into the convent.
When I was a young mom, I was at my local Catholic parish and our pastor asked us to go home and look around. If someone came into our house, would there be any sign of our faith visible? I was shocked to realize that in our house, the answer to that was “no.” I decided to hang a cross over our dining table in the kitchen. It was the first of what is now a collection and now is over my desk.
After I moved to Minnesota, I was also influenced by a priest at my parish, but it was a very different experience. In his homily, one of the visiting presiders chided the women in the assembly about wearing gold crosses, as if wearing that jewelry meant something about our faith. I remember how self-conscious I felt. At the time, I was wearing a fairly large gold cross that my husband had given to me. That cross meant a great deal at the time, as it does now, given that he has a very different relationship with God than I do, and it felt very honoring that he gifted it to me. In the wake of that priest’s challenge, I took off my cross and didn’t wear it for easily 15 years.
Well, if you run into me in the produce aisle or walking around the track, you’ll see that my cross is back on. Not only that, but the small cross I received for first communion and the miraculous medal of the blessed mother I received at Confirmation, both from my Aunt Sis, my godmother, are there too. And a gold Medal of St. Benedict, in honor of my seminary years at St. John’s in Collegeville.
I’m a woman of faith no less than my friend Fadumo. I’ve decided to be seen as one. I do not know what my choice would be if I was an observant Muslim. But just as I can wear my cross, my niece Amanda can wear her Star of David, and my friend Devarati can wear her Sanskrit Om, I’m grateful to be in a country that not only allows religious expression, but religious self-expression.
World Hijab Day is Feb. 1. Mark your calendar for 2021. I know Fadumo is eager to welcome you. I’ll be there, in hijab and wearing my cross.
Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.