(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-39 in earlier Blogs )
On the way back from his job interview in North Carolina John flew into Chicago’s O’Hare airport. He had done the unthinkable, and called Mr. Hawkins from the plane. He’d asked if he could jump in a cab and stop by and see them for the day, before taking the evening bus back up to Madison. And just like last time he’d approached the Hawkins, he’d been given much more than he expected. George Hawkins had insisted he stay for the weekend and said he would pick him up at the airport personally.
It was now nine o’clock in the morning and he had a date to play golf with the man he hoped one day to call his father-in-law. A year ago, he would not have believed his own audacity, and even though he was far from feeling confident now, he knew for sure he subscribed to the maxim “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
The meeting of the two men in front of the arrivals terminal was warm and cordial, with the one as willing to decline the expressions of gratitude as the other was happy to offer them. Their conversation on the way to the golf course was punctuated with good humor, as both men were by nature endowed with social charm. It was “How about those Bulls” and a commentary on the inflated state of basketball salaries, to be followed by observations on the beauty of the day’s weather and the anticipated opportunities for a good game. And then, what was the weather like where John had been, and, what had he been doing down there.
John found himself talking easily about his job interview and then reviewing the prospects for several other jobs he’d been interviewed for. He was playing a dangerous game, he admitted, having received three offers for post-docs already, only one of which he’d turned down. The other two he had delayed in replying to, in order to check out this final opportunity, which was an assistant professor position in a prestigious land-grant university. If he was offered this job, he would be very lucky indeed, because jobs were scarce out of graduate school, and to get a teaching position without first doing a post-doc would be very unusual.
George Hawkins drove to Wilmette, to a golf course not far from Lake Shore Drive, at which spot there ensued a spirited, albeit unevenly matched game, in which John was determined not to make too poor a showing. Yet, for all his vigor, which Mr. Hawkins seemed to thoroughly appreciate, his valiant efforts proved to no avail. It seemed the more John strained, the more calm and collected his opponent became, defeating him with grace but also with gusto. And for the second time between them that day, it happened that what one party was pleased to win, the other had equal pleasure in losing.
Once they had taken some refreshment at the clubhouse, Mr. Hawkins said:
“John, I’m now going to take you to a very special place.”
“Oh? Where’s that?” John asked.
“Oh, you’ll see,” he replied, as they got in the car.
As they came around a bend in Lake Shore Drive John suddenly exclaimed, “Wow! Where did that come from?”
Looming before them, set in an enclosure of formal gardens, was a domed structure, the likes of which John had never seen. It was a completely circular building with sculptured pylons, all in white, filigreed concrete, reaching about ten stories into the air. Wide sweeping stairs led up to its doors, and rows of tall needle-like evergreen trees radiated from its axis out the garden paths.
“Oh, it’s been here for over half a century,” Mr. Hawkins explained.
“What is it?”
“It’s the ‘House of Worship.’ Would you like to take a look?”
Walking up the entrance pathway John noticed that there were circular fountains in each garden. Mr. Hawkins told him there were nine gardens in all, surrounding the building. Also, the building had nine entrances, to symbolize the nine independent world religions.
Inside was an airy, light atmosphere, with polished terrazzo floors and rows of red velvet seats. A few visitors were walking around the building and others were seated, silently praying or meditating. A reverent silence prevailed in the place.
John started slowly walking around the inside of the circular building and noticed an inscription over each entrance. “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens,” he read. Moving along to the next archway he read “The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun,” and “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth,” was inscribed over another archway. The inscriptions were beautiful, not one of them could he disagree with, but they seemed to call for a greater depth of spiritual exertion, things that average people didn’t dwell on in their hectic daily lives, especially in the academic circle he lived in.
He was assailed by a feeling of great peace in that place. Perhaps the enormous potted trees near the tall windows and the light diffusing through the dome from outside, were contributing to this. Or perhaps it was the lofty interior of the dome, which rose above him and culminated in a golden symbol or inscription suspended from the high ceiling. And then again, perhaps it was the prayers being offered. Mr. Hawkins had left John to explore on his own and had taken a seat soon after they entered. He appeared for a short while to be deeply engrossed in prayer.
John marveled at the depth of the man who had played golf so single-mindedly an hour before and could settle so easily into his devotions. It wasn’t Sunday, or “church time,” but perhaps for this man there was no clear distinction between his religious life and his “other” life, perhaps to him it was all one continuum.
When they left to go home John thanked him. “It was a very special experience.”
Mr. Hawkins appeared moved and said “My pleasure son, my pleasure.”
“Mind if I ask, George, how you got involved in all this?”
“Not at all. Ask away.”
“Well, I thought, most African Americans…”
“American Methodist Episcopalian. Well, many of us are, or at least come out of that background. Although Blacks are pretty diverse, you know.”
“Well, if you want to know what sent us in search of something more, Cora and I were always sort of, well, I’ll tell you, growing up Cora says, she couldn’t understand why the whole rest of the world was going to hell, except Christians. Not even as a little girl, she couldn’t believe that. I could never understand why in the same block, you could have two churches, and on the same Sunday morning, one was filled with black people and one with white people, and yet they both considered themselves Christians. It just didn’t seem like the spirit of Christ’s teachings. You know?”
John nodded, fascinated.
“So, we were always searching for an answer to that. And then when the kids came along, we really had to think hard about how we wanted to raise them. To be inclusive or exclusive.”
“I noticed some symbols on the big columns on the outside of the Temple,” John said. “The cross, the star of David, the crescent moon and star of Islam. I couldn’t tell what the others were.”
George went on to explain the six other symbols, which included Buddhism and Hinduism and the nine pointed star symbolizing his own faith.”
“So, let me get this straight. Your beliefs include all those different religions?”
“There’s only one religion. The religion of God. Revealed in different chapters throughout history. Some people have one chapter, others have another. But God never left any of his children without guidance. He always sent someone. Even the most remote tribes, if you study it, you find they had revelation, visions, something.”
“Yeah. I know, there’s a lot out there. I used to like to read Black Elk, Daganowida, all those guys, when I was a kid. I just never knew it could all fit together.”
“There. You see, John! We live in a wonderful time. The information age. All this knowledge is now accessible to us. So why limit ourselves?”
John was smiling and shaking his head. “Wow. That sure explains a lot about Maddie.”
George looked over. “What do you mean, John?”
“The way she gets along with so many people. The most diverse people. It’s like she’s got a connection to just about everybody.”
“Well, believing like this causes you to see all people as members of one family. There are no barriers. One God, one religion, one people.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It is. It is that simple. And it is God’s will. Look, I could quote you scripture if you want. Isaiah: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.’ It’s coming about as we speak.”
John frowned. “Then why are there so many people fighting over religion?”
“Because I think they’re not paying any attention to the teachings in their own faith. Their prophets are turning in their graves, they’re weeping at what their supposed followers are doing in the name of the religion. At their heedlessness.”
George turned the corner into a street lined with beautiful houses. Most of them several times the size of anything back in John’s home town.
“You know what? Religion is supposed to unite. If it’s not causing unity, then it’s better to have none.”
“You’re not serious?” John laughed.
“I am serious! You might as well just get rid of it.”
“Well it doesn’t look like you did.” John observed.
George looked at him and grinned. “No, we didn’t. That’s because we found the universal religion.” At that moment he switched off the ignition and said. “John, welcome to our humble home.”
He must have been kidding. The home John was looking at was anything but humble.
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DISCUSSION QUESTION 40: Is this all too good to be true?
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