Let me start off this discussion of faith by confessing one of my weaknesses I’m working on. I have a big ego. I’m not channeling Beyonce with that admission; my arrogance and need to prove my value by seeking the acceptance of others are twin vices that draw me like Sirens towards the rock of hubris. It took two years of hardship, a spiral into the abyss of indigence and dismal loneliness before I finally learned to curtail my ego and curb by vanity.
Yet, no matter how much I have grown spirituality, the temptation of flesh still has a hold over my heart. I pray daily to be less wedded to ego and to be more selfless as I give back to others the way that I’ve been given abundantly in life. People who read my writing realize, if they pay attention enough, that I’m a believer in God and that I’m an Orthodox Christian. However, I am very reticent to blatantly identify myself as such; my faith is within and I have no interest in trying to evangelize or to “convert” others into my belief system.
However, before I get too pious in a slick attempt to elevate myself above others who do proselytize, I have to admit that I am in fact trying to convince others to view things my way. I’m a journalist, the profession I chose—though it’s actually a passion given that I’m not drawing paychecks to write or do podcasts—is one that is grounded in reaching an audience and dictating discourse. As much as I rage against mainstream media, the truth is that anyone who picks up a pen or a microphone is shaping perceptions and influencing thought.
Though I try my hardest to disavow sensationalism and refuse to resort to the click-bait tactics of corporate media, once in a while the Sirens chant my name and I make the mistake of inciting emotions for the sake of starting conversations. Last night, I did just that as I posted a tweet and posted both Facebook and an Instagram status that noted atheism is a religion. My action was inspired by someone who denigrated a biblical quote I tweeted. My intention was not to preach, I was simply sharing a passage that helped me in my moments of hardship. Out of nowhere, some guy saw it fit to belittle my beliefs and compared my thinking to that of a child who believes in Santa. Instead of letting this act of pettiness pass, I decided to start a fire.
Atheism is a religion::
— Teodrose Fikre ✒ (@TeodroseFikre) March 16, 2019
What took place is a heated debate across social media platforms as people joined the debate with heated passions and inflamed comments—a debate that is still raging at this exact moment. This led me to do some self-reflection and to question my intentions. I know that my desire to prove eminence, no matter how much I tried to wrap it in the blanket of humility, is the reason I wrote the offending dispatch. This is the soft ego of artists that I battle in my heart; using words as my brush and the Ghion Journal as my canvas, I paint expressions only to sit back and observe as people try to figure out my motives. I know there are some artists reading this right now who nod their heads in agreement while I’m sure others frown in disdain that I dare to besmirch artists in this way.
The ego is a bedeviling friend.
Let me give you a bit of a background about my faith. I was born into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 40 days after I was conceived, I was baptized at MedhaneAlem Church in Addis Abeba and given the Christian name Araya Selassie. When I was a child, I harbored dreams of one day being a pastor. This dream came crashing down in flames as a succession of events led me to distrust God. Leaving Ethiopia and arriving in America as an immigrant was the first cut, I honestly believe that the first time I felt the kiss of depression happened at the age of seven as the gregarious kid I used be in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia was transmuted into a sullen and withdrawn child who sought the comforts of TV and Twinkies in Alexandria, Virginia.
Though I did not realize it at the time, television became my escape and a form of self-medication. However, my aspirations of one day becoming a preacher was rekindled the minute I discovered Jimmy Swaggart. Every Sunday, before flipping the channel to watch the Three Stooges, I was mesmerized by a man who could cry on demand and seemed to have the love of God in his heart. My dad was forced to work three and four jobs at a time so he was barely at home, the pain of my father Fikremarian Million’s absence was tempered by the presence of Swaggart. Though I barely spoke English at the time, I was thoroughly hooked to Jimmy’s charisma and the way he was able to weave first-hand testimonies into the teachings of Yeshua.
This idolization of Swaggart came to a crashing halt as breaking news broke my connection to God. I still remember it to this day as news leaked out that Swaggart was exposed for cavorting with a prostitute. I did not even know what sex was at that age, yet I knew enough to realize that Swaggart was not who he said he was. I made the grave mistake of conflating his sins upon the faith of Christianity as a whole. Livid that a man of the cloth was just an opportunist who used the bible to enrich himself while stepping on his followers, I disavowed organized religion and decided to go at it alone. This pivot proved a crucial mistake; without faith to keep me grounded, I went on to spend the next three decades chasing my desires in ways that would have made Hugh Hefner proud.
Though I was upset at God, I did not go the extra mile to become an atheist. I still believed in my heart, I just did not want to practice that belief in my mind. As I kept reading the bible by day, by night I reverted to my inner Samson. Though I know it is popular to dismiss the bible these days, for me it was always a source of wisdom and understanding. I don’t read the bible as a literal truth; parables are meant to convey the experiences of what it means to be human. In this way, when I read in Genesis that the snake tempted Eve and Adam, I don’t view it as a literal snake who convinced the first couple to actually eat an apple. The fruit they ate was ego, the snake was the spirit of evil that dwells in all of our hearts and the reason they got kicked out of the garden of Eden was because they chose to be gods instead of subsuming their egos to honor God.
As many books as I’ve read over my life, the bible is the one book I can never get enough of. When I read about David, I see in him the same trials I go through. During my stint as an invisible citizen who called rescue missions home, I had a conversation with an aspiring pastor by the name of Fred in Greenville, South Carolina who shared with me that David’s enemies he kept crying out about was actually himself. When I went back and reread the Psalms, I was astounded to realize that as much as Saul was hounding him, David’s greatest foe was his own flesh.
When my right knee got infected and I was admitted into the Greenville Hospital’s ER, the bible was my comforting rod. One day, I flipped open the bible, which is how I usually read the bible, and landed on the story of Jonah. When I read his story and the way he was given an awesome responsibility by God only to end up alone by himself, I cried because Jonah’s travails reminded me of my own tribulations. The whale that swallowed Jonah was not a literal whale, rather it was the whale of depression that subsumed him into the bowels of unending sorrows. At the end, when he was by himself under a reed bleeding his spleen at God, I understood because I too felt like a whale had swallowed me up and that I was given a story that I could never tell others without being judged and dismissed crazy. We all have whales that come for us in time. My faith in God and the teachings of Yeshua led me out of the wilderness and allowed me to rejoin society when most who become homeless are condemned to a lifetime of alienation.
Homelessness is the 21st century leper colony.
I recount these stories not to convert people to Christians but simply to share my journey. We have entered into a realm of 360 degrees of ego where we like and share views that fit our preconceived notions and bash others who do not think as we do. This is a form of tribalism that is the source of injustice. Wars fought over ideas, blood shed over religion, violence being perpetuated to dominate discourse; humanity’s only natural predator is our ego. If only we sought humility by default and valued divergent thoughts, we could have a modicum of peace and equality in this world. Sadly, we choose to do the opposite; we let our pride drive our decisions only to end up treating each other like enemies who need to be conquered instead of seeing each other as brothers and sisters struggling to figure life out.
To this end, religion is a source of strife a thousand times more than it is a source of light. A couple of days ago, I wrote an article titled “Water for Fire” and conveyed how the three major religions have a connective tissue even if we call God by a different name. What I left out of the conversation is that all of humanity, irrespective of belief systems, are connected as one. Science and faith both attest that life started as one; whether or not you believe in a Big God or a big bang, both affirm that life started at one source and then spread outwards. We fight over frivolous things because tribalism and ego are an inherit traits of being human. If we are to make a leap forward as a society, that change will not come by way of revolutions or politics. The change we all have been waiting for and can truly believe in is the evolution of our hearts and minds.
In this way, religions are just as problematic as politics. Though I identify as an Orthodox Christian, I do not for a minute believe that my faith is supreme above others. My faith is not blind, I believe but I question all the time. In the process, I am open to hear from people of other faiths and I love talking to atheists. I am not threatened by people who believe differently than I do, I’ve learned a lot from the countless people I have talked to over my life. Though I occasionally become mischievous and lure people into contentious debates—this is a part of my ego I’m trying to wash out—by default I’m a jovial guy who loves to meet people from different walks of life and learn about their stories and their experiences. We are all temporary residents here on earth; our time is but a whisper and our lives gain meaning the more we embrace what makes us different while we realize what we have in common.
Here is a wisdom I’ve picked up over my years. The same way that Jimmy Swaggart does not represent all Christians, neither do certain people who leverage the bible to enrich themselves represent all people who try to minister to others. As Elie Wiesel noted, collective judgement is evil. We must know and judge people based on their fruits instead of prejudging them based on their leaves. However, I must say this about all religions, including atheism, stop trying to convince people that your way is right and instead just be the light. Be less boastful and be more humble. People will follow you based on your actions a lot more than they will based on your rhetoric.
Stop using religion, or lack of it, as a business model and as a means of enriching yourself and instead give to others who desperately need help. You would not be reading these words right now if not for the random acts of kindness that lifted me out of depression during my season of barrenness. Be love and you might be hated for it but you will be richer in spirit than Jeff Bezos is wealthy through his capital accumulations. Take this to the bank, people who give love find the happiness that eludes Jeff and his cohort of capital pharisees no matter how many businesses they acquire or how many billions of dollars they hoard in their accounts.
As for me, let’s just say I arrived back where I was born. After enduring more than two years of despair, God sent me an angel by the name of Bethlehem who is now my wife. When I first started my journey of unrelenting woes, a rabbi by the name of Dov told me to endure and that one day God will bless me seven fold what man took from me. He was wrong, I was blessed seven times seventy-seven fold, Bethlehem and I found each other during a time where I was utterly lost. Bethlehem and her unending love is my redemption after going through a lifetime of emptiness that I’ve felt ever since I left Ethiopia. It was Bethlehem who made me believe in my last name again (Fikre means “my love” in Amharic) and she was the reason I found a home church at the Debre Genet MedhaneAlem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church in Temple Hills, Maryland.
Hardship is a blessing; the scars we all have in our hearts eventually lead to the greatest joys if we refuse to give our hands to bitterness.
When rabbi Dov lifted my spirits on a cold February day in 2015, I was so moved by his kindness and so mired in hopelessness that I instantly wanted to convert to Judaism. I took the first step towards conversion by attempting to visit a rabbi three times as dictated by the Jewish faith and trekked to the 6th and I Synagogue in Washington DC. When I entered the doors, a security guard asked the purpose of my visit. I told him that I wanted to convert and yearned to talk to the rabbi. The security guard took extraordinary interest and kept asking me questions; in all honesty, I grew frustrated at what felt like an interrogation. After talking to me for more than 45 minutes, the security guard conveyed the following advice:
“Why are you making a decision to convert at a time of emergency in your life, don’t make rash decisions in an emotional state. Before you make up your mind, come and visit the services they have here at the synagogue, observe and learn and then make a decision after you gathered the facts.”
He reached me and I decided to follow his advice. When I asked the security guard for his name, he told me that his name is Christian. Allow me to wax poetic here, a Christian soldier changed my mind. Though he convinced me not to convert to Judaism, I was still stuck in my bullheaded ways. I figured if the door to Judaism is closed, I figured that must mean I am meant to become Muslim. I visited the mosque in Springfield, Virginia and was all set to convert until another chance meeting in DC changed my mind yet again. This time around, the person I ran into was a Turkish businessman whose name escapes my memory. When I told him the same story I conveyed to Christian, he turned around to me and said:
“You know, we Muslims demand of new believers that they change their names in order to become a follower of Islam. My friend, you were born with a certain name, stay with that name. You don’t have to become Muslim in order to be with Muslims”.
Stay your name. Those words kept echoing in my mind until I realized that the name he was talking about was not my first and last name but the faith I was born into. Had I converted to either Judaism or Islam in 2015, the Ghion Journal would not be in existence as it was Bethlehem who convinced me to stop writing on Facebook only for us to launch this website together. More importantly, my union with Bethlehem would not be have blessed me had I not stayed in the faith that blessed me when I was 40 days old. This is why I choose to believe in a greater being than our mere existence; if you step back and observe the randomness of life, you will realize that life is not random at all. Trying to understand the infinite nature of this universe through the finite confines of our minds is an impossible task, but when we stow away our egos and accept people who don’t think like us, the abundance of this world blesses us in ways that is hard to explain but amazing to breath in.
Life comes full circle, I guess in a way I did become a preacher after all. Except my preaching is not based on a title nor is it grounded in dogmas. In all honesty I’m not preaching as much as I’m traveling with other people who are on a journey of discovery. We learn together as we walk together, this is the true essence of faith. When we all realize that we don’t know it all and to be love first and foremost, we can leave behind a better world for our children. In this quest to find peace, we must be kind to ourselves—we grow as we go.The same way that I occasionally relapse into ego only to make amends and try to do better, all of us are an ongoing project. Let's try to do better but forgive ourselves and others when we err. #FaithOrNot Click To Tweet
Peace and God bless. Don’t get offended if you call your God a different name or disavow the existence of God all together. I’m not preaching to you, I’m just sharing my journey. One last thing, this is a lesson I’m learning through my better half, for the people whose emotions I stirred up and incited your passions, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time::
“He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like foliage.” ~ Proverbs 11:28
For some reason, Nikki Noeller’s GoFundMe is not working, so I reached out to my fellow Twitter sojourners to see who else I could highlight in order to galvanize our readers to contribute to someone who is down on their luck. @superwhaleshark suggested Liliana’s GoFundMe. You can read more about Liliana’s story by clicking HERE or clicking on her picture below. Give as we are given, let us help others who are less fortunate then us. Who knows, one day we could use the same kindness, I know I once did. Be the light to others.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.