Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Through Snow and Space

There may have been something strange in the boiled green beans that I ate at the Tin Can on Saturday. The side dish was more than a bacony compliment to my meal—it was the start of a waking dream.

The evening was lovely and dangerous.

“In fact,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, “thundersnow was observed in St. Louis County.”

My friend, Shannon, and I drove to the Contemporary Art Museum at speeds in the teens, fishtailing through the turns. The false twilight helped us see.

We parked in fresh snow next to a roofless church. I worried that my car would be buried when we returned. We hadn’t worn boots.

The museum lobby was dark and curious—handmade dolls and simulated waves. Our friend, Lori, later posed in a carnival cutout.

We got some wine and sat in the first of three rows. The stage was set with musical instruments, a giant plastic bubble and a length of red fabric hung from ceiling to floor. Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes seemed to breathe in the background.

The production began with Christmas songs, performed by Ceilia’s Yuletide Express. Lyrics were provided in the program, and I noticed a few people mouthing the words.

A woman in a neon green afro and white unitard invited us to release our bellies and observe a brief silence. She washed the makeup from her face in a large wok, pulled off her wig and invoked the memory of her mother singing in her kitchen. Others joined her song, and as the goose pimples spread over my arms, a concept—something about love and transformation—emerged from the weird.

Rebecca Rivas, who facilitated this nearly fifty-person collaboration, explained that the band, Fire Dog, had composed the show’s title track, May These Changes Make Us Light. The dancers and various artists then created their own superheroes or mythical personas. Rebecca, for instance, was “the Hunter.”

With the two other members of the Amazonia Belly Dance Troupe, “Pin Oak” and “Desire,” Rebecca hunted and gyrated all over the stage.

“How can it be,” an unseen narrator asked, “that in our most joyous moments, we let doubt and fear creep in?"

A brief fashion show ensued, demonstrating some stylish uses of muslin, electrical tape and battery-operated lights.

Then a white-haired man, who had seemed out of place during the caroling in his trench coat and lobsterman’s hat, laid three yoga mats on the floor.

“To the people,” the narrator said, “he was the janitor for the museum beneath the St. Louis Arch. But he was truly much more than that, much more than even HE realized. You see, this was his plan: to use the Arch itself, as a gigantic transmitter of a good thought, broadcasted repeatedly day and night, unbeknownst to the officials of this so-called, Gateway to the West.”

We are all one, and love is all there is. This was the phrase that he had chosen to project.”

According to the story, the message reached a clan of yogis from across the universe, who responded with movement. In fact, they were acro-yogis, and the audience applauded their every feat.

This is the part of the dream that starts to unravel into a series of disjointed images, provoked by the giant plastic bubble that turned out to be a projection screen. I know how the listener’s eyes glaze over during the retelling of any dream, so I’ll skip ahead to the pole dancers.

A portable pole was rolled into view and two women with similarly powerful-looking bodies appeared in their underwear. The music got heavier as they worked through their solo routines before crawling upwards in unison—gravity defied, limbs akimbo.

“We have been sent nothing but angels,” the narrator said, as a woman spilled beads from the vase on her head.

The next act took graceful stunt-making even further, ascending almost thirty feet up the red length of silk.

Fire Dog kept the momentum rolling skyward with the reprise, Ahh, ahh, ahh, ahhhh, achieving a new register with every ahh.

The lights went up as the Yuletide Express finished with It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Happy Christmas (War is Over) and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Reluctant audience members were dragged onto stage, only to discover that Christmas songs are particularly difficult to dance to.

The music ended, photos were taken and people mingled with holiday-charged hearts before trickling out into all that white.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing with Rules

As a writer, I know one thing—writing isn’t very fun. I would rather clean my toilet or snack myself into a coma than write something more taxing than an email.

I’ve started to think that I’m going about this in the wrong way.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with my friend, Molly, about my condition. Molly is a poet living in Maine. She butchers animals on the side, so I consider her an expert on fun.

Molly proposed an exercise. We would come up with a list of requirements to follow in a short piece of writing. She insisted that we generate this list immediately and share our efforts in ten days time.

Molly’s first pronouncement: We must use one noun as a verb.

I know, she’s a nerd, but I decided to play along.

“We must use one infix,” I declared.

Actually, I couldn’t remember the word infix, so I had to search for it on the Internet. It refers to the rare grammatical occasion when one word is inserted inside of another. The only example I could think of was abso-fucking-lutely. Try putting that into a poem.

A day before the exercise was due, I sat down and wrote something. What I discovered wasn’t profound—nothing makes writing fun, but a deadline and some structure help.

That first effort was a little raw, but I’d like to share a subsequent exercise that I did with my friend Edan, a fiction writer living in Los Angeles. The procedure was the same, but we settled on a few less requirements. I’ll include them below the text.



Pork sausage kisses skillet and I wake up. The smell of frying fat spills into frosted sugar cookie air. I roll across the sleeper sofa for my long underwear in the duffle bag on the floor. My cousins, Kayla and Michael, watch from the kitchen table. It’s nine o’clock and they’re eating candy. I pull on jogging pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a hat and gloves.

“Want a Jolly Rancher?” Kayla asks.

“What flavor?” I ask.

“Persimmon,” she says.

“Bullshit. That’s peach,” Michael says.

Aunt Ruby crosses the living room with an armful of gifts, followed by a gust of cold air and Sally, the inside dog.

“Sleep good?” Ruby asks.

“Yeah.” I double knot my laces. “I’m going for a run.”

“There’s a frozen bird out there,” she says and struggles into the den.

Grandma sets a coffee cake on the table.

“No more candy,” she says. “You gonna eat, Ryan?”

“I’ll eat after.”

“Your mom and dad went to the cemetery, but I told them not to wake you.”

She closes the candy bag with a rubber band and smoothes down Michael’s hair.

“That’s fine,” I say.

I hit the door. The cold punches out my first breath. Spot, the outside dog, hobbles from behind the garage. He follows me to the road, where his invisible leg tells him not to go.

The tire ruts run to the trees at the edge of my grandparents’ property. They sold most of their land after a rolling tractor killed Uncle Jim, the only son, besides Denis, who would've wanted it.

“Melissa Etheridge died,” Uncle Denis once said.

We’d been taking shots at a soda can propped on a fence post. He sipped his beer and I watched him.

“Really?” I asked.

I didn’t listen to her music, but I felt regret. I could remember one of her songs. Come to my window. Crawl inside. Wait by the light of the moon.

“They found her face down in Ricki Lake,” he said and fired his twenty-two.

The dead oak is out of reach. I’ll just run to exhaustion and turn around. In the summer, there would be soybeans on either side. Now the ground looks like it’s been broken up with an axe. My lips are chapped and the sweat on my neck helps the cold find its grip.

Dad’s SUV crosses the creek bridge. I try to run quickly, but my knees aren’t bending right.

I imagine our drive home on Christmas Day. My sister will want to hear the story of how my parents almost bought a farm after they got married, almost changing the course of our lives, and how the loan fell through. Mom will tell it. I’ll look at the freckles on Dad’s hands as he concentrates on the drive.

“You’re crazy!” Mom yells out the passenger window.

“Want a ride back?” Dad asks.

“No,” I say, just loud enough to be heard.

The ice snaps under their tires. I run for heat, but it whips away in the wind.

At the crossroads a half-mile from the house, I turn west. The sky or the ground smells like diesel. The sun is diffuse. A cross stands in the field, twenty yards from the road. There are teddy bears tied to it, wrapped in plastic bags.

This is where a woman was dumped last year. Her family put up a memorial—the fake flowers and wreathes, the photos covered with cellophane. A man had given her a ride from one of the bars and stabbed her, or something. I cross the field, wondering when I will step on the spot where she died.

We loved you for the most ordinary things that you did and for loving us for our ordinary things and for being perfect just as you were.

That’s what one of the notes should say, but there aren’t any notes. I wipe the frost off her name and run home.


1. Persimmon should appear in the text.
2. There should be one proper noun, aside from any characters' names.
3. A character should wonder about something in the future.
4. Someone should alter his/her physical surroundings.
5. There should be a run on sentence.
6. There should be one joke.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Middled Makes Print

Today the West End Word is running my article, "Why Am I Afraid of Black People?" as a guest column. Here's the link. I cut it down to about a fourth of the original, so check out what was lost and, perhaps, gained.

Also, take a look at the rest of the Word while you're there. It's a great free paper that's been fighting the good fight in St. Louis City for over thirty years.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Christian Believer

At thirteen, I professed my Christian faith through a confirmation ceremony at a United Methodist Church. I had attended weekly classes, spent a night alternately chasing and fleeing girls through church hallways, written hard questions like, “What about homosexuals?” on slips of folded paper and memorized the Apostle’s Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth / And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord...
My parents had become Methodists by consumer method. When we moved to St. Louis the summer before I entered the sixth grade, we treaded the Protestant waters for a few Sundays, weighing factors such as hymn-count and quality of mingling, before declaring a victor by four-person vote in our car.

I remember feeling betrayed by my family’s spotty attendance during my first Sunday school class, as my peers rattled off the books of the Bible like a list of their favorite films.

I may have become a Christian the day that the baptismal water met my screaming infant head, but I haven’t exactly felt like one since. The chubby, pre-teen just showed up and read the provided texts. The almost-adult still hasn’t mustered the conviction for renunciation or embrace.

Before I sat down for coffee with Matt Miofsky, the minister at the United Methodist church that my parents have recently joined, I tried to assess the state of my faith.

I believe in Jesus, but I’m not sure how I believe in him. I don’t know if I believe that he is the Son of God. I don’t know if I believe in him to the exclusion of other prophets and systems of belief. I don’t know if belief in him requires that. I don’t know if he has saved me and I don’t know if I should feel like a fraud, occasionally singing and praying alongside the congregates in my parents’ and grandfather’s churches.

“You’ll hear the cliché that people are spiritual, but they’re just not religious,” Matt said during our second conversation, over gyros. “I think what that’s getting at is that they’re interested in questions. They just don’t know what they believe about it and are uncomfortable tagging themselves as something.”
I guess I’m living that cliché. I sometimes pray in the morning and at night, but I don’t pray to Jesus. I may pray for creative inspiration or for assistance finding a job (I’m still praying for that), but I mostly pray as an expression of gratitude for my family, friends, health and the presence of love in my life.

I also do yoga, limberly toeing the line between exercise and something deeper that I don’t define. I’ve sat with spiritual mediums and I know that those insights and experiences were real. I’ve been inspired by people of various faiths, in person and in writing, particularly Mahatma Gandhi. What a stud.

I met with Matt partly because my mother wanted me to. She never said that, but she was happy when I finally attended Matt’s church, and she spoke about young people, “your age,” that would benefit from such a community. Mom sees that something interesting is happening inside the modest, steepled building on McCausland Avenue, at the edge of St. Louis City, and I see it too.

The Gathering United Methodist Church held its first worship service on September 17, 2006, having exposed the brick and a massive oak frame at the front of its sanctuary, installed outlets for microphones and amplifiers and torn out pews in favor of cushy, but supportive chairs.

The church had been conceived in Matt’s living room. As the associate minister at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Webster Groves, Matt and his wife, Jessica, hosted study and discussion groups, mostly for people under the age of thirty-five. By the second year, attendance had grown from two to forty and Matt began to recognize a certain demand.

“It was kind of a constellation of events and experiences that led me to want to start a new church in this city,” Matt said. “When I was in college, Jess and I were like, ‘Maybe we’ll try to find a church.’ And we’d kind of shop around a bit and there was just nothing that, this sounds a little selfish, but nothing we were interested in. It seemed like work for us.”

“I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m a person that’s toying with ministry. I actually want to go to church and I can’t find a church. What about people who are just indifferent to neutral about church?’ It just indicated to me that there seemed to be a problem or, at minimum, a need for compelling communities of faith.”

Both the leadership at Webster Hills and the regional United Methodist bishop supported the establishment of The Gathering, but the endeavor contradicted some accepted assumptions.

“The city was seen as sort of a graveyard of churches,” Matt said. “Where we were starting new churches was in O’Fallon and St. Charles County, these fast-growing suburbs. [The city] just wasn’t seen as a place where you’d start something new because so many things were dying.”

“My argument was that they’re dying because these are places that have been around for a hundred and fifty years. They still look like they did fifty years ago. We have a real opportunity to start something new that incorporates and is created for and by people who are living in the city now.”
When I crossed the threshold of The Gathering for the first time, I was met by a greeter’s smile, flanked by coffee and pastries. The original stained glass windows filtered out all but the loveliest light, supporting my impression that the gatherers were disproportionately attractive. More than a few were rocking infants to the live music, following a cascade of projected lyrics that I didn’t recognize from the hymnals of my youth. In combination, all of the freshness and sincerity made me feel a little weird and a little defensive.

On paper, the service was more familiar. The order of events detailed on the bulletin wasn’t much different than the one followed by my grandfather’s church in Cuba, Missouri. There were scripture readings and interpretation, an offering, an invitation to exchange greetings, a communion service, a sermon and a benediction to send the congregants home.

“A lot of people asked, ‘What’s going to be different about it?’” Matt said. “It was almost the assumption that if you started something new, it needed to be wholly innovative, and I didn’t want to feel like, ‘Church is irrelevant and boring. We’re going to create something completely new and call it church.’ I actually had a deep belief that at its core, the practice of what the Church was supposed to be about was a compelling idea.”

What Matt found frustrating was the “social club model,” which came to define Protestant churches in America after World War II.

“The Church was not that different from the Optimist Club or the Elks,” he said. “It was an organization that had meetings, where you could become a member, that did things for the community, and yet, in about the seventies, that was no longer a compelling kind of community. People didn’t want to be involved in that. If you look at a lot of those old social organizations, they had their peak about the same time that churches had their membership peak in the twentieth century.”

In the struggle to defeat the temptations of televised football and sleeping in, Matt believes that many churches have over-invested in appeals to the social interests of their communities.

“When I was at Webster Hills, we had a thousand and one programs,” Matt said. “We tried to be the YMCA, the social club. I mean we had all these classes. The problem was the YMCA did athletics better than us, book clubs at Barnes and Noble were more interesting than our book clubs, and we had a coffee hour, but Starbucks was better.”

“That was really built off a model of the small town American church at the turn of the nineteenth century, where the church was the bookstore, the Starbucks, the YMCA, but it’s not that any more. It doesn’t need to be that. So the Church needs to figure out, ‘Who are we then?’”

“In some ways I think that we lost faith in our core work,” he said. “What I wanted to do was get back to, ‘Okay, where would you go in our community to learn how to pray and meditate?’ We ought to be well-equipped to do that. ‘Where do you go to wrestle with questions about who God is and who God calls you to be, if God works in the world at all?’”

This last question made me set down my fourth cup of coffee. I took it for granted that Matt was serving a community of believers.

“I think the Church has put an overemphasis on belief, to its detriment,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past has been kind of, ‘Believe, belong, behave.’ Meaning you come in, if we can get you to believe the right stuff, then you can become a member, and once you belong, then we’ll get you to start doing the things we think you ought to do.”

“That’s a bad order. It might happen that way for some, but more and more now, and what I want is, people come to a church and they are first going to experience a sense of belonging and then begin to let that community shape the way they behave and that will lead to a shaping a belief. It doesn’t always work that way, but if we put belief up front, as the litmus test of whether or not you belong in a community, that’s a bad choice.”

In addition to worship, service, giving, prayer and meditation, The Gathering United Methodist Church identifies small group learning as a central practice that Matt hopes “would help to shape us into people who experience God, form deeper commitments to God and allow God to shape our lives.”

Matt’s favorite small group is for skeptics. Over the course of seven weeks, participants consider the opinions of both atheists and believers, who each address questions of God and religion from a distinct perspective.

“A true atheist is a very rare thing,” Matt said. “So given the fact that we all cobble together our own worldview about life, whatever’s beyond life, God and our own role in this whole thing, the question is, ‘What’s the something going to be?’”

“There are people who are content with cobbling together their own thing and never placing themselves in a larger stream, but they, in fact, are in a large stream of people who cobble together their thing.”

At this point, he put down his gyro and laughed.

“There’s something attractive about never having to choose,” Matt said. “Some people can never choose one religion because they think that there’s some truth in all of them, so they choose to become this sort of scientific observer of religious life, rather than a participant in religious life. Even though they observe truth in religious life, they never themselves commit because they have a fear of particularity.”

“I’m a big believer, though, in particularity over things general. I think there’s a lot of danger in assuming that the best we can hope to be is an objective observer of all the things around us without ourselves ever diving into something and claiming it as our own.”

“That’s the hardest thing for people,” he said. “They look at Christianity and they say, ‘You know, it’s okay, but I don’t believe in all that. What I think is a little different than that and there’s truth in some of these other religious traditions, so, therefore, I can’t be part of that community of faith.’”

In researching my recent article about Islam and Muslims in St. Louis, I attended a lecture at The Ethical Society and began talking to a Muslim woman who was sitting next to me in the audience. When she asked me about my own religion, I said that I was raised as a Methodist, but no longer identify myself with a particular faith.

“A lot of Americans are like that,” she said and seemed disappointed.

“When having an ecumenical or interfaith conversation,” Matt said, “what you don’t want is a bunch of wishy washy Jews, Muslims and Christians who shed particularity.”

“When you went out and interviewed for your article, my sense is you wanted to find a Muslim. You wanted someone deeply committed to the particularities of Islam so that you could discover what it is that’s compelling about that.”

Matt acknowledged that by accepting any one faith, an individual makes certain claims about the world, life, God and truth that may contradict another’s beliefs.

“We’re having to struggle with a philosophical worldview that’s really shifting away from the notion of one absolute truth that dispels every other possible truth and into some sort of philosophical landscape that says somehow two things can be true that both overlap and contradict. And that’s a weird thing for us to conceptualize, but I find that it meshes well with my experience.”

“What’s liberating about that is it sort of frees us up to claim our story without having to claim exclusive status for our story, so we no longer have to become afraid of who we are and what we believe.”
For me, the fear of claiming beliefs and identity is familiar. In the same way that choosing a career sometimes feels like a negation of all the other possible lives that I could be leading, joining a community of faith might mean accepting one version of myself over another. Non-participation isn’t really an option in the working world, but maybe with religion it’s just not as interesting or instructive.

I find support through my family and friends. I enjoy the intimacy of prayer without wondering too much about its effects. I also have questions, and I don’t know how to claim the answers.

On Tuesday mornings, The Gathering holds a brief prayer service at seven o’clock. This includes a reading from scripture, chanting, prayer, silence and a cup of coffee in a to-go cup. This seemed like an opportunity to step into a vulnerable space and try something different, but I stayed up late the night before and overslept.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Midday Late-Night Eating

Little did I know, as I entered Tiffany’s Original Diner, passing the jukebox and the pinball machine huddled at the front like they were trying to leave, disappointment awaited me at the counter.

I’m not referring to Janet B. Women with stenciled eyebrows are sometimes hard to read, but Janet was straightforward with her “I value you no more and no less than the thousands upon thousands of customers that I’ve served” attitude, which is really quite a high level of value.

I was dropping in on Tiffany’s during off-hours—that being twelve-thirty in the afternoon. A man named Greg, who seemed to be the owner and was working with Doug to repair the flattop grill, said that the first rush comes as the local bars close, followed by a second rush of bar employees.

Maybe I came at a bad time. Greg was digging years-old grill grime out of the diner’s primary appliance with a butter knife. Janet was waiting for “the new kid” to show up and send her home.

“He’s got one minute,” she said. “Who shows up only one minute before work?”

“I always get to work an hour early,” a customer said.

“He does,” the guy beside him said.

Including me, only two of the seven people engaged with their various tasks (service, repair, patronage and crossword puzzle solving) weren’t smoking. John threw open the door and took a deep breath like he’d just run several blocks.

Variations on “Just made it!” and “Close call!” arose from all sides of the rectangular box of a restaurant.

“I heard you guys put grits in your pancakes,” I said to Janet.

“No, we don’t,” she said.

Disappointment can be crushing. I had believed that my information was reliable. With my only reason for visiting this appetite-smothering eatery flipped like gristle into the void, I was suddenly disoriented. The yellowed menu board offered little direction.

“What’s the Tibey?” I asked.

“It’s gravy all over your breakfast,” Janet said.

“What’s the Slinger?”

“It’s chili all over your breakfast.”

Like so many heroes, I was faced with a choice between greatness and survival.

“I’ll just have the biscuits and gravy,” I said.

“Is that all?” Janet asked.

“And a coffee,” I said.

“Don’t make me beg for a refill,” the crossword lady said.

“No woman begs to me with clothes on,” Greg said.

“Is that it?” Janet asked me.

“And a egg,” I said.

“Biscuits and gravy, John!” she yelled.

John, who was still sweating and could not access the temporary grill station due to the repair work, thrust himself against the laminate.

“I don’t know if my ass is supposed to be on the counter,” he said.

“It’s not like you’re going to shit on it,” Doug said.

John’s legs managed to clear the condiments and napkin dispensers, and he even made a show of spritzing some sanitizer for my benefit.

“This gravy is a little watery,” he said, looking into a bucket.

“It don’t make any difference,” Janet said.

“Zap it,” Greg said.

“Pitch it?” John asked.

“No!” Janet said.

“I could combine it with this fresh one,” John said.

“Don’t mix ‘em together!” Greg said.

A knowing look circulated the room like, “The new guy.”

“How long have you worked here?” I asked John.

“Four months,” he said.

“What about Janet?”

“Decades, man,” he said. “Her whole freakin’ life. I couldn’t do it. I want out already.”

Having topped off everyone’s coffee, Janet put on her coat and found her duffle bag-sized purse. On her way to the door, she leaned across the counter and kissed Greg on the lips. It was a sweet, mother-son kind of kiss.

“What, no French?” Doug asked.

“Not today, ma chérie,” Greg said, with a seemingly accurate French accent.

“See you guys tomorrow,” Janet said.

“Bye, Janet,” I said, feeling like a member of the family.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Muslim St. Louis

Since setting up a phone line in my apartment, I have received several calls, but none of them for me. A woman named “Betty” is slightly more popular than a man named “Jeffrey.” Some callers are more voice-perceptive than others, contributing just half an explicative to our conversations.

On Saturday morning, the phone rang when I was still in bed. I made a barefoot dash, trusting that the first call that I didn’t answer would be for me.

“As-salamu alaykum,” a woman said.

“I think you have the wrong number,” I said.

“Oh.” Click.

Before listening to St. Louis on the Air (90.7 KWMU) on September 26th, I hadn’t thought about Muslims in St. Louis. I knew about the large number of Bosnian-Americans living in the city, but I hadn’t met anyone from that community or considered their religious background.

Don Marsh’s program that day was called “Islamic Religion,” suggesting a religious genre rather than a singular faith.

“What’s the Islamic equivalent of a Catholic?” I wondered. “Or a Quaker?”

Marsh introduced the program with statistical data released on September 25th by The Pew Research Center. The results indicated that fifty-eight percent of Americans (actually, fifty-eight percent of the 3,002 individuals who participated in the poll) know little or nothing about the practices of Islam, a percentage that has changed very little since 2001.

A few weeks later, when I met with Melissa Matos, director of the St. Louis chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights advocacy group for Muslims in North America, I started the conversation with questions that I hoped were basic, but not misguided.

“Can you clarify the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim?’” I asked.

“Islam—that’s the religion,” she said. “A Muslim is the believer, equivalent to a Christian or a Jew. Islamic is what you would probably call an object or an action, but Muslim is just a person.”

“What’s your ethnicity?” I asked.

Melissa is Dominican-American. She was born in New York City and grew up in what she described as a “pretty religious” Protestant family, “which is unusual in itself for being Hispanic.”

“When I say ‘religious family,’ people might get the idea that my parents drove me out of Christianity or something,” she said, “but I was happy growing up in the Church.”

Melissa attended a private Christian high school, where she assumed leadership roles as class chaplain and student body president.

“When I got to college, though, I studied history and there were just some things that made me question [certain aspects of] Christianity and I became an atheist. I just felt like maybe everything was sort of made up and we’re here on this big blue ball and nothing really matters.”

“I started to study the Qur’an because I was interested in what other people believed. You grow up in a world, or at least I did, where you’re in your little ethnic enclave and you don’t really know anything outside of that.”

“When reading the Qur’an, I just didn’t think it could’ve been written by a person. And it made me believe that, ‘Wow, there’s a higher power, and I believe that this higher power chose to explain itself to us through several different prophets.’ I believed that and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a Muslim.’”

I asked Melissa how her parents felt about her conversion.

“It was difficult for them,” she said. “I think a lot of their understanding of Islam was nine eleven. That’s it. But over the past three and a half years, my parents have been extremely resilient. I have a very close relationship with them. I talk with them almost every day.”

Again, I needed clarification. Over four years into the United States military occupation of Iraq, I’m still struggling to grasp the superficial differences between the Sunni and Shia denominations of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar’s new book, What Do Muslims Believe?, explains that the schism occurred in 632 AD as the result of a succession conflict after the death of the prophet, Muhammad. Shia Muslims (or Shiites) believe in hereditary spiritual leadership, adhering to a lineage drawn from Prophet Muhammad’s extended family, and acknowledge the supreme authority of individual leaders, whereas Sunni communities are more autonomous in recognizing their own religious leadership.

A crude map illustrates the simple point that the majority of Muslims (eighty-five percent) are Sunni. Iran is unique for being overwhelmingly Shia (ninety percent) and having a theocratically Shia constitution. Iraq also has a Shia majority of about sixty-five percent, which suffered under the persecution of Saddam Hussein. The current government in Iraq is Shia-dominated and when the U.S. government and media talk about “insurgents,” they are referring to Sunni-Arabs, though the military focus appears to have shifted to Shia militias, such as the Mahdi Army under Muqtada al-Sadr, and their connections to Iran.

See Mother Jones for “Iraq 101.”

“I don’t identify with one [denomination],” Melissa said. “I do recognize that there are people who classify themselves as a Sunni or Shia or Sufi or something like this. The differences that they have are usually based on legal interpretation or who should be a leader, but the basics of the religion are all sort of the same.”

“I wouldn’t identify myself as any particular thing, and a lot of Muslims feel that way. You ask them, ‘Are you Shia or Sunni?’ They say, ‘I’m Muslim,’ but in other places it’s different.”

Sitting across from Melissa at a small Starbucks table, I realized that I had never spoken at any length with a Muslim woman. Feeling more comfortable after our introduction, I asked Melissa about her headscarf and she taught me the correct pronunciation of the term hijab. Basically, it’s he-jab, except that the j sounds like the s in confusion.

Melissa has, as she says, “covered” since converting to Islam three and a half years ago.

“The majority of Muslim women do not wear the head cover,” she said. “The idea in general is modesty for both men and women. So you have some women who don’t cover but dress modestly, and then some women who cover like I do. It’s a personal choice for every woman.”

Randa Kuziez, who had been a guest on St. Louis on the Air and is the treasurer of the national Muslim Student’s Association, started wearing the hijab outside of her mosque on her first day of high school. She said many people would approach her with questions, particularly when she joined the track team.

At one meet, a coach from a different high school approached her and said, “Hey, it looks like you’re wearing a big Band-Aid on your head. Did you just get out of the hospital?”

“It is frustrating sometimes,” Randa said. “Some friends I know that used to cover their hair took off their scarf because they felt like they were not being looked at as regular people. They felt they were just being looked at for the scarf, as Muslims.”

“With the increasing sentiments against Islam, it was difficult for them to know that everyone was staring at them, using their actions as an example for Islam, and this pressure unfortunately led some women to take off their hijab.”

“I often remind myself that this is our role in life—to please God, to practice our religion freely and it is nice to prove that just because I wear hijab doesn’t mean I don't have a personality. If someone thinks that, so what?”

Melissa, who describes the hijab as a “conversation starter,” is also familiar with the questions and occasional stares. Broadening non-Muslims’ understanding of Islam is part of her job. With thirty-three offices in the U.S. and one in Canada, CAIR promotes a balanced image of Muslims and their religion through inter-faith programs and supports victims of civil rights abuse, more often employing intervention and education strategies than legal action.

“[Our mission], first, is to educate Muslims about their rights—that they are here, that they have just as much right as anyone else to fair and equal treatment, to not feeling afraid, being able to do what they want, say what they want to say, just like anyone else has the right.”

“On the other side of that, we work with the St. Louis community at large to demonstrate that Muslims are part and parcel of this state, of this city, of this country, and are hardworking Americans that love America just like everyone else.”

According to Sardar’s book, there are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, approximately seven million of who live in this country.

“It’s funny,” Melissa said. “When people hear the statistics of Muslims in the U.S., they are usually really surprised.”

Melissa told me about an incident that occurred in Florida when she was working for the Miami chapter of CAIR, in which a Muslim family’s home was vandalized and set on fire. When the family surveyed the damage, they were perplexed to find anti-Arab epithets spray-painted on their walls, despite the fact that they were Bosnian.

“The majority of Muslims living in the United States are not Arab,” Melissa said. “The majority of Arabs in the United States are not Muslim. More than sixty percent are Christian.”

The Muslim population of St. Louis is composed of Bosnians, African-Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Arabs, recent refugees from Somalia and people of various ethnic backgrounds who have converted to Islam.

Until I met Dr. Mark Chmiel, professor of Social Justice at St. Louis University, I was using the phrase, “the Muslim community,” to describe this population.

“Communities,” he said. “It’s really the Muslim communities.”

Melissa invited me to attend the Friday service with her the following day at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque on Weidman Road, across from Queeny Park. Located in St. Louis County, this is the area’s largest mosque, serving a predominately Indian sub-continental population of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi-Americans. Depending on the time of year, the services begin at around one or one-thirty in the afternoon and constitute the week’s most formal gathering for worship.

I arrived at one-fifteen and took my time crossing the parking lot. Daar-Ul Islam is an off-white building with a bronze dome and a tall minaret, traditionally providing a high platform for the call to prayer. I sat on a small bench next to a fountain near the entrance. Many people, people that I had never imagined lived in St. Louis, walked past me looking more diverse in their dress and appearance than the members of my parents’ church. Some men had beards, others were clean-shaven. Many women wore head covers, others did not. I saw robes and business suits, kids in school uniforms and one teenager in a t-shirt.

“Would you like to come inside?” a man asked me.

“Oh, I’m waiting for a friend,” I said. “Thanks.”

Melissa arrived and introduced me to Aftab Ahmad, who teaches tenth-grade Sunday school at the Islamic center within the mosque and conducts trainings for local law enforcement on Islam and Muslim communities. Aftab would be directing me into the sanctuary, as women congregate on an upstairs balcony, separate from the men.

“Not because they are less than us,” Aftab later explained. “Of course not. In the eyes of religion, in the eyes of God, men and women are equal. But, even in the house of God, there is an uninvited guest, which is Satan. If there was a woman praying in front of me, then she would be uncomfortable. If there was a woman praying behind me, then I would be uncomfortable. So it’s best to keep us separate when we are here to worship.”

Aftab estimated that a thousand people were in attendance that day, which I could believe, standing before the expanse of footwear in the lobby. Having removed our shoes, Aftab and I entered the carpeted sanctuary. There were a few supporting columns throughout the room and the walls were bare, except for the Arabic script ringing the inside of the dome.

Hafiz Majid conducted the service from a simple podium. Hafiz is a title given to someone who has memorized the Qur’an. Every mosque community designates its own religious leader, or Imam, considered the most learned in regard to the laws and teachings of Islam, but anyone with sufficient knowledge and experience can deliver the sermon, which shifts fluidly between Arabic and English.

The congregation sat on the floor, except for a few elderly men who were provided chairs. At the back of the room, I was surrounded by a group of boys, probably between ages five and eleven, who restlessly poked and nudged each other in silence throughout the service.

After the sermon, the congregation stood in line formation, facing the pulpit, which is oriented to the Ka’bah, the holy site in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. Verses of the Qur’an were recited and the congregation knelt.

“The Qur’an is the absolute word of God,” Aftab would tell me, “from His lips to mankind. From His lips to Gabriel to Prophet Mohammad and then to mankind. So much so that not even a period, a verse, a chapter has changed from the day it was delivered to the end of time, because God says in the Qur’an, ‘I myself will protect this book.’”

“How he chose to protect it is not in the physical books, but in the hearts and minds of millions of people, generation after generation, that memorized this book from cover to cover, 114 chapters, over 6,000 verses.”

As Aftab later explained, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to pray, but it is in the Hadith, the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, a document of his words and deeds, that practices such as the five daily prayers are explicated.

Although I was in the last line, near the exit, I felt like an eyesore as everyone prostrated their heads to the floor and I was left standing. The experience was similar to Christmas services in my grandparents’ Catholic church, as the congregation made the Sign of the Cross and the desire to seek inclusion through mimicry tingled in my hand.

Another finding in The Pew Research Center’s poll was that seventy percent of non-Muslim Americans believe that their own religions are “very different” from Islam.

“From the Muslim perspective,” Aftab said as we sat together, away from the post-service mingling and the putting on of shoes, “we will say that Islam really comes from the time of Adam because the word ‘Islam’ means, ‘submission of your will to that of God’s through peace.’”

“So, from that perspective, all of the prophets submitted to the will of God through peace and are therefore, by definition, Muslim. Except that, of course, the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, being the last of the messengers of God in a line of 124,000 prophets, Adam being the first and then you know the names—Moses, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, David, Jesus, and so on.”

“Jesus is a prophet of God, not a son of God. We believe that he was born to Mary without any human intervention and that he did all of the miracles that the Qur’an says and similar things are mentioned in the Bible as well, but we don’t believe he was crucified and we don’t believe that he died on the cross. We believe that at the time when they came in search of him, God lifted him to himself. So he is alive in heaven and he will return towards the end of time and he will fulfill his mission then and he will die a natural death.”

“From the Muslim perspective, if we don’t believe in Jesus, then we’re not Muslim.”

Walking across the emptied parking lot to my car, I wanted to identify the elements that felt familiar in my experience at the mosque—a message of tolerance in the sermon or the atmosphere of excitement and, possibly, relief following the service as people greeted their relatives and friends, though I didn’t see donuts.

For Dr. Khaled Hamid, who had also been interviewed on St. Louis on the Air, the perception of difference expressed in the Pew Poll and the American public’s misconceptions of Islam are the result of willful deception.

“Do you think there are any terms or vocabulary that are essentially misunderstood?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah. A lot,” he said and laughed. “There is tremendous ignorance here, and you add to the ignorance all of the very heated and emotional issues of wars and terrorism, and all the weird exotic things that non-Muslims in the United States think they know about us that we actually don’t know about ourselves.”

“It’s very difficult to have a comprehensive discussion about this. It would take forever.”

Khaled did address the vocabulary that many Americans associate with Islam.

“The phrase ‘holy war’ has no root in Islamic culture,” he said. “The word ‘infidels’ has no root in Islamic culture. These two terms actually evolved and appeared for the first time as Christian terminology during the time of the Crusades and even later amongst fighting factions within Christianity itself.”

“The Qur’an uses a term for Christians and Jews collectively and it’s not ‘the infidels’ or anything that would translate close to that. It’s ‘the people of the book,’ referring to people who believe in divine revelation that came before the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him.”

Beyond language, I know from watching CNN and Fox News that images of violence have been linked with images of Muslims engaged in prayer, through visual montage.

“All the evils that we either know for a fact or are sometimes led to believe is done by Muslims, is it done because of the way they fulfill the religion or is it done because of something else?” Khaled asked.

“It’s not the religion issue. Whether it’s, ‘We want the Americans out of Iraq because they are occupiers,’ or, ‘We don’t like Israelis because we’ve been living in refugee camps forever,’ it is something else that’s motivating them.”

“I’m not condoning these things,” he said. “Civilians are definitely protected in the Qur’an and should not be a part of any war. Actually, even fighters at war, once they drop their weapon, you are obliged as a Muslim to protect them. Somebody can do very evil things against you and yet you cannot reply in kind. That is part of the commitment of any truly religious person.”

“That’s the part that is very mysterious for most people in the Western world.”

Less than a week after the June 30th bombing at Glasgow International Airport, reportedly perpetrated by medical professionals, Khaled participated in a panel discussion featuring local physicians in order to address the concerns of non-Muslim communities. Journalists from The New York Times, Public Radio International, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other local media outlets covered the event.

“One of the people there, a reporter, kept saying, ‘Muslims are not speaking up. Why aren’t you talking? Where are the moderates?’ and this is something echoed everywhere,” Khaled said.

The Muslim visibility campaign continued with a demonstration at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque a few weeks later, clarifying the stance of the Muslim community and its religious leadership on issues of terrorism. Though the press had been notified, the only journalist in attendance was Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who Khaled described as a friend.

“This is a fight that we unfortunately cannot win as a Muslim community or, for that purpose, any community that ends up in our situation,” Khaled said. “If there isn’t a hot issue, nobody wants to listen.”

Having met with four people who attend the same West County mosque, I wanted to speak with individuals from other Muslim communities.

Imam Muhamed Hasic moved to St. Louis from Canada in 1997, at the invitation of the Islamic Foundation, to help create a cultural and linguistic bridge between the established Muslim community and the newly arrived Bosnian refugees. Hasic had originally traveled to Canada for a three-month vacation, but had been unable to return to his country due to the outbreak of the Bosnian War. In 2001 he and a group of volunteers opened the Medina Masjid (or mosque) on the south side of St. Louis City.

“We didn’t get any grants,” Hasic said. “It was basically the local community—those people who work very hard, like jobs with seven or eight bucks an hour, and some of them were giving ten bucks, others two hundred. So we collected, at that time, around two hundred thousand for this place.”

When I arrived on a weekday afternoon, Imam Hasic welcomed me into an empty mosque. His desk and the shelves behind him were overwhelmed with books and paperwork.

“We don’t have many employees,” he said. “We don’t have many volunteers. We’re just struggling to keep the basic things.”

“How many employees do you have?” I asked.

“It’s only me,” he said. “I do the religious services. I do the administration. I do the social services.”

Citing education and employment opportunities as the main issues of concern for the community that he serves, Hasic explained that he hopes to provide more than just a setting for religious observance.

“They get the comfort,” he said, “the feeling like at home, but at the same time, they learn the [English] language and how the society around them works. They don’t lose their identity. You can learn and understand as a Bosnian or a Bosnian Muslim, but you can also be a decent and good American. Nothing is contradictory between these two. If you are a good Muslim, you are definitely a good American.”

Just before the entrance to the unmarked, single-story building, three men were in the process of constructing a massive minaret. The structure will become a prominent landmark along South Kingshighway Boulevard.

“It’s very exciting,” Hasic said. “It’s kind of symbolizing the freedom of religious expression in America, which is very important for the refugees. At the same time, giving people the pride for what they are. They’re building this identity and they feel they are part of the society.”

For the last stop on this many-week journey, I drove north on Kingshighway, past Forest Park and the Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, past the affluent neighborhoods of the Central West End, to an area in North St. Louis that I had never visited before. I noticed that the pedestrians and the drivers around me were mostly African-American. I parked in front of Better Bakery and met Imam Samuel Ansari just inside the door.

Imam Ansari serves a predominately African-American Muslim community that congregates at the Masjid Al-Mu-Minun Islamic Center on Grand Avenue. This community was originally established in the mid-1950’s as part of the Nation of Islam, but has functioned autonomously since the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, when his son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, shifted the organization into alignment with mainstream Islam.

“Certainly we recognize the good that Elijah Muhammad did as a social reformer, trying to look at the conditions that African-Americans were subjected to,” Ansari said. “He used more of a reverse psychology to address that situation. I feel that it was very effective. It was not something that was designed to be continued on, in terms of the rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, in terms of the white man being the devil and that kind of thing.”

“The majority of the community there, on Grand, stayed and accepted the leadership of the son. The criteria is the Qur’an and the thing to be emulated is the example of Prophet Muhammad.”

As it was past five o’clock, the Better Bakery had already closed and I sat with Imam Ansari in the dining area as the sun set, dimming the room. He was still wearing his apron and explained that the bakery has been in business and associated with the Muslim community for over thirty years.

We talked about the divisions within the larger St. Louis Muslim community.

“You’ll find that there’s an agreement in language and principles,” he said, “but I think each community has their own unique situation and concerns.”

“The main thing that brings the community together across ethnic lines and language barriers would be the two Eids. Eid ul-Fitr, which is the celebration of the ending of Ramadan and Eid ul-Adha, which is connected with the Hajj [the annual pilgrimage to Mecca].”

“Other than that, the communities pretty much work on whatever their goals and objectives are. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. That’s the way life is.”

“As a country, we still haven’t been able to break down barriers that allow people to respectfully and genuinely mix. You find areas that have a diversity of people, but I don’t think there’s a real mixing of people, where they really feel that they’re interacting as people.”

In light of the ideological divisions that distinguish the major religions, Ansari sympathizes with individuals who may be more concerned with their financial stability than religious maxims. He believes that recognizing common principles and experiences is essential for any kind of social progress.

“My understanding is that all of the religious scriptures say that God rewards any good that people do. Any good. I mean, if you don’t even believe in God and you do good, you treat people respectfully and you try to help them to the best of your ability, God is going to reward that.”

“To me, Islam says that there is one humanity, and if what I believe does not recognize your freedom to believe what you choose, then I need to question my belief. God gives us this freedom.”

“I think we just have to come to grips with the reality that whatever we want to believe in or practice should enhance the decency and the integrity of every human being.”

Before leaving Better Bakery, I purchased two pies—sweet potato and bean. The bean pie consists of a sweet custard made from navy beans, sugar, butter and milk, and is associated with the Nation of Islam as Elijah Muhammad encouraged its consumption in lieu of richer foods. I drove home with the pair sitting heavy in my passenger seat and sampled both in my kitchen, struggling to remember what life had been like before tasting bean pie and meeting all of these people.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

These Middling Masses – Nato Caliph

This is / Nato Caliph and I still love hip-hop

Shedrick Kelley created Nato Caliph for seven dollars. He registered the fictitious name at the office of the Missouri Secretary of State, enabling Nato to apply for credit cards, open a bank account, sign a contract with a record label and release his first album,
Cipher Inside.

“Nato Caliph is just me. I didn’t want to come out with my real name and then have a record company own the rights to it. There’s no difference. The way I think is the way Nato thinks."
I met Nato at his apartment where he lives with his wife, Dana, their two year-old daughter, Ayana, and their five month-old son, Hasani. The name Ayana is Ethiopian for “beautiful flower.” Hasani, also East African, means “handsome.”

They live on the east side of University City, on a one-way street that doesn’t see much traffic. Removing my shoes just inside their door, I could smell incense and hear Hasani responding to Dana in the kitchen. Ayana peaked around a corner with a hand puppet.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“My fingers,” she said.

Nato and I had been introduced at the KDHX studio a few weeks before, when he was interviewed on The Remedy. We had spoken briefly, but I had been struck by the sincerity with which he addressed me and the calm that he carried into an environment frenetic with discussion.

We sat down in his living room in front of a television turned to Nickelodeon with the volume low.

“Yana,” Nato said, “could you get Daddy the cocoa butter out of the bathroom on the sink?”

“On the sink?” she asked.

“Yes, the cocoa butter on the sink in the bathroom,” he said and she ran out of the room.

“I try to give her things to do that challenge her to think,” he said. “I know she’s only two.”
This is the story of a lesser man turned equal

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said. “St. Louis, Missouri.”

Nato’s mother was seventeen and attending University City High School when she had him. I asked about his father.

“I know he exists,” Nato said, “but do we have a relationship? No. The last time I saw him I was eleven.”

“That was his choice to get out of the picture. I know he lives in St. Louis or at least he used to. It’s like one of those things.”

For the first few months of his life, Nato and his mother lived with his grandparents before his mother found an apartment and married a man with whom she would have two more children, though they soon divorced.

“I won’t lie,” Nato said. “It was some hardships. We had times where it was just enough for one meal. Like I remember coming home from school, and for some kind of afternoon snack, we would open up a jar of peanut butter and sit together eating peanut butter off the butter knife.”

“My mom was a single parent and here she is, by the age of twenty-one, with three children, doing what she could. Of course there were occasions when the lights would get turned off here and there. They wouldn’t stay off, but that kind of stuff.”

“I’m not trying to give you the impression that I grew up in the hood or the ghetto, but at the same time, it wasn’t easy living.”

Nato encountered hip-hop at a young age.

“My mom wasn’t one of those people that liked to shelter us from everything,” he said. “I mean, we went to rated R movies. She just told us right from wrong. This is something you do. This is something you don’t do. And we learned. Period.”

“She didn’t turn off the radio when hip-hop came on. She would listen to it and we listened to it. We knew what to say and what not to say.”

Nato first heard Rakim, an influential MC from New York, in 1987, and believes that the artist’s style and the sound of his voice over the beat affected him profoundly.

“When [Ronald] Reagan spoke on TV,” Nato said, “I would listen to it. I was always into politics, the economy, money, stuff like that. My mom has a picture of me reading the business section of the [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] when I was four.”

“I remember looking at Reagan and he was just talking and I was like, ‘This is whack.’ But when I heard Rakim, it was cool. It was something I wanted to hear, something that kept me in tune.”

“I was seven years old and I was like, ‘That’s something I want to do in my life. I want to be an orator of sorts. Something with words that has people come together and listen and have time a good time and learn some things.'”

Much like hearing LL Cool J’s single, “I’m Bad,” listening to Rakim was more than an aural experience for Nato. He believes it awakened something encoded in his physical make up.

“A lot of people want to debate this and argue that it’s not true,” Nato said, “but being a black person, we inherit what they call the Boom Bap, which is the African drum, the rhythm, the beat that’s in you.”

“When you hear a nice beat, you can’t help but move. You get addicted, but then of course you start to listen to the words and start to realize that they’re saying something. Not only does it sound good, but it means something.”

This is for aunts, mothers and sisters that’s out there hoing / and uncles, fathers and brothers that’s love not knowing

Nato was recorded freestyling at a family reunion when he was nine. He started writing poetry in school and would read his work over his mother’s old Anita Baker and Gladys Knight tapes. When record companies started releasing instrumental tracks along with popular singles, Nato began noticing the beat measures and composing his rhymes to fit. By age fifteen, he was writing complete songs, but another passion had monopolized his time and efforts.

“Football for me then is what hip-hop is to me now,” he said “It was all about football. I played seven years straight of football. That’s all I thought about. It was everything.”

By his senior year, Nato was the captain of University City High School’s varsity squad. Describing this experience in the armchair across from me reminded Nato that he needed to switch channels from Nickelodeon to the Sunday NFL game. Nato’s talents on the field earned him scholarship offers from several universities, but the $19,000 a year that he finally accepted from Bradley University in Illinois was strictly academic.

“Somebody told me, ‘You have a better chance of being a brain surgeon than being in the NFL.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I need to go ahead and focus on academics and music and that’s that.’ That’s what I did. I made those choices.”

Nato’s roommate during his freshman year at Bradley was a young man named Stewart, who produced fake IDs for thousands of minors with his computer. At two o’clock one morning, when Nato was studying for finals, the FBI broke down their door and confiscated Stewart’s computer. The files they found included a headshot of Nato that Stewart had cut from an old identification card. Nato, who has abstained from drinking alcohol since he was seventeen, was questioned by the authorities and subsequently stripped of his scholarship for refusing to detail Stewart’s activities.

Stewart’s family hired a lawyer who won him a reduced sentence, enabling Stewart to complete his education at Bradley, while Nato was forced to return home, later enrolling at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where he was unable to pursue his intended major in civil engineering.

“I was already a loner anyway,” Nato said. “I didn’t have too many friends just because you can’t trust a lot of people, but that really put me in a tight circle.”

I keep building / and hate love that loves hate

During his second year at UMSL, Nato met Dana Williams.

“I told her then that we were going to be together,” he said. “She didn’t believe me of course.”

He also created the name by which I and most people outside of his family address him.

“When I was little,” he said, “I’d always hear about a NATO air strike here, a NATO air strike there. I thought, ‘Man, NATO is always blowing stuff up.’ I found out that it was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, so this was a group of people coming together to blow things up. That was at a time in hip-hop when it was popular to say, ‘I drop bombs on the mic.’”

He discovered Caliph through a Western Philosophy class at UMSL where he learned that the word is Arabic for “successor,” referring to the figure intended to succeed the Iman, or high priest.

“A successful bombing mission is kind of how I put those two together,” Nato said. “That’s why I rap about knowledge and revolution and the greater good.”

Nato now works for Express Scripts, one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit managers, as a national scheduling business analyst in resource management. He helps create schedules for thousands people working at call centers located throughout the country. This requires an understanding of what Nato describes as, “call center math,” dealing with intervals down to the half hour. This type of logistical analysis seems to appeal to Nato, who applies a similar process to his writing.

“I love information,” he said. “I’m an information geek.”

“I take my rhymes from things I see. I watch a lot of news. I watch a lot of financial reports. I look at CSPAN. I look at the quote unquote boring stuff. I consider myself a translator for the people that do not understand or watch that. Basically, I try to decipher.”

Nato told me about the discovery, announced that morning, that Indian manufacturers had been employing a system of child slavery to produce clothing for The Gap.

“Something similar to that will pop up in a rhyme later,” he said. “Not necessarily that particular instance, but just about, once again, the clothes we wear on our backs. And it’s funny, I had already put on this little Gap jacket and I read that and I was like, ‘Man, that’s messed up.’ It’s always way worse than what they’re telling you.”

For several years, Nato was a member of Soul Tyde, a collective of emcees and singers once dubbed the “the Wu-Tang of the Midwest.” In 2004, Nato, another MC named Lyfestile and DJ Fly D-Ex formed Plan B, in collaboration with DJ Crucial, who would later produce the majority of Cipher Inside. Nato has created his own record label, Cipher Music Group, but is now affiliated with F5 Records.

“F5 is a real wholesome label in the sense that there’s no paperwork. It’s an agreement. It’s artists working with artists. They’ve been in St. Louis on the hip-hop scene and they’ve been doing it right—really working and doing the vinyl, and doing shows.”

Since the October 9th release of Cipher Inside, Nato has reinvested all of his personal sale earnings into promotion.

A bunch of words to a beat mean nothin’ if they’re only helping you / What about the homeless community, shelter and food?

I could see the connections between the perspective that Nato was expressing and the lyrics that I had heard on his album, but another element remained unaccounted for.

“Are you religious?” I asked.

“No, not religious,” he said. “Religion comes from a Greek word, ‘religio,’ which means to split, conquer and divide. There’s been more bloodshed in the name of God than any other thing on the planet. It’s caused the most destruction, the most heartache, the most pain.”

Nato has received and practices the teachings of the Five Percent through the Nation of Gods and Earths, founded in Harlem in 1964 by Father Allah, a former member of the Nation of Islam.

“Some people who don’t understand it try to see it as a black supremacy group or whatever you want to say, but one of the founding principles is peace.”

The Nation’s membership has included such hip-hop heavyweights as Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr and Digable Planets. Men within the organization are referred to as “gods,” women as “earths.”

“We’re not atheists in the sense that we don’t think that God does not exist,” Nato said. “We believe in God. We know that God is in us. I see God in more than one person. When I see a man that knows who he is and he uses that to his advantage to help his people, to me, that’s an attribute of God.”

The Nation has schools in ten cities, running programs focused on youth education.

“It’s not just teaching them that the black man is the original man,” Nato said. “We teach them how to look past the initial message that people put out there.”

“The best way to lie to somebody is not to just tell them a lie. It’s to give them the truth and then tell them it’s not real. We question everything.”

The Nation of Gods and Earths claims math and science as a foundation for its teachings and its members communicate through a series of signifying letters and numbers.

“If you understood what we call ‘God knowledge,’” Nato said, “you could go back and listen to my album. It’s a whole other album inside of what people hear.”

I write for my threes / and I love my twos / and I’ll die for my four, God, how ‘bout you?

“I write for my children,” Nato explained, “and I love my women. Four is freedom. I said, ‘I’ll die for my freedom, God, how ‘bout you?’ I’m talking to other black men that consider themselves knowledgeable of who they are.”

How could you…

I attempted to stage a family portrait in the backyard, with Nato and Dana balancing their bundled children on their laps, having just wiped lunch from Hasani’s face and a smear of makeup from Ayana’s. I asked Nato how much babysitting help they receive from relatives, to which he replied, “I like to be around my children. When I’m not at work or doing music, I like to be around.”

He also likes playing video games with DJ Crucial, himself a father of twins, listening to Coldplay, responding to emails through his cell phone and moving crowds.

I’m the guy atop the Himalayas with the morning yell / and I’m the supervisor / at opening bell / and I’m the best thing that happened to anything good / and I say and feel / what the whole world should

Cipher Inside can be purchased on iTunes, emusic, locally at Vintage Vinyl or directly off the F5 website.