On a drizzly evening on April 17th, after a rather quiet drive as my maps app took me on the most roundabout course possible to get to our destination, Antonio and I pulled into the driveway of a small house in Alvaton, Kentucky, a community about 30 minutes away from WKU’s campus. We were greeted by Allen, who met us at my car with a German Shepherd on his heels. After exchanging pleasantries, he led us inside where we were greeted by his wife Alisa, two more dogs, and two cats. Their home was quiet cozy, and I had no trouble getting comfortable on their couch and playing with their dogs as we waited for dinner to finish cooking. When we had arrived, Alisa had just put the rolls in the oven, which allowed the four of us time to get to know each other a little before we all sat down at the table.
And, wow, Allen and Alisa have done it all! Through their military backgrounds, they have traveled all over the world and have met so many different people. They have even visited the same college towns in Spain and England where I told them I will be studying abroad next semester. As a result, they always have a story to tell that relates to the topic at hand. We quickly began delving into political topics, something that seems to happen often when I am able to direct the conversation (as a student majoring in International Affairs, Spanish, and Arabic with a minor in Political Science, I have a quite a lot of opinions, as one might imagine). I soon learned that Antonio and I shared very similar opinions with Allen and Alisa, something that I was shocked to discover considering our very different generations. They are, to put it informally, pretty woke.
Both Allen and Alisa showed genuine interest in us and in our passions. After explaining my studies, Antonio told us that he was also majoring in Spanish as well as psychology. Allen was curious about what we both planned to do with our degrees once we graduated and, after hearing that I wanted to work for the UN but have never visited it, even went so far as to invite me to go to the UN with him for the annual conference he attends as part of his job (wow!!!). Allen and Alisa went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and at home, which is a character trait that I soon learned they exhibit in all facets of their live.
As our conversation progressed, we soon brought up questions that may have seemed controversial, but only further showed the openness and acceptance that Allen and Alisa both demonstrate. After a somewhat lengthy conversation about how many people seem to make judgments about Muslims or the Islamic faith in general, Antonio posed a question about Allen and Alisa’s own faith: does your religious identity relate to how you think we should treat other people? To set the stage, both Allen and Alisa are practicing Christians and attend church on a regular basis, and Antonio and I both went to private religious schools in Louisville. Allen and Alisa answered with a simple and straightforward, “yes, in every way.” When asked about how they believe Christianity and the LGBT+ community are meant to interact, they were very passionate about their belief that members of the LGBT+ community are, of course, welcome in their church. Alisa immediately quoted the passage, “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and explained that the desire of their church is to be a safe and welcoming space for all people, regardless of race, class, or sexual identity.
Similarly, when asked what social issues were closest to their hearts and why, Allen mentioned that he was very concerned about women’s reproductive rights. He told a story of how he was once being interviewed for a position and was asked his opinion on abortion, to which he replied something along the lines of, “Well, I think it’s terrible. I’ve never had one, and I’m never going to have one. I’m thankful I don’t have to make that decision because it is a weighty one that is not to be taken lightly, but it’s not my decision to make for whichever woman is contemplating it.” He didn’t get the job, but I appreciated his ability to be vocal about his belief without attempting to force it onto others. Another social issue Allen and Alisa mentioned was “fake news,” which he said is helping to create a misinformed electorate.
This fake news also ties into their response of what it means to be a citizen (besides voting, paying taxes, and obeying laws). They both believed that it is our duty to be informed, about current politics and events as well as about our history as a nation and as a world. Allen believed that, although my generation has a million and one tools at its disposal to gather information, these tools tend to not be used. This, he said, will be detrimental to our society, as political demagogues will take advantage of an uninformed public to advance their own agenda. Both Allen and Alisa mentioned how many people are unable to answer basic questions about U.S. history, citing a TV bit where an interviewer asked basic questions taken from a U.S. citizenship test to many students from the University of Texas (even the really smart ones, like the STEM majors) and most were unable to give correct answers to questions like “Who fought in the Civil War?” or even “Who won the Civil War?” Alisa said that another part of being a citizen is active community involvement at all levels of government, meaning that citizens need to call their representatives, go to town hall meetings, and show a genuine interest in and knowledge of governmental procedures within their communities that affect them and their neighbors.
One very encouraging thing that Allen said to me was that, despite what I may believe (I am notoriously a cynic), the younger generation that is beginning to rise up really is fantastic and really will make a difference, I’m just too close to it to see that. He said that his generation is a lost cause at this point, there’s no way to change their minds about things, but that once my generation comes to power, the world will be different. As someone who is deeply involved in political and social activism but also disheartened by the lack of progress I see, this came as a great relief to me.
Almost everything we talked about over dinner—which was delicious venison Salisbury steak with green beans, mashed potatoes, and the modern day manna that is Sister Schubert’s yeast rolls—related back to our class in some way; from the actual act of conversing with someone with no intention to be right, but rather to just put our opinions out there, to actually discussing how we can live well (or at least somewhat better) together. Dinner with Allen and Alisa showed that although we sometimes vary in opinion—for example, Allen said he was pro-gun—we are still able to find common ground on which to forge relationships. During one part of the conversation, when we were talking about how Islam is often misconstrued, I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (although this book is about race, not religion) in that, like people of color, Muslims must often face judgment, concerns, or different treatment from others that would not be passed onto Christians, or in Rankine’s case, white people. For example, Christians almost always take into account the context of a passage that they quote, and even regard that context as an integral part of understanding that specific scripture; however, many Christian critics of Islam (that I have observed, at least) fail to take into account the context of specific entries from the Qur’an. Partly because it is difficult to understand the context unless you are a scholar, because verses are ordered from longest to shortest, not chronologically or in a story format, and partly, I think, because eliminating the context makes it seem “bad” and gives them a better evidence to prove their point that Islam is wrong.
After we wrapped up conversation over desert, Allen stood at the end of his driveway with a flashlight and helped me back out, while extending an invitation for us to have dinner again sometime. All in all, I had a great time at dinner with Antonio, Allen, and Alisa. The openness of our conversation allowed us to get to know each other, and I noticed that on the drive back to campus, Antonio and I were much more talkative with each other, as well (it helps that my iTunes began playing an artist that we both enjoyed, nos encanta la banda mexicana “Jesse & Joy”). It is amazing that in just two and a half hours, you can become comfortable enough with strangers to feel at ease sharing your opinions about rather controversial and deep topics. I wish the best for Allen and Alisa in the future, and may even take them up on their offer to stop by again!