Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer God's Checklist

The roster of "approved" churches expands -- just a little.

By Mubarak S. Dahir

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  I still remember Miss Burns' beautiful blonde hair. She wore it high on the back of her head, spun into a tight bun. I thought Miss Burns was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I was in love with her.

It was 1970, and I was in the first grade. I would have done anything to make Miss Burns happy and proud of me. But mostly, I was a disappointment to her.

Every Monday morning, after attendance and the pledge of allegiance, Miss Burns would turn to the class and ask us the same question. Over and over again, I was the only one who failed to give her the answer she was looking for.

"Who went to Sunday school yesterday?" she would inquire. "Raise your hand if you went to church." As every other child's hand reached for heaven but mine, Miss Burns would gaze at me with a mix of disappointment and pity.

Finally, I couldn't stand my own self-consciousness as the other kids raised their hands in the Monday-morning ritual to God while I sat motionless, head bowed in embarrassment, not prayer. So I stopped going to class on Mondays.

When my parents discovered I had been missing class, and why, they had a huge argument. My mother -- raised a Southern Baptist, but long an atheist -- wanted to go to the school and give my teacher a lesson on the separation of church and state.

My father took another approach. He was a Muslim raised in a Quaker school, and at the time teaching at a Catholic university. It wouldn't do me any harm to expose me to other religions, he argued, and one Sunday he took me to Mass on his campus.

I was never so eager to go to school as the Monday after Mass. During the pledge, I felt my heart pounding. Then when Miss Burns posed the faithful question, my hand shot in the air with everyone else's.

I could tell Miss Burns was delighted. "Where did you go?!" she exclaimed.

All grins, I told her about the big church on campus where I went with my Dad, and about Sunday school with cookies and lemonade. But Miss Burns was quiet when I finished my tale. Something was wrong. I wasn't going to heaven after all.

"Well, that doesn't really count," Miss Burns said slowly.

I went home in tears that day, angry at Dad for not taking me to a real church, like the Baptist one Miss Burns went to.

My father had had his chance, but now my mother took over. Although she marched from Miss Burns to the principal to the superintendent -- and had to threaten a lawsuit to be taken seriously -- my mother finally convinced the keepers of the school that Miss Burns shouldn't decide if and where her students go to church.

We moved away from Memphis after my first year in school, and I've often wondered about Miss Burns. Now I think I know where she is: on the 78th District court in Wichita County, Texas.

When a Christian mother and a Jewish father recently divorced, each parent promised as part of the divorce agreement to give their daughter religious guidance. The father took his daughter to a synagogue. The mother took the little girl to the Metropolitan Community Church.

But the father objected to having the girl attend a "gay church," and complained to the court. The court agreed.

Only "mainline" churches could be used to satisfy the divorce agreement, the church ruled. And, like Miss Burns, the judges were helpful enough to point out which ones counted: Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist. (But not MCC.)

This time, however, the Catholic church counted, and could be found on the approved list.

I wonder what Miss Burns would think.


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