I discovered the yellow, fading newspaper clipping at the bottom of a box of my father’s papers after he passed away. “Local Kissimmee girl wins Beauty Pageant.” The clipping was from the Orlando Evening Star from March 1947, and it stated that Miss Emma Mae Scoggins of Kissimmee, Florida won a local beauty pageant and was awarded a $50 scholarship to some school in the area. There was a picture of Miss Scoggins, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and pretty in that unselfconscious way that all women in the 1940s were pretty but probably wouldn’t be considered so today. There is nobody left in my family who knows anything about the relationship of my father with Miss Scoggins. My mother knows nothing about her. Neither does my father’s younger brother. Maybe Miss Scoggins, in her eighties by now, might know, but I wonder if she would remember him. He was mustered out of the Navy in Jacksonville after World War II, that much I do know. I also know that he enrolled in college as a freshman in the fall of 1946, so whatever relationship my father had with Miss Scoggins, it must have been very ephemeral. Perhaps sending the newspaper clipping was an attempt by Miss Scoggins to keep it from being so.
Anyway, the ebb and flow of circumstance deposited my family in Miss Scoggin’s hometown of Kissimmee, Florida at the cusp of the new millennium. More people visit the outskirts of Kissimmee than visit the actual city itself. In 1974, the Walt Disney Corporation transformed several hundred square miles of Florida swampland into the primordial American dreamtown and Kissimmee changed overnight from a town of citrus farmers and cattle ranchers to a bedroom community for The Show That Never Ends. Kissimmee became a municipal appendage to a sovereign self-governing state-within-a-state owned by a large media conglomerate with dictatorial powers over the chunk of real estate over which it holds sway. The part of Kissimmee we moved to, however, was twenty minutes from the Mouse That Roared, and probably didn’t look much different than it did when Emma Mae Scoggins was enchanting the hearts of the local swains and perhaps, my father.
I doubt there was a mosque in the neighborhood when Emma Mae lived and flourished amidst the flat-roofed, stucco-bedaubed ranch homes. The mosque was a recent addition to the Kissimmee religious landscape, and those who frequented it were definitely not Television Muslims ™, who if you believe the media look and act very much like Presbyterians with a Middle Eastern accent. No, these families were Not-Us with a capital N and a capital U. The men were fiercely bearded, clothed in kaftans and skullcaps. The women wore veils over their faces. Several families lived in close proximity to the mosque they were building and it was apparent that Islam was the focal point of these families’ lives. After work, it was common to see the men laboring well into the night hammering boards into place or hanging windows or doors. Their children were indistinguishable from the many Puerto Rican kids that lived in the neighborhood, but they played apart, never mixing with them, or with our children.
My every overture to the men was rebuffed, as were my wife’s to the women. We washed our clothes at the same local Laundromat and the Muslim women would troop in with their children, speaking whichever language it was they spoke, and looking disdainfully at my wife and myself as we washed and folded our clothes together. After a while, it became apparent we were never going to be allowed any purchase into their circle, and the imaginary dialogues I held in my head about the relative merits of the Prophet and the Savior, jewels of interfaith respect and evangelistic zeal, never realized. Even my wife, who is an indefatigable evangelist, could find no entry into the world of these clothed and furtive women. We left off trying to open any channels of communication with our interesting neighbors and consoled ourselves with praying for them. We moved from the area almost immediately. Then, at a safe distance, we heard that two of the World Trade Center bombers had attended flight school in Central Florida and had attended a mosque based on the teachings of the Egyptian Muslim theologian Sayyid Qutb.
May God have mercy on me, but upon hearing this, my wife and I immediately thought of our reclusive neighbors. It is very unfair of me, I know, but all other Muslims I ever met have been more like the Television Muslims™ mentioned earlier; sociable, open, eager to take their place in American society and avail themselves of the freedom our country still affords. They have been excited to share with me what their faith means to them, and have listened politely to me as I did the same. It is just that free association is so much easier than critical thought. Unfriendly, scary Muslims = terrorists like unfriendly scary black people = criminals. I have to confess that I have to consciously keep myself from going there, and remind myself that I don’t have enough information to pass judgment.
On the other side of the Laundromat there was a convenience store. It was owned by an Egyptian fellow. He, at any rate, was much more open to my overtures than my neighbors at the mosque. I asked if he were Muslim, and if he attended the mosque. He turned pale. No, no, no, he assured me. He was a Christian, a Copt. He had no end of trouble with the local Muslims (once again, he never specified), who were continually attempting to get his family and his two brothers’ families to convert to Islam. It appears that the Muslims took it as an affront that there should be Christian Egyptians in the same town, and subjected them to a low-level sort of agitation and persecution. The shopkeeper accused them of threats against his wife and his daughters, of encouraging the local townspeople to shoplift from his stores (the families had several in the area), and even of slashing the hoses of the Air/Water machine where he offered these free instead of charging for them as was becoming the custom. Then he said something I’ll never forget, ever.
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’ll never, ever give up my Lord or His Mother. They mean everything to me. I would as soon stop breathing as abandon them.” I was shaken to my core. At the time, I was a true Fundygelical with a lot of Reformed influence who believed that no one from traditional ethnic churches had the Holy Spirit. How could they? They had never submitted to the Illuminating Law Work, or Accepted Jesus Into Their Hearts As Their Personal Lord And Savior. Yet here was a splinter from a diamond that had resisted 1300 years of forced Islamification, an Islamification which, if his story was to be believed, was continuing even in the supposed safe-zone of a sleepy Central Florida town. He invited me to his church, and I accepted. Coptic services are l-o-n-g. Anyone who complains about the length of Byzantine Orthodox services should spend some time among the Copts. Here was a patch of Christianity I never suspected existed, even though I had already been exposed to Byzantine Orthodoxy and was attracted to it. Coptic Christianity is still an undiscovered continent to me, but it is not the fault of the Copts that this is so.
The scary-mosque Muslims are harder to discern. Any relationship I might have had with them was over before it started, and their brief appearance in the videotape of my life flickered and was gone immediately. They didn’t like me, and to be honest I cannot fault them as judges of character. I am an acquired taste. Even if my prejudices were true, and they were jihadists, nothing could be more important at this juncture than to gain an understanding of Islam from the point of view of those for whom it is a living force in their lives. I have so many questions. Alas, my efforts were thwarted at every turn, but in this I am reminded that God, in His mercy, often thwarts my efforts for a greater understanding of Him by hiding Himself. Why should people not do the same?
But the relationship of my father with Miss Scoggins strikes at the very core of my personhood. I am who I am today because a particular sperm cell fertilized a particular egg. I know that my mother came to hate my father, and I suspect that my father was only physically attracted to my mother, and that early on. My father also confessed that he had always loved a red-headed girl who, unfortunately, was a Catholic, and he was forbidden to marry her. I cannot tell Miss Scoggins’ hair color from the crumbling news clipping. It may have been red, a dark red. Staring at the photo, I had the feeling of spiraling down into an endless abyss. Who am I? Who would I have been? Behind my father was my grandfather, and his father before him. Millions of bifurcating paths opened behind me and in front of me. Thousands of binary choices, each with their own universes at the end of them.
We know so little about the lives of others. The fountains of the behaviors of others, their passions and motivations, are mostly hidden from our sight, and they are as irrecoverable and indefinable as the life represented by a newspaper clipping in my father’s effects. That fact alone, that, and our common mortality, should keep us silent and preclude us from making snap judgments. It seldom does. I know it doesn’t for me. A great saint lies hidden in the heart of a blaspheming fisherman, and a mass murderer in the heart of a paperhanger. We should walk so much more carefully than we do. Evelyn Underhill, that travel correspondent of the realms of the spirit, said it so very well in this prayer:
“For lack of attention, a thousandfold loveliness eludes us everyday. Remind me, again and again, of my own utter ignorance of the lives that surround me, and whose uneasy, restless surfaces are all I see; all I can see. How again and again You have taken the turbulent, the unharmonious, the rebellious, and out of this unpromising material You have fashioned Your Saints.”