A week ago, as I postulated before Allah in a Sufi service for Tabaski (a celebration of the sacrifice of Ishmael), tears rolled down my cheeks. The tears surprised me, but I soon recognized that I was crying because the practitioners’ prayer was so beautiful, and they were so united, and I wasn’t a part of it. Their faith in Allah connected them, and I felt that, despite my love for Judaism, my disbelief in a god isolated me from that community experience. Afterwards, the group conversed about their faiths, and members of my team expressed that although they did not subscribe to Islam, joining in the prayer connected them both to their own faiths and the community. My sadness deepened; everyone’s faith seemed to be such a part of that community experience that I so desperately craved. I felt that I must be missing out on some of the world’s joy, but you can’t force yourself to believe in something, right?
Later on in the day, however, I was playing with all the children as they helped sacrifices the rams. We were laughing and taking selfies, and they begged me to pick them up and spin them around again and again until I grew so dizzy, I could barely stand. I realized that not sharing the same religion or even the same god didn’t mean I couldn’t take part in the community. Even going through the seemingly empty motions of a prayer that didn’t mean anything to me at face value, we shared something. We were sharing an experience — the sun on our faces, the feeling of the plastic woven mat under our knees, and the feeling of jàmm (peace). We were connected through these moments in the universe that we share.
Faith in a god can be a beautiful thing, but it isn’t some magic ingredient for joy — you don’t need faith to do good or be connected to people. And in any case, I do have faith. I have faith in people to be and do good. The teranga (spirit of hospitality) pervasive through Senegal gives me hospitality. On our last night in Dene, the spiritual community in which we stayed during Tabaski, the community threw a goodbye party for us. We danced around a bonfire singing in Wolof, and to close the night, one of the woman of Dene sang the national anthem of the United States in Wolof for us. I was so touched, I teared up again.
With or without God, the world is an amazing place. Statistically, the chances of our own existences are so infinitesimally small, and the chances of that many people equally as improbable of existing as I should come together and stand in that circle around that bonfire is practically impossible. Yet there we were, and that’s miraculous.