Eleven times since President Bill Clinton began the practice in 1994, the U.S. President has declared Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, calling on Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” President Bush has done the same this year. The day is the anniversary of the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a work that built upon an earlier Virginia document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. There American founder George Mason summarized the logic of religious freedom perhaps as well as any could: “Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
On Jan. 15 I phoned my parents, who live in the Texas Panhandle. I was calling to tell my Dad I had registered my kids for the youth camp he’d founded more than fifty years ago. He was pleased, but also uncharacteristically subdued. Something was wrong.
It took a while to understand what had happened. First Dad mentioned Opal, a woman who had lived across the street for 40 years, a kind of third grandmother to my brother and sisters and me. Opal died a couple of years ago, and eventually the house was sold to a family of Iranian immigrants, the husband in his mid-forties, a beautiful wife a bit younger, and several teenaged children.
By nature as well as upbringing, my parents are throwbacks to a time when people knew their neighbors. They’d welcome anyone who moved onto their street, and of course anyone living in Opal’s house merited special attention.
So they made a point of saying hello, of being friendly. Language was something of a barrier, for the family’s first language was Farsi, but my father managed to make conversation and, devoted bird hunter that he was, it wasn’t long before he discovered that the man also was a devoted hunter. In Iran, he explained, he could hunt all over, everywhere. Here it was less clear where he could and couldn’t hunt.
Well, my father had the solution to that problem. He had been cultivating relationships with farmers and ranchers for more than sixty years. Naturally, my dad soon invited his new neighbor pheasant hunting. A few days later, in grateful return, the Iranian family invited him and my mom over for dinner. Come at six o’clock on Saturday night, they said. They would serve pheasant and duck.At six o’clock Saturday, Jan. 10, my parents crossed the street. The father and teenage son had gone out with a couple of relatives and weren’t home yet, but the mother greeted them enthusiastically, full of good news: Their married daughter, whose husband was still in Iran, had received permission to live in Vienna. That is the gateway to America, she said. Soon, surely, he would be allowed to join the family in America.
When after a time the father and son still had not returned, the mother pulled out a wedding video and showed my parents their daughter’s wedding, lovely and exotic. Then she told them about their relatives who lived nearby in town.
Still the father and son had not returned.
The mother said that they must have been delayed somehow. She called their cell phone, to no avail. Then she served dinner, and the talk turned to religion. The family were not Muslim, as my parents had assumed; they called themselves “Baptists,” but they weren’t the Baptists you regularly encounter at Furr’s or Luby’s after Sunday morning worship. They were Mandaeans, of whom there are only 70,000 worldwide. They hold Adam, Noah, and John the Baptist as prophets, baptize only in running water, and consider Jesus a prophet who did not fully proclaim John the Baptist’s message.
At nine o’clock my parents went home. The mother walked out with them, and they all admired the stunning full moon. “We are glad you have come to the neighborhood,” Scotty told the woman. “Call us if you need anything at all.”
At eleven o’clock she called. She was hysterical. “Tell me how to go to the town of Clarendon,” she said. “We must go to Clarendon now. There is something wrong—police, hunting, I do not know. Where is Clarendon?”
My father has lived in the Texas Panhandle for nearly all of his 78 years, and knows every road to every hunting ground; he had no intention of letting his new neighbor drive out in the dark on unfamiliar roads, especially not when she was in such a state.
So she and a few relatives—an aunt, a niece and nephew—climbed into his Suburban. They sat in the back talking in Farsi while Dad drove the hour to Clarendon, not knowing what they would find there. The mother had received conflicting phone calls from various relatives, each giving a different story, and by the time she translated these rumors into her broken English, not much of coherence was left. My dad began hoping that poaching and a stay in the town jail was the worst of it.
“Go as fast as you can,” they urged him. “We will pay the speeding ticket.” Dad obliged as best he could, but slowed again when his headlights lit up three deer standing on the shoulder of the highway.
He drove them to the sheriff’s office, where a startled clerk asked them to wait while she called the sheriff, who lived 25 minutes away. After a time the sheriff arrived, and immediately took Dad into his office.
“The father and son were hunting with a couple of relatives,” he said. “And they drowned.”
They’d shot a goose over the lake, he said, and the son went out in a small plastic kayak to retrieve it. When he reached for the goose, the boat capsized. The son went down and did not come up again. The father ripped off his clothes and leapt in after his son. Both could swim; neither was wearing a life preserver. The water was 40 degrees.
“We’re saying drowned, but probably their hearts stopped before that,” the sheriff said.
Emergency personnel immediately began a search. Six divers alternated in teams of three, staying in the frigid water fifteen minutes at a time. They had searched until dark.
Meanwhile the sheriff thought the other hunters had told the women–their relatives–back at home. He had discussed this with them.
“Those women don’t know,” Dad said. “They have got to be told.”
The story had been on the six o’clock news.
The sheriff looked at Dad. “You tell them,” he said.
Dad took a deep breath and went out to the mother, dreading this task. “I really hate to tell you this,” he said, speaking slowly. “Your husband and son have both drowned.”
She looked at him with wide eyes. “What is ‘drowned?’” she said.
In bits and pieces he and the sheriff explained what had happened.
“Take me there,” she said. The sheriff said he would, as soon as her other relatives returned from wherever they had gone. They would all go out to the lake together.
“Give me your car keys,” the aunt said to Dad, and when he gently urged her to wait just a few minutes, she marched out the door and down the cold dark street. Her relatives, including the grief-stricken wife and mother, followed her. Dad got in his car, drove after them, and loaded them up again. Then he circled the block, and pulled back into the sheriff’s parking lot. “We will go soon,” he told them. “We can’t find the spot without the sheriff.”
Soon they did go. They stood on the edge of the lake, under the same stunning moon they’d studied earlier in the night, and looked at the cold water. The air temperature was 20 degrees. The women wailed; an uncle waded out, waist-deep, into the frigid lake.
“We’ll start searching again in the morning,” the sheriff told Dad. “If we don’t find them today, it’ll be spring before they surface.”
Now the women were getting wet, too. Dad went to warm the Suburban for them, and drove it down the concrete boat ramp near the grieving family. His headlights shone out across the icy water. There, at the water’s edge, lay the dead goose.
Dad got home at 5 a.m. Sunday morning. A few hours later, he rejoined the group at the lake, praying that the bodies would be found. A local man, a rancher by Dad’s recollection, had volunteered to fly his helicopter over the lake. At 9:45 he spotted what looked like a shadow in the water. It was the father. The son’s body was found a few hours afterwards by a cadaver dog.
A local news report reads: “About 10 to 15 members of the men’s family gathered Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Clarendon and spent the night there until the search resumed Sunday…The family had emigrated from Iran so they could practice their Christian faith without persecution. Some family members, including the sister and wife of the 46-year-old, were inconsolable.”
A later report clarifies: “[The father] uprooted his wife and children and took them across the globe to Amarillo to be near relatives who sought the refuge of the Texas Panhandle to practice a little-known religion.” About 300 Mandaeans live in the area. Father and son will be buried in a Mandaean cemetery near Austin.
In Iran they were hounded for their religion. In America, they were befriended by my father and others, by people whose religion flatly contradicts their understanding of Jesus and John the Baptist. The drowning is a story of great sadness, a husband and son taken by icy waters. But it’s also a story of Americans reaching across religious lines to help and comfort. It’s a snapshot of the best in our heritage of religious freedom, a freedom that is more than laws written on paper. It is a heritage bound up in our culture, in laws written on the human heart and too easily forgotten, habits of deep courtesy human dignity honored, slowly won, and easily lost.
Amanda Witt contributed to this post.