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. (more…)