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June 21, 2017
Culture

Tear down the walls

Religion has long been an excuse for division – but in her beliefs Lou Heinrich finds a great equaliser.

  • Words: Lou Heinrich
  • Portrait: Bri Hammond

My friend Alex likes to post Instagram videos talking to his son in Farsi. I don’t speak the language, but something about the way Alex looks at his son, Sam – playing with brightly coloured blocks under the light from the window; with his cute puffy, dark hair and chubby hands – tells me they’re words of affection.

On most Sunday mornings you can find Alex and me, and about sixty others, singing to God in an old chapel, the creaky floorboards at our feet painted by the sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows. 

  

There are many things that baffle me in this world. And sometimes I think about them while I am praying. Is my hair falling out because I’m blowdrying it too much or because I’m stressed? How old are babies when they start talking? Why are world affairs ruled by cruelty and division?

There are walls everywhere. Trump’s wall. The West Bank Barrier. The imagined border around Australia’s shores. The barbed wire of immigration detention centres.

The people who build these walls do a neat trick in their minds where they divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. To create identity, we define ourselves in opposition to ‘the other’.

I am aware that churches, and most religions, do this too. Historically, we’ve seen religious groups erect holy fences; ‘chosen ones’ live on the inside, and the unholy are excluded. I’m sure it’s hard to argue with a justification that walls have been built by divine hands.

 “I am exposed to other inner worlds. I come to terms with the shared humanity of ‘the other’.”

In a speech at Adelaide Writers’ Week, journalist Ben Ehrenreich spoke about the life of Palestinians in Gaza. ‘Walls prevent people from seeing what’s on the other side,’ he said. Barbed wire provides physical barriers, but also creates barricades in people’s minds. Empathy becomes impossible; hatred inevitable.

Alex got married in his backyard. This was before Sam; Jenny wore a sweet little cream dress, and we took photos with them underneath a white satin arch, the Chinese symbol for Double Happiness dangling red above our heads. I brought sausage rolls and there was a bevy of helpers in the tiny kitchen, and someone DJ’ed in the lounge room. Now, a few years down the track, there’s little Sam, who is going to grow up speaking Farsi, of course – but also Jenny’s Mandarin, and English.

The reason I love my church community is because it forces me to get involved with other people’s stories. And not just those who are the same as me; people who are divided from my experience by age, nationality, language, sexuality. I am exposed to other triumphs, other sorrows, other inner worlds. I come to terms with the shared humanity of ‘the other’.

Remarks

Lou Heinrich is a writer and critic whose words have been published in The Guardian, The Weekend Australian and The Lifted Brow. She is one of the recipients of The Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowships in 2017.

Love is not a philosophical concept. It is a concrete truth; it is action. It is the dedication to push through the discomfort of friendships that are not mirrors. It is the decision to welcome and invite and include even when this can be awkward and ugly. 

Religion has so often been responsible for building walls and dividing people, with horrific consequences. I only want to own up to the label of ‘religious’ if it encompasses my experience, and my goal: to love as I have been loved, without boundaries. My religion is love and I want to tear down walls.

My favourite part of Alex’s videos is hearing him chuckle when Sam talks back to him. It might be a mix of Farsi, Mandarin and English, or it might just be baby words. I’m not sure if he means to, but as he talks to his father, Sam waves his fat little fists. And those walls of coloured blocks, well, they get knocked down.

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