In his yearlong quest to find God in America, Tom Levinson talked to rabbis, ministers of all varieties, and a Catholic monk named Brother Gus. He also met a former Mormon who runs the Coffee Messiah cafe where “Caffeine Saves” and a practicing Mormon who worked at a Las Vegas wedding chapel; interviewed a Hindu hotel clerk who also venerated Jesus; visited a Wiccan community center in Dallas; and stopped by a Sikh gurdwara in New Mexico, where he was greeted with a “how’s it going?” from a tall white man in a turban, one of the local converts.
And then there was Edna Doyle of Waco, Texas — a “gracious, feisty” grandmother from Melbourne, Australia — one of the surviving members of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult. Dressed in a white blouse, cardigan sweater, and a plaid skirt, “Doyle looked more like a grade school teacher than a domestic terrorist,” writes Levinson in his book, All That’s Holy : A Young Guyy: A Young Guy, and Old Car, and the Search for God in America.
When he met Doyle in November 1999, Levinson, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, had been on the road for three months in his 1994 Nissan Altima, on a trip that was part pilgrimage and part field study of religion in America. “I had been really interested in studying religion in its practical elements, in the way it’s lived,” said Levinson.
There was also the personal side. Levinson, then 25, wasn’t sure what to do with his life. “As much as it [the road trip] was about trying to find a bunch of stories of other people’s faith,” he said, “it was about trying to avoid the hard work of learning my own story.”
Levinson’s first visit was with Hayder Almoyasi, who owned a halal market near Dayton, Ohio, with his brothers. Almoyasi allowed Levinson, who had literally walked in off the street, to spend an afternoon interviewing Muslims doing their shopping in advance of Friday evening prayer service. By the end of the day, he was stuffing mangoes and homemade baklava into Levinson’s backpack. That kind of welcome seemed to greet Levinson wherever he went.
“People were almost without exception incredibly open and willing to talk about their faith,” he said in an interview. “They were relieved to be able to speak about it with someone who was curious about it, and wasn’t trying to sell them anything.”
He also found the more he was willing to listen and visit with people in their places of worship, the more he was welcomed in. In San Francisco, where Levinson had flown — “taking a plane was cheating, I know,” he writes — he stopped in at the First Apostolic Faith Church, a Pentecostal congregation, expecting to find a full house for an afternoon prayer meeting. Instead, it was just Levinson, and the Rev. Johnnie Lay, the pastor. Levinson, who is Reform Jewish, had no idea how to pray in a Pentecostal service but was saved from embarrassment when another member of the congregation came into the service.
Though the experience was uncomfortable, it led to a long conversation with Lay, his wife, and Mother Booker, the 102-year old woman who had founded the church.
“What is interesting is how quickly the feeling of being an outsider dissolves,” he said. “When you are with people who are interesting in sharing their story and earnest about it, it fades away — in that moment, in that space you occupy, you are part of a community.”
That kind of welcome is an incredible gift,” says Levinson, one more people would have if they can risk crossing faith boundaries. “We don’t realize that if we do it, we are going to be welcomed in and we are going to be changed as a result of the contact.”
Perhaps the most remarkable encounter is the one with Edna Doyle. Expecting to find some “wackos from Waco” at the ruins of the Branch Davidian compound, Levinson instead found Doyle, sitting in a simple gray building whose walls are covered with pictures of the 86 people who died on April 19, 1993, when the compound burned. Pictures of families and of couples on their honeymoons who “looked normal.” There are other reminders of the standoff between the Davidians and the FBI — rusty and twisted shells of spent ammunition, and a package of baby diapers, caked with dried mud. Doyle tells Levinson that one of the pictures on the wall is of her 16-year-old granddaughter. It’s a heart wrenching moment that transforms her from a “cult member” into a real person.
“I used to wish I could have been here and burned with the rest of them,” Doyle tells Levinson. She had been away from the compound when it was surrounded by the FBI and could not get back in. Six years after the fire, Doyle (who died in 1993) was still grieving for her granddaughter and the other children she used to care for.
“When I talk to you it becomes real,” she says later. “My memories are the only one thing they could not burn.”
“Thinking about her deeply personal loss helped me step past the headlines and try to see her as a still-grieving person,” Levinson said, “not merely as a cipher for a wild-eyed, apocalyptic ‘cult.’ “
And he saw parallels in the way that Doyle drew strength from remembering the suffering of her people with the way his Jewish family drew strength in remembering the Exodus from Egypt during Passover. “Maybe when we are called to remember that we were once slaves we are closer to the ‘wackos from Waco’ than either we or they believe,” he writes. “Somewhere on the trunks of our family trees, all of us are descendants of a cult.”