3 Houston Women Share Their Faith Stories

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It’s part of what 2017 was like in Texas. Houston: Cypress Ranch High School students give a Nazi salute and chant “Heil, Hilter!” during a class photo. Victoria: A man is charged with hate crime after torching a mosque because he “fears Muslims”. Alice: St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church is vandalized, three statues destroyed.

What motivates these kinds of terrible acts? Hatred and fear are often driven by sheer ignorance. Maybe these division wounds could be healed by getting to know the person who lives next door. Maybe then we could love our neighbor.

In Houston, those neighbors are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’is, and almost anyone you can imagine. Among these great denominations are sects identified by specific rites, ancient traditions and distinctive clothing.

For women of the Abrahamic faith, this often means being veiled. And this often leads to being seen as an “other”. They are told that they should not cover their hair as it hides their beauty. They are considered oppressed or unleashed religious. They are told to live with their time.

I remember when Jews, Muslims and Catholics were definitely outsiders in the South. They were called by all kinds of names. Being a follower of these religions almost guaranteed that they would never hold elected office. They would be blamed for all kinds of social ills. The mainstream culture thought it knew what “these people” were and didn’t like it. But no one really asked them back then.

Now, as to covering the hair, I could ask. The responses were surprising and the process was both humbling and uplifting.

Seek righteousness, love mercy, walk humbly with God – Micah 6: 8

Esty Zaklikofsky meets me in a cafe in Bellaire. We sit down in front of a long, roughly hewn table. It looks like something the monks could eat around.

She’s 33 and looks like any other Houston mom whose home was flooded by Hurricane Harvey: saddened by the loss, a little worried about all the work ahead but happy to put it aside for a while. time. But there is one distinction that is not obvious at first glance. Her hair is hidden, veiled under a wig, or sheitel. She just celebrated Rosh Hashanah.

Zaklikofsky is passionate about her faith. The story of Jewish custom springs from her with unvarnished worship. “There are 613 Mitzvot in the Torah,” she said. “Children call them ‘good deeds,’ but they are truly divine commandments that offer us unique ways to forge a connection with God.

“One of the ways we do this is to walk humbly before God. So we cover our hair. Some women use a scarf or a hat. Tzniyus is modesty. It is not about suppressing beauty; it s It is about channeling dignity.If we focus less on our outward appearance, we create space for our beautiful soul, our true identity to shine.

“I think women want to be recognized for who they really are, not just how they look. It’s a delicate balance to blend inner and outer beauty. Judaism’s value of modesty helps facilitate that balance.”

Zaklikofsky is from West Hartford, Connecticut. She then moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, NY She was raised in the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement but rejects labels.

“It is important to avoid sectarian divisions,” she said. “The Torah is not just for the Orthodox or the Conservative or Reformed congregation.”

Houston is now home. With her husband, Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky, she co-directs the Shul de Bellaire. Together, they work to spread a “family message, where all Jews are welcome.” Everyone should learn and discover their heritage in a safe place, in a non-judgmental environment ”.

She teaches me a little Hebrew and a little Yiddish. It explains the importance of prayer relieved by distractions. In his synagogue, a partition between men and women is used during prayer, just like in Kotel, the Western Wall.

It brings me back to where I had seen this before, to a place where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women have all veiled themselves: Jerusalem.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. – Sign at the garden tomb

If you don’t come across contextual security checkpoints, it will take you around 15 minutes to walk from the Western Wall to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On this path, partitioning is all around you.

On the wall, a physical partition separates Jewish women from men while they pray in the holy place. In the courtyards around the mosque, custom separates Muslim women from men when studying the Quran. Along the Via Dolorosa and inside the church, many Christian women observe the ancient practice of the veil, although they never do so in their everyday life.

These are sacred places that call for special recognition. Because they are not part of the daily world of housework and parenting, school homework and work relationships, we distinguish them. We mark them as significant and build a score around them.

The Arabic word for partition is “hijab”.

It is appropriate so that they can be known and not harassed. – 33:59 (Quran)

Sana Khalil is a 29-year-old stay-at-home mother of four. She sits on a couch in her living room in West Houston. A little girl is on her knees, trying not to fall asleep. Her husband, Firas Abunabah, offered hospitality in the form of a glass of orange juice. Another 9 year old girl is sitting next to me playing on an iPad.

Fully covering her hair and neck, Khalil wears a beautifully knotted scarf. I am not a mahram, a close male relative, so even at home she practices the hijab.

She tells me that the headgear is a matter of modesty. “Our standards of modesty are… the simplest answer: it’s part of my religion. But she explains that it’s more nuanced than that.

“Even before the founding of Islam, headgear was considered a sign designating a free woman. If her head was uncovered, she was a slave. They did not have money for a scarf or could not wear them in the fields to work. the lady covered her hair as a symbol that she should be respected. She practices modesty, yes, but also expresses her worth as a human being, something greater than the physical body. “

For Khalil, practicing the hijab is an element of identity, “like a passport. It’s about belonging ”.

She is a Chicago girl, born into a family of Palestinian Americans. She moved from Windy City to Amman, Jordan when she started elementary school, then returned to the United States in time to graduate from high school in Texas.

When people here started asking her about the hijab, she found herself unable to fully justify it. “They were like, ‘God made you. Why would you want to hide God’s creation? ‘ And I didn’t know how to explain it so that they could understand.

“Muslim women – whether they are young or even old, it’s the same thing – they carry a lot on their shoulders. Everywhere we go, we make a statement of our faith and are judged on how we behave and we present.

“Then I found a picture of Mary, and I showed them, ‘Look, what do you see?’ And then they saw: Mary also wore the veil, so some of them understood more because of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary treasured all these things – Luke 2:19

Erin Vallagomesa has a small case with the Madonna and Child embroidered on it. Looks like something we keep fancy reading glasses in. Her mother bought her in the Holy Land. I asked what happens when delicate needlework wears out, and she laughed. “Oh, I have a bunch of them, just in case. “

Erin is a student at the University of St. Thomas. She is studying business and eventually wants to get an MBA. She is 21, a Catholic born in Baytown to immigrant parents from the Philippines.

So why is she wearing the case adorned with Mary and the baby Jesus?

She keeps a veil there.

“I began to wear the veil after being almost overwhelmed by the reality of the Holy Eucharist. For me, it is a recognition, a proclamation, that the Lord is Lord.

“Some women may veil themselves as a sign of humility before God. But I see this as an outward sign of inherent beauty: the inner self, which is more beautiful. It is not about removing anything. is right, well, hard to put into words. It’s transcendent. It’s a reminder that I have to cultivate my true self. It’s the external expression of an internal disposition.

Usually, she is the only one to practice this form of expression. Many older Catholic women will wear the veil at Mass, but Vallagomesa can count “on one hand, well, six if you count me” the number of her contemporaries who veil themselves. And, for her, it’s OK.

The popular use of a veil in church is, of course, at a wedding. “It is enough for me to know that it makes sense to me. If it doesn’t matter to anyone else, to me it brings to life the symbolism that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is there. ‘spouse.”

The God who existed before all religion is counting on you to make known and celebrate the unity of the human family. – Desmond Tutu

As Vallagomesa and I were talking on its campus, two women left Saint Basil’s Chapel and, crossing the quad, headed for a parking lot away from us. They wore the habit of the Dominican Sisters of the Province of Mary Immaculate.

This habit includes a veil.

In an age when women who express their faith by covering their hair run the risk of being brainwashed, here are nuns, veiled, but respected for their dedication and commitment to a life of faith, prayer and service. . Their website says, “The sisters wear a black veil with a thin white border as a sign of her renunciation of the world. “

Maybe that’s why Zaklikofsky, Khalil, and Vallagomesa are different. Maybe that opens them up to misunderstanding. They did not “renounce” the world. They live, work and play with neighbors, co-workers and friends as diverse as Houston itself. They don’t shut up with the same ideas.

Now I see that the partition is not so high that it cannot be crossed. If a woman veils her hair during Mass, or around men who are not close relatives, or around everyone in the world other than her husband, she can still open her heart or her home and share with us. And, like all good neighbors, we will be blessed by sharing and receiving. Our distrust will be replaced by understanding; our fear, with love.

Khalil summed it up this way: “I won’t tell you to believe what I believe. I respect you and what you believe, and I expect the same from you. The world will be a better place if everyone respects each other. “

Joe Center is a Houston-based photographer and writer.


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