January 12, 2009
Perhaps it's because I look gullible, confused or in special need of spiritual guidance. Maybe it's because I hang out alone in public places. But, since I was a teenager, I have been a prime target for proselytizers of all stripes.
I don't mind, really. Unlike other people I know, I don't generally view attempts to convert me as an automatic attack on my beliefs or a sign of disrespect. In fact, most people who try to get me to see their version of the light never bother to ask what faith or philosophy I already profess. I figure that, for some reason or another, proselytizers have prejudged me as both spiritually lacking and worthy enough to join their club. A fixer-upper, if you will. How nice.
In high school, the mother of a classmate tried hard to get me to read the Book of Mormon. A good friend wanted me to become what he called a Christian. (I tried to tell him that Catholics were Christians.)
In college, I was pursued by adherents of more exotic types of enlightenment and community. Though I never bit, my freshman roommate at Berkeley got involved in a group whose precise tenets I could never quite figure out. All I know is that until he quit a few months later, I would sometimes wake up to the sound of his chanting in front of a box that he had hung in his closet.
Later on, even members of traditionally non-proselytzing religions laid out the welcome mat. More than a couple of Reform Jewish friends -- and even one rabbi -- have suggested that I take a dip in the mikvah, the ritual bath, so I could become a member of their tribe.
The thing is, until last week, these forays ended well. I didn't convert, but I took everyone's interest as a compliment. I liked being courted and considered as a potential member of every community.
Then I met a flight attendant on a trip from London to L.A., struck up a conversation, and found out she was a practitioner of Falun Gong, the meditation practice (or cult, or maybe even religion) that has flummoxed the powers that be in China.
A few months after the trip, the flight attendant e-mailed me out of the blue and invited me to a Falun Gong-sponsored pageant of traditional Chinese song and dance in Pasadena. She said it would be a way for me to find out more about the practice, which by then I knew was meant to develop in its adherents truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
I'd also seen Falun Gong members meditating in front of Chinese consulates and embassies from L.A. to Berlin. I knew they were protesting the persecution -- including imprisonment and charges of torture -- they face at the hands of the Chinese government. I understood, vaguely, that Beijing sees Falun Gong's push for spiritual meaning as a threat to the materialistic meaning the Communist Party and its economic gospel provide.
I figured any group that the authoritarian regime in Beijing fears and disdains couldn't be all that bad. I said yes to the invitation. Unfortunately, the show was pretty uninspired. Woven into the traditional song and dance were messages designed to convey the key tenets of their practice, along with the story of their persecution at the hands of the Chinese authorities.
My host invited me to ask her any questions I might have. Great, I thought, this was just how my other near-conversion experiences had proceeded. But then came intermission and things began to go sour.
Every time I asked her a question about the terminology the Falun Gong uses -- what did followers really mean when they used words like "reason," "cultivation" or "correct information" -- she'd just ask me how I would define them. In other words, she answered questions with questions, and soon our conversation became circular and more than a bit frustrating. At one point, she defensively said that she didn't need me to believe her, and I felt like I had somehow let her down.
I wanted to be a good sport, but the second half of the show was interminable, and I started to fidget and check my e-mail on my phone. I then made the mistake of criticizing the performance of the master of ceremonies, to which she responded that I should be more tolerant. As we walked out of the theater, she again criticized me for being cynical. I was beginning to feel that I wasn't much of a fixer-upper after all.
No one, least of all my host, exerted pressure on me to join Falun Gong (I've since read that that is not the group's way), but I clearly felt her sense of disappointment. I hadn't gotten into the spirit of things.
As we said goodbye, she said that I could send her questions by e-mail (she lives in London), but I already knew that our little dance was over. The next day, feeling guilty for having been a less than gracious guest, I texted her a thank-you note. She hasn't replied.
In the end, I'm a little saddened by my latest brush with conversion. Was the problem Falun Gong, or me? Maybe I'm a harder sell, less patient, less curious than I used to be.
I hope not. I don't want to lose my appeal to all the other would-be converters out there. It'd be a shame for true believers to lose their faith in me.
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