When I was growing up a kid up one of my aunts said repeatedly, “Allah does not change the condition of a person until they change the condition of their heart.” We were Muslims, “poor,” as in financially struggling. My aunt was raising 12 children with her husband, living in public housing in Washington, D.C. at the time.
The outside of her home looked barren. Most front and back yards in her neighborhood were patches of dry, dusty dirt. Only two people in the entire complex had planted flowers. We played in the parking lot and climbed on the clothes line poles for fun since we had no playground nearby.
Inside my aunt’s home, however, was very peaceful and calming. She burned incense, and maintained discipline and order. We did not always know what we would eat, but we knew that we would eat even if she had to make pancakes from scratch and water down the last two tablespoons of Kyro syrup to go around for lunch. We always knew that at certain times throughout the day everyone would stop whatever they were doing and we would come together to prayer because of our Muslim obligation.
One of her daughters described their home in the projects as if it was a mansion because that was the way she saw it.
“We have six bedrooms and two bathrooms!” she liked to brag. Before I saw the house, I expected to visit a mini-mansion. I knew they were moving to Southeast Washington, and I could not imagine a rich palace in that area. Besides, neither of her parents had good government jobs. So, how could they afford six bedrooms and two bathrooms? My cousins, nor my aunt seemed ashamed of their circumstances. In fact, they seemed delighted that God had provided them a house, much bigger than the apartment they had been cramped in.
Rather than complain about needing public housing back then, they fully appreciated it and seized opportunities that have led to the lives they are enjoying today.
Today, twenty-five years later, that aunt is living in a mini-mansion in Atlanta, remarried to a more loving, supportive husband. She enjoys her days providing day care to some of her grand children while their parents work and create lives more abundantly than any of us could have imagined all those years ago.
They are all living better now and I can’t help but think it had something to do with their attitudes and outlook way back then, when times were tough.
This week I called her to ask her to elaborate on this lesson I had learned from her so many years ago. She asked whether I remembered the peach tree she discovered in the community. It had become so barren no one even knew it was a peach tree. She fed it scraps from her own kitchen table, stirring leftover peelings and fruit cores at the base of the tree like compost. The tree blossomed the next year.
She asked whether I remembered the stock of clothes she kept clean and folded in an upstairs closet to give away to neighbors she discovered more in need than she. She gave away clothes by the bags-full. I mostly remembered the fun I had with my teen-age cousins at the time, and remembered the attitude imparted on us. She had grown up in a Seventh Day Adventist Church reciting the “Beatitudes,” popularly known these days as the “Be-Attitudes.” (Blessed are the poor…the meek shall inherit the earth…)
“Living well is a state of mind,” she reminded me this week. This lesson she had learned as a child, memorizing the text from Matthew 5:3-12, had been fortified when she studied Islam as a young woman. She was reminded of the Christian and Muslim teachings recently when reading “The Courage to Create,” by Rollo May.
“Wherever I lived, I chose to create,” she said. “I took old bed sheets and made curtains and matching bed skirts,” she added. “However much money you have – or don’t have – you have to know in your heart that you are blessed. You have to have the courage to create.”