Faces of Faith
Many people consider themselves religious, but it takes a special level of devotion to literally wear one’s faith on one’s sleeve.
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The most striking thing about meeting Ajan Impeng, besides his monastic robes—which are more neon than saffron—is how young he looks to be the abbot of a monastery. He calls out in Lao, and another monk appears with a longer, rectangular orange cloth. With a few expert flips of the wrist, the robe is wrapped neatly over one shoulder. Transformation complete.
The life of a Buddhist monk is a practice in simplicity, each day a succession of chanting, teaching and meditation. Volunteers from the outside community cook and donate meals, further removing the monks from worldly distractions. Impeng runs his hand over his shaved head and explains that shaving the head respects the Buddha. “And we shave the eyebrows, too,” he says.
Growing up in Laos, Buddhist monks were Impeng’s earliest role models. “My father said I eat too much, and said, ‘Look at monks. They eat little bit. Exercise little bit. Not too much.’” Whenever he went to the temple, he felt a happiness that he didn’t feel elsewhere, so he returned again and again. At 13, Ajan Impeng became a novice.
Now, at 36, he’s halfway around the world, and a leader in his faith. How he got here is simple: “people looked around, and see there’s not enough Laotian Buddhist monks here.”
Mohinder Maan carefully wraps four yards of gauzy material around his head into a simple turban. It’s a ritual he’s performed every morning for 62 years; a ritual shared by observant Sikh all over the world. His turban is white, the color favored in East Africa, where Maan spent his childhood, in Tanzania. “The turban is part of my identity,” he says.
Over cardamom-spiced tea and biscuits, Maan recites the pillars of his faith. All faiths are equal to his—there are many paths to God. Work hard and make an honest living. Share what you earn. God is present in everything we see.
Then, there are the five symbols Sikh wear. The turban covers a lifetime’s growth of hair, as Sikh do not believe in cutting it. “But it’s not just a symbol,” Maan says. “Hair is a gift from God.” He gestures to the crown of his head. “There’s a small comb here for cleaning the hair, morning and evening.” This is only one of the cleansing rituals; hands must be clean and the head covered when reading the Sikh holy text, Guru Granth Sahib, as the words themselves are worshipped. Maan reserves a special room for the book, and it is wrapped in cloth several times over, and sits on its own twin bed. Guests, too, must wash their hands and cover their heads to see the text emerge from its elaborate wrappings.
Sikh also wear a single steel bangle—symbolizing a restraint from evil deeds—and special undershorts, to represent living a faithful life. The fifth Sikh symbol is a nod to realism. Maan pulls a small, traditional knife from its wooden sheath. “This is a kirpan. It symbolizes courage and self-defense.”
Sister Linh Nguyen
“Living in poverty and simplicity is easier,” says Sister Linh Nguyen. I don’t have to think: What should I wear? Does this match?”
With the six sisters at her convent—the Daughters of St. Paul—“We do normal things. We love movies. We save our allowance and treat each other to ice cream or a Starbucks coffee. You know, that coffee is expensive!”
A child when her family escaped Vietnam—“We were boat people,” she says—Nguyen became an apprentice nun as a way to become educated when she settled in New Orleans. She wears a cross that’s unique to her order. On it is a Bible and a radio tower, as their mission is to spread their faith using media. These nuns make iPhone apps, produce radio shows and have a touring choir. Their dedication to media extends, blessedly, to journalists. “We all need help sometimes, so we pray for you to have wisdom.”