Meet 7 Islanders Who Visibly Represent Their Faith
Many people consider themselves religious, but it takes a special level of devotion to literally wear one’s faith on one’s sleeve.
Many people consider themselves religious, but it takes a special level of devotion to literally wear one’s faith on one’s sleeve. Here are seven Islanders for whom religion is so important, it’s central to the first impression they make.
“I started wearing it when I was 11, and for all the wrong reasons,” says Shereen El-Kadi of her scarf. “There was this little Egyptian girl who was 10, and she was wearing it. And everyone was saying: ‘Wow, isn’t she amazing! She’s so grown-up, she’s already wearing it!’ I was like: ‘Dude, I could do that.’”
El-Kadi moved to Honolulu as a youngster and has always been connected to the Muslim community here. As an adult, El-Kadi wears the scarf as an expression of individuality. “It’s important for me to fight the stereotypes,” she says. Working full time in public relations, with a master’s degree and an undeniable confidence, her scarf doesn’t symbolize oppression.
“It means ‘respect me.’ I’m a woman who has chosen to wear this as a form of modesty. It’s supposed to create a boundary.”
Not every rule is hard and fast in El-Kadi’s book. Tugging at the sleeve of her light sweater, covering to her mid-forearm, she explains: “This is supposed to cover to your wrists, but I hate that. I’m human too. And I’m not supposed to be wearing makeup, but obviously I do.”
Despite her abundance of good cheer, there are drawbacks to wearing traditional Muslim clothing in a non-Muslim country. “I get stared at all the time. I wear sunglasses a lot because I don’t want to deal with it,” says El-Kadi.
“One day I was walking, and a guy stopped on his bike and pretended like he was going to throw something at me.” El-Kadi seems matter of fact, but not resigned, about a stranger feigning violence against her. “All I say is: ‘Just get to know one Muslim.’ That’s all you can do.”
Stephen Williams and Jacob Moncur
Elder Jacob Moncur is sitting on the edge of a couch, The Book of Mormon open in his lap. Along with his assigned missionary companion, Elder Stephen Williams, he’s dressed in a buttoned-down shirt and tie. Black nametags dangle from breast pockets. They don’t look at all alike, but there is an undeniable sameness about them.
Today they’re are on a home visit, teaching a new convert. “We’re here representing Jesus Christ,” Moncur said, “and I’d describe what we wear as conservative.” It stands in stark contrast to their surroundings; but they seem unfazed. Later, they’ll do a service project in a hardscrabble part of town, gently asking their hosts to switch from rap to religious music as they paint.
Moncur is days away from flying home to Utah. His thoughts are focused, linear, on-message. It comes as no surprise his college major will be in engineering. Williams is just as enthusiastic; he wants to be an artist and is eager to talk about the street-art documentary Beautiful Losers. But he’s only been three weeks on the job.
The point, Moncur explains, is to separate from their familiar world of home, friends and family for two years, during which they’ll work six days a week, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., bouncing from appointments for teaching, doing service projects and knocking on doors. The schedule is meant to be all-consuming.
“Things like talking to our family distracts us from the things we really need to do,” Williams says, “so we only talk to them on Mother’s Day and Christmas. We get to email once a week and that’s it.”
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.”
Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky
Two boys are wrestling in the main hall of the Chabad House. Despite their frantic headlocks, they still sport yarmulke. It isn’t long until a woman emerges to shoo them into their Hebrew School class. As they walk away, the threads of their tzitzis, the fringes of their prayer shawls, dangle from beneath their neat, oxford shirts.
This is the Chabad of Hawaii, headed by Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky. Part of a worldwide movement to draw all Jews—even those who’ve never practiced—to the faith, it includes a full-time Jewish school, services and gatherings. Not everyone there is an orthodox, Hasidic Jew like Krasnjansky, but the movement is anchored in tradition.
From behind his desk, Krasnjansky runs through the items orthodox Jews wear. “The yarmulke, the covering over our heads, reminds us that God is over us, and the tzitzis—some of the threads are blue—are a reminder of heaven,” he says.
Orthodox Jews believe a razor blade can’t touch the skin, but for those who prefer a clean-shaven look, there’s a loophole. “Growing a beard is part of it. But many observant Jews shave, just with a shaving machine, not a razor.”
Hasidic women dress conservatively and if they are married, the hair you see is probably a wig. Real hair, which the Torah says is a “woman’s beauty,” is only to be seen by her family. These customs, says Krasnjansky, bring “a stability in our lives that otherwise are constantly changing. Without it, people would feel like they’re getting lost in the larger community.”
Ras Mikey Gamboa
Rastafari symbols are all over the place—think kids on skateboards with dreadlocks, or average Joes walking around in red, gold and green Bob Marley T-shirts. But spotting a real follower of the faith is tricky.
“Some of our symbols have become pop culture,” says Ras Mikey Gamboa, who’s been a Rastafari since he was 15 years old. The popularity of reggae music brought Rastafari culture to the mainstream and, in fact, played the part of evangelist to Gamboa.
“I was doing your average kid stuff, being a bad kid. But the messages of Rasta and this reggae thing were all around me, I couldn’t deny it.” Rastafari even coined a word for the kind of kid who so often finds the faith through music: Root boy.
If unfurled from his brightly-colored turban, Gamboa’s dreadlocks would reach to his feet. “I haven’t cut my hair in over 15 years. It’s my personal covenant with Jah,” he says. Jah is the Rastafari word for God. But having dreadlocks isn’t easy, he says, “some people look at us like we’re crazy.”
He’s also wearing Rastafari “guidance pins,” one of which is inscribed with the words: Peace, Love, Rastafari. It’s a way to keep his mind on the tenets of the faith, and another way he can tell pop-culture style from other believers.
Gamboa is considered a leader in his faith, records his own religious music and acts as a sort of lay minister to the small Rasta community here. “There are couples I’ve married here in Hawai‘i and I’ve been asked to bless children.”