At least once a week, I do my Hulu workout regimen. This simply means there’s at least one day a week where I’m not feeling motivated enough to run, or maybe I’m too sore to lift heavy weights at the women’s gym, or that it’s not Monday, and now I do yoga on Mondays. But I find a stairclimber or set a treadmill to a scary incline and fire up Hulu and march for an hour. I am motivated only by the promise of entertainment and the thrill of my watch telling me that I’ve met my exercise goal for the day.
I laugh about this when I’m walking through the ancient city of Petra in my time in Jordan. By the time my watch tells me it’s midnight, it also tells me that I’ve traversed a solid 11 miles, treadmill not necessary. The shirt sandwiched between my back and my backpack is damp and I have produced a respectable — if undignified — amount of sweat.
Even in the Aqaba markets, where locals sashay from stall to stall with ease, I find myself working up a decent sweat. It’s hot and my heavy backpack holds my essentials: comfy sweatshirt in case the temperature dips, sunscreen, a notebook, water, and a small pot of greasy-but-satisfying Lush moisturizer.
“Taste it!” Fadel, owner of the spice store urges, waving an aluminum scoop in front of our faces, a pile of bright yellow dust flashing before our eyes. We dutifully dip our fingers in and lick, bourgeois health codes be damned, widen our eyes, and sing the praises of spices not even the aisles of Whole Foods has seen. The spices are rows of colorful hills, and I fight off the urge to sneeze. Fadel brings the scoop with a new sample and dances it next to me.
“You have to smile first!” he good-naturedly announces.
I acquiesce and say, still smiling, “I only put up with being told to smile outside of the US.”
“You’re a bad feminist,” the Episcopalian teases me. Not just any Episcopalian, mind. An interreligious associate at the Episcopal Church, which means he is smarter than me and wears way more business attire than I ever will. The man wore a suit jacket on a 12-hour plane ride, and I sat in front of him in stretchy pants and a baseball cap and a messy ponytail.
I’m no religious scholar. When it comes to deep theological discussions on Calvinism or Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, I fall back on the quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” I’ve come to blows with the church as I’ve known it, be it the response to refugees or bigotry or the current political climate. I don’t recognize myself in it, but I don’t recognize myself without any of it. It’s a weird state of no man’s land. I’m a heretic to some, a Kool-Aid drinker to others.
But when invited to go on an ecumenical tour of Jordan, I said yes, in spite of my feelings. And now I’m standing next to a Lutheran pastor, the aforementioned Episcopalian, an editor for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, three devout Catholics, an evangelical devoted to religious storytelling, and another working with children in Costa Rica.
I held my breath the first three days, waiting for someone to say something crass about the LGBT+ community or declare their devotion to Pat Robertson or criticize me for showing too much collarbone. None of that happened, and everyone was lovely. By the time day three rolled around, and the Baptist ordered a glass of wine, I let myself relax a little. And in a tiny moment of self-awareness, in between bites of warm pita, I realized that perhaps my experiences have culminated in a (religious) chip on my (bare) shoulder; that anecdotal experiences are simply that — anecdotal.
Could I be grieved by the church? Of course. Could I hope for better — for it, for me? Could I still hold its origins dear? What better place to do so?
And so I try the Jordan workout regimen. My boots (or Birkenstocks, depending on the terrain) do the work as I stomp up Mount Nebo and Mukawir and Madaba. They take me to the Jordan River and the Red Sea and the Citadel. Through the stone city of Petra and the sands of Wadi Rum. I see the remains of ancient churches and cross-shaped baptismal fonts and mosaics telling stories for us 2,000 years later. I’m embarrassingly out of breath more than a couple times. I feel it in my legs. I feel it in whatever body part simultaneously harbors hurt and hope, too.