My first true love was Shirley Klein; we were in second grade together at Roosevelt School in Elmhurst, Ill., in 1940.

On a sunny, spring day I decided to declare my love for Shirley by purchasing a large, hollow chocolate Easter egg at the five-and-ten-cent store in downtown Elmhurst. The egg came decorated with a large cross surrounded by Easter lilies. For no additional charge the clerk wrote “Shirley” in white frosting just below the cross. The egg cost 25 cents — a significant expenditure for a second grader in 1940.

I placed the box containing the egg in my bicycle basket and rode the five blocks to Shirley’s home. She and her mother answered the door. I gave her the package and waited for her to open it.

When Shirley saw the Easter egg she seemed embarrassed. I was embarrassed, as well; all the frosting had fallen off the egg while it was in my bicycle basket during the bumpy journey from the store to Shirley’s house. After we stood looking at one another for a few awkward moments Shirley and her mother smiled and gently thanked me. I left feeling like a failed suitor.

It didn’t occur to me until I was older that there was something inappropriate about giving an Easter egg to a girl whose last name was Klein. I knew that school was closed that spring day because it was Good Friday. I did not know that it was also the day before Passover. The world we lived in at my house did not include Passover.

Even several years later when my family moved into a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Scranton, Pa., I still had very little personal contact with people who were Jewish. An Orthodox family who lived in a house around the corner from our apartment on Olive Street hired me to light the burners on their gas stove on Friday evenings. It seemed an odd custom to me, but the pay was good: 50 cents a week.


One summer Friday evening I was late. When I arrived I could hear singing through their open window. They were gathered around a candlelit table. I stood quietly and watched. I knew I was glimpsing something precious that I could never fully appreciate.

Years later at a conference I spent hours talking with a man who taught at the American University in Cairo. He described his long friendship with a Muslim colleague. For over a decade they had searched for and found common ground that Christians and Muslims could share.

Sadly they felt the need to hide the true nature of their relationship from their families. Other members of both of their families were ultra-conservative believers. “We were supposed to be trying to convert each other,” he explained, “not looking for ways to admire each other’s beliefs.”

I gained an appreciation of Islam at its best during that week. I drew on that appreciation in the days following the horror of 9/11. I knew that all Muslims, even most Muslims, are not terrorists.

The kind of believing that can lead to terrorism, violent or verbal, knows no faith boundaries. I have been verbally attacked by both believers and atheists.

Personally, I think religious fundamentalism is an arrogant, if not, dangerous way of believing. It closes believers’ minds to challenges that could help them become more appropriately humble. Ignorance begets bigotry.


The theologian John Hick suggests that faiths are like families. Our faith is the way our family thinks about God and how God wants us to live. We continue to have faith in our story because it sustains us.

But no one’s believing is without flaws. Some elements of our believing are true and healthy and some are not. Humility is essential. Ignorance in matters of belief is not bliss.

I continue to appreciate the gentle reception Shirley and her mother gave me that spring day. I remember her with affection. “Shirley, wherever you are, I have a chocolate Easter egg to give you — without frosting. Perhaps you have a matzo I can carry with me on my journey?”

Douglas Walrath is Lowry Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology, the former Bangor Theological Seminary. He lives in Strong.

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