Troy's Take: Activist Paul Rifkin Finds Faith in a Higher Power
By: Troy Clarkson, November 5, 2013
It has been said that religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell, and that spirituality is for those who have been there.
Sometimes, our path in life leads us to one or the other. In other cases, both. In any case, the convergence of these two celestial concepts is one that many frequently contemplate and adjust their daily decisions and actions to either out of a fear of heading to Hades or a commitment to spiritual values. Others are sure of nothing more than the uncertainty of ever knowing the absolute. Confirmed agnostic and famed orator Clarence Darrow, notable lawyer in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, simply noted that, “I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”
Paul Rifkin used to be sure of that same conviction that he simply didn’t know what others did. As a confirmed agnostic for most of his adult life, though, he still wants to go to heaven. Born Jewish in heritage but without any formal religion, a decree of his decidedly socialist but loving and virtuous father, Paul has spent his life searching for something he finally found recently right here in Falmouth.
This septuagenarian businessman, successful proprietor of Waquoit’s Moonakis Café and a frequent subject of musings in this space for both his civil disobedience and civic commitment, has a new cause and a new purpose. He has hung up his protest sandwich board and instead holds a music hymnal in his hands. He has traded handcuffs for handshakes. In his own words, he is “bending away” from activism, and bending toward spirituality.
As we sat together on Main Street and enjoyed a succulent sandwich at Bean & Cod last weekend, this former hippie and hedonist demonstrated a transcendent transformation. Always committed to communal experiences, whether they were at a Buddhist monastery in California in the 1970s, or breaking bread (and pumpkin pancakes) with friends at the Moonakis, Paul now understands and equates this lifelong commitment to the betterment of his fellows to the influence of something—or some being—in his life and the lives of the others he has touched with his activism.
The word communal has its roots in Paul’s life pursuits. A search of synonyms for this term commonly used to describe gatherings dedicated to the greater good reveals a treasure trove of bon mots that describe Paul’s life of purpose. Collaborative, combined, common, collective, concerted, conjoint, conjunct, cooperative, joint, multiple, mutual, pooled, public, shared, and united are what I found when I checked Merriam-Webster’s online definition of synonyms for communal.
Those terms are all what I found when I had the gift of watching a spiritual experience unfold before my own eyes on Main Street. The man who had gained notoriety in events as varied as being arrested protesting the Iraq War and helping found the Falmouth Eats Together series of community dinners, has now embarked on a new voyage—a spiritual journey that is leading him to leave behind hostility and embrace tranquility.
Long considered a leading citizen in our town’s easternmost village, Paul was recently crowned “Citizen of the Year” at the Waquoit Day Celebration at that village’s congregational church at the end of the appropriately named Parson’s Lane. Along with the church’s pastor, the Reverend Nell Fields, and other local notables, Paul helped celebrate the day by offering a stint in a dunk tank, raising both funds and awareness for the church and the village. Shortly thereafter, the Waquoit congregation and Ms. Fields hosted the latest version of Falmouth Eats Together at their parish hall, where dozens of Falmouthites, with backgrounds from Yale to jail, met, ate, chatted, and shared their common experiences.
As many times as Paul has organized or attended such a shared and common gathering, this one was different. A parishioner who was in attendance to help serve came up to the former hippie hedonist and simply noted, “You’re Paul from the dunk tank.” Like John Belushi in the iconic scene from “The Blues Brothers” when Jake Blues sees the light beaming through the window of the church and is transformed and catapulted into his “mission from God,” Paul at that moment had a perspective change. Always grateful and sometimes faithful, Paul now understood why. Ms. Fields now affectionately notes that his time in the dunk tank was Paul’s baptism.
Ever the organizer, though, Paul’s newfound faith in a higher power has led to yet another community benefit. He has organized “Higher Grounds,” a coffee house at the Waquoit Congregational Church built on the same premise as Falmouth Eats Together—that people from all corners of the community will come together and enjoy the human experience with one another.
The inaugural version of this community event, featuring the music of singer/songwriter Brenda Evans, will be held this Sunday at the church from 4 to 6 PM. The event is not a religious one. It is just another opportunity for people to meet, eat, greet, and share. Together. That’s the way the hippie hedonist has always wanted it. The venue has just changed from the halls of justice to a house of worship.
This column is not a religious one. I am not an evangelist and don’t intend to preach in this space. I am, however, a man of faith. I always have been. To witness the transformation of a man, right here in Falmouth, who sat before me a couple of years ago and eagerly professed his agnosticism and now professes a strong and abiding faith, is worth noting. In today’s society filled with hatred, decline and decay, it’s worth repeating.
Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.