She’s straight: Nearing graduation, Lu Trenze Butchek talk about Islam,

Chris Hamilton

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, staff, faculty members and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus every day. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy to think of the strangers passing by as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see every day. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you, and now they won’t be strangers.

Lu Trenze Butcher spoke with her mouth constantly perched, ready to flutter into a smile. But instead of giggling through another story about her homegirls or mom, she closed her glimmering almond-shaped eyes and quickly turned toward Mecca.
The University senior converted from Baptist to Islam four years ago. Lu Trenze, 24, brushed a small area of her living room before she laid down upon a rug to pray. She raised her hands to her cheeks then let them fall, swinging in a full circle. While softly chanting in Arabic, she dropped her manicured finger tips to her feet. And in one smooth movement Lu Trenze was on her knees with her head bowed to the carpet.
“If I don’t do my salats I feel rushed,” Lu Trenze said after removing an earth-tone wrap from her head. “I do it to keep myself balanced. I must start my day with prayer and reading the Koran. I don’t even use an alarm clock.”
Lu Trenze needs to relax. In a frenzy to graduate this spring, she’s taking 20 credits in the Inter-College Program, where she majors in social work, family education and public health. In addition, she works full-time at an emergency shelter, counseling women and children. Occasionally, she picks up a shift at another shelter.
Lu Trenze said Islam allows her to wind down from her stressful days. For her, it’s more than a religion. “It’s a way of life,” she patiently explained. She added that while she doesn’t attend mosque ceremonies very often, she will when she moves to Atlanta this summer.
Admittedly, she said her version of Islam is self-styled. Although she’s never been a drinker, Lu Trenze does date. She also goes dancing once a month and doesn’t cover herself fully, which is the custom for Muslim women.
That wasn’t always her way though. When she first became Muslim after a friend piqued her interest with the Arabic language, she entered it completely.
“Oh, I thought it was just a phase,” said her mother Catherine Butcher as she cracked a knowing, toothy grin in the basement of her North Minneapolis home. However, she said she’s accepted her daughter’s conversion since its initial shock. She approves of the morals and values of the religion, she added.
At first, her grandparents didn’t warm up to her conversion either. But Lu Trenze said they eventually warmed up to it a little bit.
“They’re just happy I ain’t pregnant or married or on crack,” she quipped with one of those giggles.

The astute listener
One of Lu Trenze’s best friends, Camara Refined Earth, joined Islam at about the same time. They’re in different sects; Refined Earth is a Five Percenter while Lu Trenze is Sunni Muslim.
Refined Earth said part of Lu Trenze’s appeal is her ability to understand where others are coming from despite differences.
“She’s a mediator,” said Refined Earth, a 23-year-old University graduate. “I gave Trenze this Balunga mask that the judges in Ghana wear. When there’s a dispute, she puts people together and says, You guys are gonna talk bout this.'”
Lu Trenze constantly finds herself at the center of arguments because she is such an astute listener, Refined Earth said.
Lu Trenze and Refined Earth belong to a tight group of four young women who’ve known each other since they went to North High School. They all plan to stay together by moving to Atlanta by the millennium.
Even back at North, Lu Trenze was well-known. She was a track runner, a basketball player and involved in the community. “She had this carefree curl and a pony tail that fell over her eye,” Refined Earth remembered in a sweet voice.
Lu Trenze’s mom, on the other hand, mostly remembers her on the phone. It got so bad that when Catherine Butcher would go to work as a physical education and health teacher in St. Paul, she would lock all the phones from the house in her car’s trunk.
Lu Trenze went to Roosevelt High School for a medical magnet program her junior and senior years, but that just expanded her friendship base, Refined Earth said.
“Everybody just knew Trenze,” her younger brother Leondrel Butcher, 20, said while handling the thin whiskers on his chin. “She hung out with a lot of unique people.”
With his eyes looking up at the ceiling, fixed on memories, Leondrel Butcher said her friends never allowed him to hang with the wrong crowd. Her crowd often set up youth dances and charity events.
After graduating from Roosevelt, Lu Trenze followed the beaten path of her parents and grandparents by attending Grambling State University in Louisiana. She was born while her parents were students there.
Lu Trenze said she noticed the differences between the northern and southern United States immediately, especially at an all-black college.
“I told my mom I’ve never seen so many black people,” she laughed. And with her hand over her mouth she said, “I was almost afraid.”
But the experience was beneficial for Lu Trenze. She loved the personalized touch and close-knit environment, she said. She hadn’t had a black teacher since the sixth grade. However, Lu Trenze left Grambling for the University after the school closed its nursing program.
A care-full Butcher
Again and again, one of the first descriptions off the lips of those who know Lu Trenze is that she’s a caring person.
“She always has been,” said her father, Leondrais Butcher, in a satisfied tone. Lu Trenze’s parents are divorced.
He said as a child, Lu Trenze would share her favorite toys with the other children or take care of her brother.
The Medtronic managing engineer’s voice went from quiet to booming with excitement when he described one of his daughter’s accomplishments.
When Lu Trenze was still in high school, she ran track in a state meet. Lu Trenze qualified, but a friend needed to win in the relay to go further. A member of the relay team had been injured, so it was up to Lu Trenze to take her place.
It would be her second back-to-back race. She ran anchor and “gave 110 percent, won and collapsed,” her father said proudly. “She said, Now I understand, dad, when you say give it your heart,'” he said. He added that his daughter took that work ethic into school, jobs and future goals.
Her friends don’t question the size of Lu Trenze’s heart either. Her closest friends pointed out her willingness to make people feel welcome. They said she’s the one somebody would feel most comfortable talking to in a room full of strangers. And they’d probably end up “kickin’ it with her after the end of anything.”
“I’ve never seen her be cold or aloof to anybody,” said Reggie O’Neill, 22, in amazement of his own statement. “Even if she’s ever been mad at someone, it’s hard to take her seriously.” The Macalester College senior is hard-pressed to find negative traits in a woman he’s known since the ninth grade.
But that’s not true for everyone she knows. While her father claimed she’s a procrastinator and her mother declared she’s a hypochondriac, “she once kept calling me about a bump she thought was small pox,” her friends said she’s giving to a fault. They cited her willingness to lend money and time to just about anyone.
Her giving nature is, at the same time, what endears her to her friends.
“I was going out with this guy who was not good for me,” Refined Earth said in a serious voice. “And while we worked together at the Y(MCA), I would harp on him all day. One day she started crying, and I asked what’s wrong? She said, You have to break up with him. He hurt you and that hurts me.’ Well, I was like oooo … this is my girl to the end,” she squealed and slapped her hands together.
With a plain look on her face, Lu Trenze said crying is her release.

She’s straight
A block from the boarded-up businesses lining sections of West Broadway in North Minneapolis sits a red-bricked former rectory. It’s now St. Anne’s Place, an emergency shelter for homeless women and their children.
From her desk Teowonna Bambaduu, Lu Trenze’s co-worker, repeatedly asked a small boy in a filthy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt to “go find your momma.” With a wide smile, he ignored her and hugged the leg of anyone who would let him.
Lu Trenze is open-minded, fair and stern, insisted Bambaduu.
“Of course, when she first started she was real timid,” she said with a wry tilt of her head. “Her other job (at St. Joseph’s Home for Children) is just with kids, but here she has to deal with the mothers, too. And we get all kinds — ex-drug addicts, alcoholics, very religious women — all those different attitudes here.” Currently, there are 16 women and 35 children in the home.
At St. Anne’s, most of the women said Lu Trenze is straight with them. She makes eye contact and nods as she speaks to them. She listens. All ages are there. Some of the women are 19 years old, others are twice Lu Trenze’s age. She is constantly reminded of that fact.
Once her young age and timid nature was taken advantage of by some of the home’s women. A group of mothers at St. Anne’s were carousing and drinking, while neglecting their children. Lu Trenze eventually broke down crying in front of them, claiming they weren’t even trying and all her efforts were in vain.
“After that, we didn’t have another problem with those ladies,” Bambaduu said with an wide, open-mouthed laugh.
If Lu Trenze was once timid, she shows no hint of it now.
Part of her job requires her to facilitate a group with the women. Lu Trenze discusses health issues. Sex was on the agenda of one meeting, specifically safe sex. Some of the women are lesbians, so Lu Trenze promised it should be interesting.
Grumbles of “I don’t want to do this fucking thing,” came from several ladies before they took their seats in the shelter’s dining area. One woman asked why she should listen to her when she’s been having sex for more than 20 years.
But once packets of prophylactics and dental dams were passed out, the mood lightened and became boisterous. Lu Trenze even hinted they may have a raffle later for a vibrator.
Lu Trenze started by apologizing she wasn’t able to get anything flavored. Another round of complaints came when she said she’ll demonstrate how to put on a condom. The whines turned into chuckles as she struggled to roll a condom over an odd-shaped olive oil bottle.
“Hey, hey, if we all knew how to put on a condom, we wouldn’t have these little guys,” said a young woman as she pointed at some kids playing under a table.
Lu Trenze was not deterred by the noise. She spoke bluntly and with humor about how to insert a female condom. The women settled down and watched intently at what several admitted they’d never seen.
A walk-in closet
“I’m really gonna miss her when she leaves,” Bambaduu said with a pouty look.
Lu Trenze said she wants to take what she’s learned from her social service jobs to make a career in public policy. She’s moving to Atlanta in July in hopes of acquiring a job with the Center for Disease Control. Her dream is to oversee preventative programs for sexual health or homelessness.
She has no job lined up, but she’s full of plans. Her mother and father see to that.
“She probably won’t make a whole helluva lot of money, but she has a passion that justice be done, and she wants to help the needy,” Leondrais Butcher said. He added he’s confident her resolve will see her through.
Her mother was more diplomatic. She said Lu Trenze must get away from the family to live life on her own. She has to make mistakes and learn and grow, Catherine Butcher said.
“Experience is better bought than borrowed,” Catherine Butcher said recalling an adage her mother used to say. “I just think this is something she needs to experience.”
For all her tough exterior, Catherine Butcher is just as dependent upon her daughter and called her a momma’s girl. They speak on the phone several times a day, albeit mostly it’s Lu Trenze who calls her. Catherine and Leondrais Butcher claimed the move is for the best, and Lu Trenze will be only a phone call or plane ride away.
However, her mother admitted Lu Trenze leaving hasn’t really sunk in yet.
Lu Trenze was bursting at the thought of her future. She’ll be moving south with one of her homegirls. She seemed especially excited about getting a large closet in her next apartment. Lu Trenze shops when she’s depressed.
Right now she’s using three closets in her cooperative apartment in the Irving neighborhood. Boxes of shoes were stacked to the ceiling and a bar that holds blouses and dresses sagged dangerously in the middle.
“I’ve been in a tunnel for so long, and now I can finally see the light,” she said of her graduation. “I can’t wait for one job and an apartment with a walk-in closet.”