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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Choose This Day

     If you chop up the stuff you put in the compost pile, it disintegrates faster. I’m pretty sure this applies to human cultures too. How many ways can we divide people up? Black vs. white? Male vs. female? I guess the barriers are nothing new. Buffalo Springfield sang a long time ago about “battle lines being drawn.” And there’s sure enough been some rapid decay.
     A while back, I saw it pretty vividly in the beating heart of middle America, the package pick-up department at Sears. A man’s T-shirt dug a fetid trench with its picture of two voluptuous blondes in bikinis perched on the sides of a boat. A caption praised the boatmaker’s “twin screws” and opined that “Two screws are better than one.” Next to the man stood his little daughter, about three or four years old.
     Feeling rather sick, I turned my eyes to the lone clerk on duty, who was having a tough time with customers who didn’t quite grasp the system. He asked a woman about her vehicle, and she stared blankly. “Car? Truck?” he said. “Something to carry your purchase in?” Finally, she caught on and led him out the door.
     On his return, he walked around the room and asked the rest of us for our receipts. He got another blank stare from a man standing near the warehouse door. The man finally said he didn’t have a receipt, but he was here to pick something up and that his wife had talked to a lady. Was there a lady in there? The clerk explained that he was the only one around, and he could not bring any goods out without a receipt. The customer was sure he didn’t need one. He wanted to talk to “the lady.” The clerk repeated the necessity of a receipt. Finally, the customer exploded in profanity. “Ah, ____ it!” he shouted. “I tried to get the ____ing thing Thursday,” and on and on. He complained and cursed his way out the door. As the clerk backed through the warehouse door, he looked at me, shook his head, and said, “Some people.”
     Soon he reappeared with my picnic table on a dolly and rolled it out to my waiting van. He was working hard, and drenched with sweat. As he hefted the table, I tried to think of a way to encourage him. Brows crinkled in sympathy, I said, “I’m not mad at you.”
     He burst out laughing and nudged my arm. “That guy sounded like that rapper, that Tupac Shakur.” He was still laughing as he returned to the store. I was left to ponder some facts. The man with the filthy T-shirt was white, maybe late thirties. The man with the nasty mouth was white, probably in his fifties. The clerk was young and black. And even-tempered. And wise. A middle-aged white lady, I admired him for seeming to recognize that the dividing lines here were drawn not between black and white, male and female, young and old, but between decent and indecent, mannerly and crude, considerate and selfish— one might even say human and anti-human. I was happy to think that we both had rejected the foul and degrading and stood on the side of God’s law: Love your neighbor as yourself. Maybe more of us could give it a try.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What's for Lunch?

   More than twenty years ago, I found myself in a Pizza Hut at lunch time.  Ordinarily, I would not choose Pizza Hut for lunch, but, waiting for LensCrafters to finish my new glasses, I had first tried a Subway where several people stood at the counter while the sole worker complained loudly into a telephone that he was alone in the store, and there was no way he could do a special order. He was still complaining into the phone when I gave up and left. I was tired, hot and pregnant, and so hungry and dehydrated, I dragged myself to the first available alternative. Like a good Presbyterian, I figure there is a reason for everything, and I think I was driven to that Pizza Hut to observe a remarkable scene.
     Over my enormous pebbly plastic tumbler of ice water, I watched as two women entered the store and sat down together. They wore smart outfits which suggested they must work in an office, maybe an insurance broker’s, or a bank. The waitress who greeted them and took their orders was rather a raw-boned creature with bleached-blonde hair pulled back a little too tight from an angular face. She gave the ladies their drinks and brought their lunches. The two ate and headed back, I suppose, to the office.
     So what? Well, one of the office workers was white, and the other was black. The waitress looked the part of a redneck. And it was all perfectly ordinary. That was the remarkable part to me. Remarkable, because I was born in 1950, grew up in Florida and remember the lunch counter sit-ins of the Sixties. Black students, dedicated to non-violence and human dignity, sat at “white only” lunch counters in “five and dimes” in several cities and asked to be served. Occasionally, they were, but sometimes they sat all day.
     In 1963 came a low point of cruelty, a high point of courage, and a turning point in the movement. A mixed group of black and white sat at the lunch counter of the Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth’s. Refused service, they stayed and waited. This group was soon pressed by a mob of young white yahoos with rolled sleeves and cigarettes. Not content with screaming insults, the young men began to anoint the sitters’ heads with sugar, ketchup, salt, mustard. This made the news. There’s a well-known photograph of the young heroes and their tormentors. I think this image made many people see the inhumanity of racism and the nobility of the movement inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. It had that effect on me. Thirty years later, I compared that tension to the ordinariness of the lunch scene in front of me. I called down a blessing on the brave pioneers and on these three women. How ordinary. And how splendid.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

All God's Children Got Dancing Shoes

     People of different races can’t possibly understand each other’s lives, I’ve been told of late in discussions surrounding the George Zimmerman trial. You’re a racist! You’re illogical! How can we possibly be friends? Perhaps by being brothers and sisters.
     It’s thirteen years ago now, but our church held a hoedown in the sanctuary, disguised for the evening as a barn with pumpkins and hay bales. A professional caller taught us square-dance moves, line-dance steps and traditional reels. (I myself am hopeless at line dancing and get dizzy when swung.) Beaded belts and boots, silver collar tips and gingham dresses whirled about the floor.
     My friend Mariela, who comes from Colombia, had decorated her straw hat with bright flowers. I told her it reminded me of Minnie Pearl. Crystal, from Taiwan, got thumbs up for her plaid shirt and jeans. Claudio, a transplant from Chile, got teased for hailing from western South America. Rose, a tall, dark, elegant African in a denim shirt, danced with her French husband. He knew minimal English and didn’t understand the caller, so they often wound up in the wrong place, but always with big smiles on their faces.
     A teenage boy picked up one of the bandanna- bedecked toddlers and danced with her. During a reel, each pair of dancers raised their hands in an arch for the rest of the dancers to pass under. When two tiny girls took their turn, one of the big men got down on hands and knees to crawl through.
     The caller, the real thing in his tall hat and assertive belt buckle, took a break from explaining steps and teasing the square that somehow wound up with three sides to tell us a story. “Once upon a time, a bunch of wonderful people came to Pine Ridge Church. That’s it,” he said. We cheered.
     Later, I said to Rose, “You’ve experienced some real American culture tonight.”
     She replied, “I love it. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
     Soon I realized how much we both had said. Until the multiculturalists hacked America into hostile, competing groups, each asserting that our oppression is worse than your oppression, the United States was a place where everyone could share an ideal of constitutional government and equality before the law. We’ve had plenty of missteps and failures, sure, but most of us could be nudged toward fairness by an appeal to the ideal. That’s why the civil rights movement succeeded in spite of the dogs and fire hoses.
     The church also offers unity around an ideal. Our pastor points out that people were divided into separate tribes with different languages at Babel. Then they were reunited at Pentecost when the Spirit of God came to live within His people, and those who had come from afar heard the praise of God in their own languages. We’re all cousins, the Bible reminds us, and there is no room for racism in the family. By faith, we gather at the cross of Christ with absolute equality.
     As our society fragments, this message ought to be shouted from the rooftops. Here and there, people are living it. What do you say? Want to dance?