Foreign. Alien. Must adapt. Can’t adapt.
The most impossible adjustment ever. Within a week, I’d gone from ultimate freedom to this.
I was a missionary. I sat in my apartment, unclipping and re-clipping my name-tag. A constant mold stench permeated the building. The brown laminate of the kitchen looked like a bad remodeling job from the 1960s. The air was hot, cooled by nothing but a circular fan that coughed when you plugged it in.
“Let’s go,” my missionary companion said. I’d never met the guy before yesterday. Blond hair. Short. From Utah.
A stranger. Yet this stranger would become my only companion for the next three months. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week.
My only privacy was my trips to the bathroom. And even then, I could sometimes hear his breath through the paper-thin walls.
I hated it. This wasn’t home.
But that’s not what troubled me most. It was my first day preaching the word of Jesus. In a mere ten minutes, I’d be knocking on the doors of more strangers. Not so bad, right? Except my assignment was the ghettos of Kalamazoo Michigan.
I trembled, certain today I would get shot, or mugged, or robbed, or mutilated.
This was the ghetto, after all.
As we drove, the edges of the grass became less distinct as it bled into the cracking concrete. Stray dogs barked at passers-by. A limping man with oversized pants sported a brown-bag-lined beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He kicked aside a dirty diaper as he sang a slurred song I’d never heard.
My tremble increased, as did my “righteous” anger. This city was drenched in sin. The filth in the streets was symbolic of the corruption in the hearts of the people. Lies and filth. Why had they forsaken the God who gave them life? Why had they fallen prey to the temptations of the flesh? Their only salvation was me–a delegate of God himself, sent to lift them to my exalted upper-middle white class standards.
But it was I that needed the fixing.
These people needed help, not a rebuke. And the change they needed was much smaller than the change I needed.
Eventually, I called the ghettos of Kalamazoo home. Never had I met people who were more humble. Never did I see people guarding their emotions in a coy attempt to keep me and my message at bay. I never encountered a slammed door. Never did I interrupt dinner without being asked to join them. Never did I feel unsafe walking the garbage-strewn streets. They protected “Jesus people” with the devotion of an army of secret service agents.
Never had I met a group of people who were more human than they.
Did they have their problems? Absolutely. But once I removed the beam from my own eye, the mote in theirs seemed to vanish.
Delayed flights put me in Vegas two hours late. I thought the waiting was over. But no. I waited for 45 minutes for the shuttle to the rental car place. I tightened and loosened my fists. Tightened and loosened. A wave of obnoxious teenagers cut in front of me in line, laughing and jostling me from my position. I growled.
After entering the shuttle, I was forced to stand in the overcrowded bus as it drove to another terminal where I then had to take another shuttle. More standing followed as I was surrounded by tourists–loud, cackling, annoying.
My blood boiled.
At the rental car office, I again stood in a line.
Another 45 minutes passed. I was the next person in line. The desk clerk looked up and nodded me over. A young, tattoo infested, wife-beater wearing, body odor-drenched dude strolled through the doors, skipped the line, and jumped right to the open attendant.
Another five minutes passed before I finally acquired my rental. After plugging my hotel into my GPS, I fought midnight traffic.
Then I had another problem…
The hotel was fifty feet away and I couldn’t find a way to get inside. I circled the hotel, over and over and over. The flashing lights of the casinos blinded me with a cacophony of visual noise.
More raucous laughter. Women walked the streets with more skin on display than clothes. A dude honked at me as I waited for a man to leave a parking spot. People spilled into casino after casino, throwing away what little money they had in a ridiculous attempt at getting rich. Cigarette smoke filled the strip like a muted fog.
Noise noise noise.
The city of sin. Drenched in atrocities. Moguls fed on the ignorant. The ignorant threw away their lives. The city was obsessed with gratifying pleasure while forsaking that which brought true happiness.
I hated it, despised it, loathed it. I wanted nothing more than to get inside my hotel room, far from the noise, the sin, the stench.
I had to escape.
But it was I that needed fixing.
The following day, after having rested and re-oriented my expectations, I entered the elevator with an old Asian man sporting a Hawaiian shirt. He had stooped posture and wore a grin as wide as the Dalai Lama. The door closed. Silence followed.
“Have a good day?” the man asked.
I shrugged. “You?”
“Bad day for me.” He grinned. “Too much gambling!”
He laughed. I laughed. He laughed harder. I laughed harder. When the elevator dinged, we were both laughing as we exited.
I really only had one personal (non-business) related interaction with anybody in Vegas. It was that Dalai Lama looking guy. That one guy alone change my perspective.
I wonder what would have happened had I talked to more people? Might my impression of Vegas change?
The re-emergence of racism
Where’s your uncomfort zone? Our target of fear/hate might change from one generation to the next. Native Americans, African Americans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Hispanics, Middle Easterners…
The list goes on.
I once thought we had made progress. When I first heard Barack Obama give a speech on racism several years back, I thought, Wow. Lincoln would be proud. Look how far we’ve come. As a nation, we have swallowed our racism and elected a black man as our president.
With great optimism, I thought we’d never go back.
My how wrong I was. Our racism, it seems, has found a new target. Immigration and terrorism have made us uncomfortable. And just like I had done in Vegas and in Kalamazoo, we have convinced ourselves that our own discomfort somehow means something is wrong with those who make us uncomfortable.
Really? Well, that’s just a stupid conclusion.
If I’m uncomfortable, whose fault is that?
If that mosque down the street makes you uncomfortable, whose fault is that?
If you feel awkward around your gay cousin, whose fault is that?
It wasn’t long ago when my religious progenitors were raped, murdered, and expelled because they had the gall to believe God spoke to their prophet. Only after our leader was murdered and after three massive exoduses did we begin to feel safe.
But we are. At least currently. But history has a way of repeating itself. After we’ve conquered the current racial antipathy, perhaps anger will again rise against the Mormons. I hope I won’t ever see an angry mob murder my children. I hope my wife will not be raped by someone who loathes my faith. I hope to never hear the news that the leaders of my faith have been assassinated by some anti-Mormon nut job.
I don’t think it’ll happen. I hope it won’t happen. But unless I have the courage to defend the group I don’t belong to, how can I expect anyone will defend me when I become the target?
We all belong to a fringe group. Our turn of persecution will one day come. So before we join the bigoted bandwagon, perhaps we ought to spend a day or two wondering when our time will come.
But I don’t think that’s enough. I didn’t overcome my (self)-righteous judgments in Kalamazoo simply by wondering when I’d become the target of hatred. The solution was to understand them–to spend time personally speaking to those who made me uncomfortable.
Feel uncomfortable around Muslims? Gays? Hispanics? Chinese? Russians? Jews? Mormons? Find one and talk to them—understand them.
Cuz here’s the thing–these labels (Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, Chinese, whatever) we use are pretty worthless. We all share 99% of our DNA. That means we’re 99% similar. Yeah, we might have differences of beliefs and opinions, but we all love, we all laugh, we all hurt, and we all despise being hated based on how we’re labeled.
And the rest of the 1%? That’s interesting, not threatening.
I might be an American Mormon white guy, but I’m really just a human–99% similar to you. I have my strengths (believe it or not), you have yours. I have my weaknesses, you have yours. I fit some Mormon stereotypes and bristle against others.
But I’m human.
So is that Hispanic guy down the street.
So is that gay cousin of yours.
So go out there–make some friends. Of the 99% of things you could have in common, find the one or two or ten thousand things you do. And of the 1%–find something to admire.
We all have something to admire.