Race and ethnic conflict is the hot topic from Ferguson, MO, to Gaza, Palestine. A common question is: How can we bridge the gaps to find common ground? That question has always puzzled me. I was never quite sure why. I grew up in lily white suburbs, in an upper middle class household, yet I find myself and my family joyfully accepted in the Black and Hispanic and Haitian communities. We have broken bread in basement churches and attended festive weddings. Race or ethnicity has never been a barrier.
So I got to thinking. Am I weird? Are my friends weird? I know our family has been blessed to have experienced such diversity; but what makes Sunday morning the most segregated time of the week for most people, but not so much for us?
I know I was raised being taught that “there is only one race, the human race!” Our parents entertained a lot. When they did, they invited people from all classes and all races to the same parties. We had Gov. Levander, all the sitting judges in the state, along with some waitresses, hairdressers, and folks on disability, and everyone in between, to one party. I got to experience the other lesson that my dad drilled into us: “Everybody is just the same. When they get up in the morning they put on their pants one leg at a time.” With this lesson, I was taught to fear no one, to worship no one, to put no one down. With all the different kinds of people getting drunk and letting their guard down in our house, I got to see this up front and personal. I witnessed powerful politicians and judges crying in vulnerability as I drove them home. I saw acts of class and grace from the poorest there. I was just a fly on the wall clearing dishes, emptying ashtrays, jockeying cars, taking keys, etc., learning life lessons.
My parents told us quite different stories from their childhoods growing up in the Depression. My dad told of his mom helping support at least three other families at any given time while the family skimped by. His dad had a good car repair business. My mom told us of having live-in maids and the lessons she learned from them. My mom would take in runaways, always on the condition that they had to call their moms and let them know they were OK. Invariably, it led to her returning them home the next day. Regardless, this was unusual for an upper middle class household in the lily white suburbs; the home of state GOP committee persons.
So I have this background. Then I studied the Scripture. Our story starts out with Adam and Eve. It doesn’t start out with Adam & Eve, Max & Olga, Sammy & Elmira, Omar & Ayisha, Chin & Xiang. We are one family! We are all brothers and sisters! So, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew (those are the religions who use this story), all mankind are one family! There are no gaps to bridge. When I see a man or woman, I see a long lost cousin. We have an icon of Adam in my house to remind us of our common, great, great, great, great … great, grandfather!
My atheist dad didn’t need the story of Adam and Eve to tell him we were one family. He knew we were one common humanity and that there is a law of justice or balance built into the universe, that whatever one does, good or ill, it has repercussions. He hoped to leave more good than bad echoes behind.
The first time I walked into a prison, I did not notice the iron gate clanging shut behind me. Many people have asked me that and have told me about how that gave them the willies the first time they visited a prison. No. I remember clearly. I was just struck with how terribly we were treating these, our brothers, supposedly presumed innocent. This was supposed to be a jail, actually. I had to walk through a two tiered block of cells with open walls, just bars. I could see every sink and toilet and bunk. The single TV was blaring Gilligan’s Island at the end of the block overhead. I walked the length of it on the steel floor to the activity room to have the Bible study. My eyes were wet with tears. That was me in those cells and it was humiliating. There are no gaps to bridge.
A couple weeks later, I started a Bible study in the Philadelphia House of Corrections. I was a Mennonite at the time. I had a beard and no mustache, dark curly hair, and round wire rim glasses; so did Freeman Miller, one of the other Mennonite volunteers in the House of Corrections. Occasionally some of the men would get us confused. I would just say, “That’s OK. All us white boys look alike.” It was almost always an all Black room. Uproarious laughter would follow. Over the years, it has gotten to the point that I have become the world’s worst eyewitness. I spend so much time among the homeless and the poor, I will be talking about someone and someone will ask me to describe what they look like and I will. They want to know what race they are and I draw a complete blank. It never even registers. I tell them, “I’ll have to take note the next time I see him.” They just look at me like I have three heads. We are all of the human race like my parents taught me and the Bible teaches me. There are no gaps to bridge.
OK. I’ve talked about race, but what about gender and gender preference? In Genesis 1:27, it says: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” St. Paul says that Jesus made them equal “neither male nor female” in Galatians 3. When I was in grade school, I was severely pigeon toed. I also had zero depth perception. I had to wear corrective wing-tips with custom heels or go barefoot. I couldn’t field or hit in baseball to save my soul. I was extremely bright academically. The bullies called me “Pidge”, then “fem” and “queer” and “faggot” by 4th grade. There was a group of about six of us who were routinely bullied. I was the biggest one, so I kind of protected the others. I got beat up regularly. I’m straight. I was rather precocious about it even. I started dating at 11. (Everyone thought I was 13 or 14.) But I know what it’s like to be treated like a queer. The Mennonite Church even defrocked me for being gay, over false accusations. They never met with me. They never even notified me of their action. It was because under my leadership, ours were the only Bible studies or services in the Phila. prisons that allowed the openly gay and transvestite inmates to attend. Plus I had spoken out in favor of the distribution of condoms in the prison. Is the gospel for all or not? Does God love all or just some? Am I to regard myself as chief of sinners except those homosexuals; they are far worse than me! I can’t find that verse. It was against the rules to have sex in prison. Yes. We all know that. We also know it happens. AIDS had just hit the prison populations in a big way. Are we going to preserve life? I told the rest of the chaplains and the wardens, if there were a safe way to do a needle exchange, I would like to see the institution do that, too! I can’t minister to dead people. “God takes no delight in the death of a sinner.” A Christian’s first job is to preserve life. I lost my chaplaincy for it. So, I was defrocked for being thought to be homosexual, while being married with four daughters. I do wear bright colors! I cook, sew and do art. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” (Romans 12:16a) So I hang out with gays. I grew up hanging out with lawyers. People are people. We each have our own battles to fight, our own struggles to deal with. The two most profound statements in the Gospels are: “Judge not.” and “Jesus wept.” I believe they are connected.
There are no gaps to bridge.
So why is there so much hate? It is learned. There are evil forces that would like to see mankind divided, and the poor and middle classes battling among themselves, instead of cooperating for the common good. So jealousy and lies and false stereotypes and racism all get injected into the mix and ginned up.
We need to all take a deep breath. Take a step back. Take a fresh look to see our own human aspirations, hopes and fears, in our cousins’ eyes. They may be a different shape eye or be in a different colored face, but if you look close, you will see Grandpa Adam or Oma Eve staring back.
There are no gaps to bridge.