October 17, 2013 by rebelwithalabelmaker
I spent this last weekend trying not to give everyone the plague. Normally when I am sick, I hide in my house. This time, though, I was scheduled to attend a gathering of Unitarian and Universalist Seminary Students. And help with the food preparation. For the first 24 hours or so, I was still contagious, so I had to do help with food preparation without, you know, going near the food.
As you all know, public health and I have a complex history, in which I have demonstrated my ability to be contagious but not infect others. Note to self (and also, Internet): This is not as good a way to introduce yourself as you might think. Turns out, great hand washing skills are not first on the list of the 17 competencies that we are supposed to develop during the course of our ministerial formation (it was a ministerial students’ conference).
As for me, every time they talked about community and bringing together people from all corners of the continent, I pictured one of those disease maps from a pandemic-themed movie and a voice-over saying “There were once hundreds of thousands of Unitarians and Universalists in North America, until the ministerial students’ gathering of 2013, when fifty infected seminarians went back to their home communities and…”
That said, every time we talked about the big changes needed in the movement, and every time the group was united in a sudden moment of aha and transformation, every time there was something awesome in the room, the same image came into my mind. From an entirely different angle. Let me explain.
On the way to the conference, as I zombied along in a huge lineup in the Toronto airport, my attention was drawn to the front of the line, where a bubble of fun seemed to be erupting. This is not how I usually describe airport lineups.
Michelle was the name of the woman who was in charge of scanning your boarding pass and pointing you to a line to go through security. Since this is not a very hard job, she had taken it upon herself to expand her vision. As she worked, she joked with passengers, shepherded people who needed assistance, and wished people Happy Thanksgiving (if they were carrying a Canadian passport). Michelle was clearly not Canadian herself (thick southern accent) but she knew she was an ambassador and was acting accordingly. By the time I reached the front of the line, I was grinning broadly from watching the process of her transforming each traveller, as I awaited my turn for a blessing. I wasn’t disappointed. With a huge smile, Michelle took in my grinning face and said “Now, Honey, that is what I like to see!”.
Security was filled with smiles that day. Which is an amazing feat, if you think about it. Based on my calculations, Michelle saw five thousand people last Friday. Every last one of them was about to participate in a familiar and joyless ritual—one based in fear, accusation, and invasion of privacy. Normally, a vacant and businesslike veneer is cast over us as we move through the tight choreography. Removing layers from our bodies and laying out everything we are carrying to be run through a metal machine, we think only of being efficient… and not at all about being human.
As I watched the transformed travellers, I imagined what I would see if I could X-ray deeper into the people. Airport travellers are a vulnerable bunch. They are often exhausted, recently torn from loved ones, overworked, ill, or bereaved. Even when the reason for travel is a celebration, airport security is not the moment of that celebration. It is a hurdle they mount while their minds are elsewhere as they press through time towards a vision. Or , if they are returning, they struggle to hold onto a vision—as a memory or experience slips away piece by piece and their regular lives inch towards them with slow inevitability.
These varying states invite disconnection. With a loving, joyful, exuberant touch, Michelle invited each one of us back into connection with one another and with whatever moment of life was in front of us.
For me, this joyful pause lasted about three minutes.
Then, I was jolted out of my theological ponderings (which is, of course, what ministerial students always do in airport lineups) by a voice that I can only describe as vicious with frustration.
“Who put this bag in the bin like this?” a woman demanded of the group of us, “This will never work!” Before I could step forward, she had rearranged my bag, and stalked off. I stood there feeling stupid, in sock feet with my belt and shoes in my hand, as a stranger ran my personal items through a machine to be examined with meticulous suspicion.
I stepped through the scanner, was patted down, and began to put my layers back on—jacket, shoes, belt, backpack—feeling the last remnants of my grin dissolving. Just as Michelle’s joy was infectious, this woman’s sharp tone seemed to burrow into me. I found myself thinking darkly about how I hadn’t laid my bag on the conveyor belt that badly—then laughing unkindly at myself for even bothering to get defensive over something that so clearly shouldn’t effect me. Or, infect, me.
And then I paused, and thought “this is why I have an immune system”. I decided to return to my joyful state, and remember that I am not powerless in what I choose to accept.
This did not work.
Well it worked a bit, but I still felt sad. Not because I couldn’t cope with being snapped at—I could, in fact, let that go. What I couldn’t ignore was how my vision of all the people leaving Michelle’s care lifted up and blessed was now inextricably attached to them floating over to this sharp and obnoxious woman. So, fully assembled again, I leaned across the counter, and looked the woman in the eye, and smiled. I explained that it was my bag, and that I did it that way because I’d been scolded in Saskatoon for doing exactly what they were wanting us to do in Toronto.
A switch flipped in her demeanor. She came over and leaned in, explaining—not unkindly—about the different machines, and how each one had different needs, and how they had posted information about it, but people didn’t notice the signs.
“That must be frustrating.” I said. She nodded, and apologized for being sharp. I thanked her, and headed off. I had walked a few steps when she caught up to me.
“Thank you for your niceness.” She said, before walking back to her post.
All weekend, every time I washed my hands (which was often, and thoroughly) I thought about Michelle, and about the Ministry I witnessed her carrying out. I thought about all the things they teach you when you are planning to be a Minister. About how much we talk about “Ministerial Authority”. I don’t remember Michelle because of her Official Authority—although, in that environment, she had a great deal of it, and I had none. Her impact came from her contagiousness—which arose partially out the situation, and partially out of her character.
Being a ministerial student can be a bit of an un-empowering position. We have authority in many situations, but very little input into the process of our formation (this is particularly noticeable when you’re Canadian, because so much of what you have to learn doesn’t apply to the country you will be working in). You spend a lot of time tossing around names of big decison-making institutions, and it’s easy to forget that Official Authority is not the only kind. If my calculations are correct, 10% of the current student body of the continent was in that room. We came from all over. Our power of “Official Ministerial Authority” was thoroughly eclipsed by our power of “Ministerial Contagion”.
At the end of the weekend, in our closing ritual, I thought about this again, as we sang a song that is well known to us:
From you I receive
To you, I give
Together, we share
And from this, we live
I hate this song.
I don’t just dislike it, I hate it.
It’s not the song’s fault. I have a bad association with it. It comes from one of those experiences of formation that was supposed to be a positive learning experience and wasn’t, that has always left me with a lingering sense of betrayal. Whenever we sing this song, this stupid song that is supposed to be about passing the love along, I find myself standing outside. My stomach turned by this rose-coloured inauthentic picture, thinking dark thoughts about how it’s not always that good. I find myself thinking not just about being hurt, but about feeling stupid for being hurt when nobody else is. For not moving on.
It is the feeling of standing at the conveyor belt with my belt and shoes in my hand, not sure what to do next or how to put things back together. At this gathering, this feeling was all the more painful because a few of the others in the room were people whose stories were similar in some way. Co-seminarians for whom I had no words of comfort other than “this process doesn’t always go as the way it is supposed to”. Despite the almost infantile obviousness of this statement (this is how human things work. Imperfectly), these words feel like a betrayal to say out loud, so we whisper them in side conversations.
None of this story is exclusive to ministerial formation—it’s true of all the complex human stuff. Church, and raising kids, and family thanksgiving.
The song lies.
Except it doesn’t. This is one of those times when maybe I was lied to… but if so, it was a team effort. The song doesn’t actually say anything about love or peace or joy. It just says: From you I receive, to you I give.
This could be love and joy or betrayal and humiliation or a bad lung virus. The truth of the song is just this—that to be human is to be an agent of contagion. We recognize this but do not control it. We love it or hate it, use it or are used by it. It brings us delight and pain… For better for worse, we are connected in this way.
It is not a statement that this is good, it is a statement that it is true.
Whether or not things happen for a reason, it can’t be denied that things happen. The reason part is often up to us to create. The song is not the theme song to an inspirational story—it could just as easily be a song of tragedy.
Except for the end. The end where after the giving and receiving we connect with one another, and decide how we are going to carry on. The part where we decide, as best we can, what to do with it all. We create the seed for the next verse. If you can even say “next verse” because the beautiful truth of it is that it’s a song sung in a round, with all the parts jumbling together.
From you I receive, to you I give, together we share…
And we make it all better? Maybe. But the song doesn’t say that. It’s a pretty honest song. It can be the theme song for Michelle, standing at her post, blessing exhausted and vulnerable travellers—or for the spread of escalating animosity that created the necessity for the ritual of airport security. It can be the theme song for transforming what is deeply painful into growth and learning. Or it can be the theme song for something else—for nothing more than pausing to be aware of your interconnections, and hopefully taking enough comfort from that to make it through the next day. For, to be human is to be an agent of contagion, which leaves none of us without some small piece of both power and responsibility.
Together, we share, it says… and then, with such deep honesty that it makes me humble, it neither preaches, fixes, or instructs.
And from this, the song finishes simply, we live.