March 22, 2013 by rebelwithalabelmaker
In our first year at seminary, we volunteer with a needy group, to get ourselves out of our own comfort zones, and “have a cross-cultural experience with a different socio-economic group”.
I must admit that, for me, all of my Meadville schooling has been a “cross-cultural experience with a different socio-economic group”.
Meadville is very, um, polished. In our family, I am the reason that we can’t have nice things. Or go nice places. Every time a fancy waiter says “And how are we doing this evening?” I always have to suppress giggles and the urge to say “Well, how I’m feeling this evening is like I am not the Queen of England. How about you?”
You are not supposed to say that to the fancy waiter. There’s a script to these things. After ten years, I’m getting the hang of doing it, but it never quite feels natural. It does to Gary. He relaxes right into my school when he visits – the Wolfgang Puck food and the architected interior and the doorman all seem to settle around him like a tailored suit. For me, not so much. Every time we start to have a conversation about “building bridges” using words with so many syllables they sound like academic beat-boxing, I have to resist the urge to giggle.
“How can we have a conversation about reaching vulnerable people using only words that make no sense to them?” I complain. Frequently. By “them” I, of course, mean “me”.
Technically, I could understand what was being said if I could pay attention for an entire sentence at once. Which I find hard to do because the sentences are on average 3294 words long.
“But you need a certain vocabulary to talk about these things,” Gary would explain, “And the conversation needs to be at a certain level. We can’t involve everyone in every conversation if we’re trying to reach a certain academic depth.”
Of course, he would say that. He’s a surgeon. In his field, there are things that have to be said for which phrases like “cancer-ey part” are not enough.
But it’s more than that. There’s a social aspect, too. Nobody wants their surgeon to walk into the room wearing an “I luv operashunz” t-shirt and say “Dude, your test results totally suck. But don’t worry cause I’ve got, like, the best plan ever.”
Our language is part of how we say who we are. What club we belong in. When he visits my school, the language we use there makes Gary feel at home. It makes me feel like an outsider.
It’s not that I can’t do it. Believe it or not, I get straight As. But they aren’t my As–just because I can act it out doesn’t mean it’s me.
In Chicago in January, mind kept floating out the window – drifting back to my walk to school. Through streets that sagged with the weight of the lives being lived out on them. I felt like I arrived every day splattered in ink, and wasn’t able to keep it from smearing into our pretty theological conversations.
That’s the idea, I think, behind having us start our first year by “working with the marginalized” in a hands-on way. The thing is, that didn’t quite do it for me. I wanted something less scripted than “working with”. I wanted more connection.
Me: This is hypocritical. We’re having conversations about connecting across borders using language that effectively excludes huge swaths of people from even understanding what we’re talking about! It’s insane! I’m gonna get out there and really talk to people, no matter what you people think I should –
Gary: That sounds like a good idea.
Me: And if the Profs think it’s a waste of time, they can –
Gary: I think they would think it’s a good idea too. After all, in your first year blah blah Experiential Pedagogy blah blah.
(not quite a direct quote).
So I left, feeling all smug because I was going to make friends with homeless people.
But then it turned out that the homeless people didn’t really want to make friends with me.
Oh, they were very nice to me – but nice in the way that the Maitre D’ is nice. There are a lot of similarities, actually. The politeness, and the smiling. The scripted feeling, and the sense of roles. Also, the dishonesty. Both the Maitre D’ and the homeless people did a lot of saying what they thought I wanted to hear in order to get a tip. And in both cases I played my role, too – there is not a big difference between “Oh yes, the soup is delicious” and “I don’t have any change on me right now, sorry”.
Even when I tried to go “off script”, there was a script. I am, of course, not the first do-gooder to strike up a conversation. For some, it was an opening to play their cards right and get an extra “tip” – like the Maitre D’ talking about his son’s college tuition. Others just seemed to be annoyed to be being bothered while they were trying to work. But most people were very good about it – too good. They were quick to pat me on the shoulder and tell me what a moral person I was. This was usually attached to the hope of money changing hands – like when the Maitre D’ laughs at my clearly not funny and borderline-inappropriate jokes. If you want to feel great about yourself, that message is definitely for sale.
It came in several varieties. For those in a hurry, there were the basic options: “God bless you” and “Thank you so much”. For those with more deep seated issues, there were the “you’re not like those other people” and the related “you’re such a kind person” options. There was the “this is going to make such a difference to me” option, of course. And the most prized – but also most challenging to deliver – the “I absolve you of your guilt” option.
This one isn’t effective unless delivered subtly. I can’t entirely re-construct the way that the “you’re not a racist” absolution was delivered – it was done so well. One that particularly broke my heart was the “this is all my fault” story. All about bad choices and how the story-teller is at fault for their situation (and by extension, I as the giver am not at fault). This was the conversation that I felt most deeply. Sometimes it felt like the person I was talking to was catering to me, hoping for a tip. Sometimes, it felt like they were taking pity on me and trying to help me feel better. Sometimes it felt like they believed their story.
There were only a few times that I felt like I got “off script”. One guy and I bonded over bed bugs. We had a long conversation, talking about how he gets his clothes and himself clean, where he sleeps, and what different breeds of rats are like. He talked about the difficulties of trying to get a job with a criminal record. I talked about efforts I was aware of (and supporting) to get the laws around disclosure changed. He didn’t know about that stuff, and didn’t overwhelmingly seem to care – it was pretty distant from what he was working on day to day. It is hard to worry about ingrained systems of oppression, I guess, when you are trying to get the bed bugs out of your stuff. So, I realized, it is more than just language that separated this man from the conversations we were having at school. I get that. I didn’t care about theology when I was trying to get bed bugs out of my stuff either.
That said, it was with great disgust that he spoke of how Obama’s people swept the streets of the homeless before the President arrived. He didn’t seem to know or care about the policies of the Obama administration, but being made invisible really stung.
“Wait” the man said to Mick, who was with me, as we were leaving.
“At about six thirty at night,” he said, in a conspiratorial voice, “you take her down to the big white building near the water. A fifteen minute walk that way. You take her there and you look back across the water, and you ain’t never seen nothin’ so beautiful. Sunset. Romantic as Shit.” he says, with a mischievous grin and a wink.
This is the Chicago skyline at sunset. According to Google. I feel compelled to mention resentfully that Mick did not take me to see the sunset. As a general rule, I try not to blame things on the Homosexual Agenda in America, but I think in this case the shoe fits. No romantic waterfront walk for me. I totally punished him by neglecting to kiss him at the end of the evening. Which he did not notice.
Despite Mick’s dropping the ball on his part of the Great Male Collaboration, there was no question about the tone in which the advice was offered. It was a gift. I started to notice the many things on offer from the street people. Moral reassurance, yes, but also jokes, big grins, “God bless you”s, and – this one is key – help finding your way back to the hotel.
I also noticed how, as a general rule, these gifts were offered to everyone. Regardless of their status as a tipper or a non-tipper. A smile, a look in the eye, and a “I’m sorry, not today” usually earned the same gifts as a donation did. There were plenty of exceptions, of course, but the possibility of a new script began to open up to me. The guy who greeted me every morning with a huge grin and a “Hey gorgeous!” was no longer a source of guilt and a problem to solve. Instead, he became a friendly start to my day – and I certainly didn’t always tip, but I did from time to time. And I always smiled and said thank you. I began stopping for the guys who told jokes, and I was always glad that I did. And I was never lost for information again – stuff about the city, directions, or anything else I needed to know. Of course, I paid appropriately for this service. And I found very quickly that people responded to being treated like resources to be drawn on rather than problems to solve. The script did change.
None of that stuff was what I was hoping to learn. When it comes to theological approaches to solving inequality, I am still batting zero. When it comes to making a long-term difference, also zero. I have not gotten anybody out of their bedbugs. I do work on those issues, but not on my walk to school.
That said, I did find a way to arrive at school not splattered in ink. I found a way to start the day’s theological reflection from somewhere other than a deep wound – the kind that causes festering of the vocabulary and swelling of the dialogue, until things are so big that you can hardly feel them.
This was about me realizing I could experiment with my role in all of it…
“Where you goin?” a man says to me, as I am looking for the subway stop to take me to the airport. He has asked for change, and I’ve said I don’t have any, but he keeps staring at me. Specifically, at my suitcase. I am going the wrong way, and he knows it.
“Where you goin?” He repeats. “you tell me, an’ I help you. It’s what I do.”
“The airport,” I say.
“Which one?” he wants to know.
“There’s more than one? Wait, it’s, um, O’Hare. Is that one of the airports?”
He narrows his eyes. Clearly he doesn’t trust me to know where I’m going. “Where you flying to?”
“Canada,” I say, and he nods in a ‘that explains it’ kind of a way. He launches into a complex set of instructions that I can’t understand.
“You even listenin’ to me?” he demands.
“Yes,” I say desperately, “but I’m Canadian, and I can’t understand your accent.”
“Canada,” he repeats. He takes my hand and leads me across the street, speaking slowly and gesturing to various buildings.
I am out of change, but I have a bill. I offer it to him in exchange for walking me to where I’m going. He nods enthusiastically, and goes to pick up my bag.
“I can carry it,” I say.
“You gonna break the wheels goin’ down those steps.” he says simply. I follow him through a maze of underground corridors. He points to signs as we go, telling me repeatedly which way is north, and stories about how to get around when I’m in Chicago. We arrive at the ticket booth for the subway to head to the airport.
“You got a CTA pass?” he asks.
“No, but I can buy one,” I say. He shows me where the change goes.
“I told you before, I don’t have any change.” I say. He does a bit of a double take – clearly, he thought I was lying. “but I have a twenty left.”
“These machines don’t give no change.” he says, pulling a CTA card from his jacket. I offer him money for his CTA card, which he refuses because I paid him already, saying “you gone an’ give away all yo’ money an now you can’t get onto the subway”. He grins and shakes his head, and uses his pass to get me through the gate.
“Next time you in Chicago, if you need help findin’ stuff I am always at the corner of…” he trails off, clearly mistrusting my memory. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a stray piece of paper and writes it down for me, and presses it into my hand.
“Now you stay on this subway until the end of the line,” he tells me, “until it stops and it ain’t goin further. Don’t you get off before then. Stay on the subway,” and then he heads back up the stairs, shaking his head, and grinning wide enough to make his face crack.
And there I sat, with my Straight A’s building theological sandcastles and writing prayers that come with dictionaries and not knowing how to catch the subway.
I’m still not sure why, but I was grinning, too.