Some of you know I’m working on a book (writing, not reading). I’m writing a book about the moments in life we least expect to mean anything, but that eventually come to be the ones that change our lives forever. I’m highlighting a series of moments in my life thus far that have turned my own world upside down and taught me more about God, myself, love, life, and what’s important. Look for it in the next six months to six years.
Because of this, I reflect back on random-Tuesday-type moments that only in hindsight can be seen as monumental. I rehash these moments to try to drain them of their meaning so that I can capture the juice and put it on paper for a paying audience to read. Inevitably, some moments become bigger than they were meant to, and I have to cut that one out of the manuscript because I fictionalized it a little too much.
The exciting part of this is that I genuinely believe that any moment can be the next moment. Driving to work or cutting the grass or washing the dishes could reveal the insight into what’s next in life, and my own history will be forever altered because I was willing to drink deeply of the possibility that lies within all of our seconds and minutes of each of our days.
And when something happens like it did this morning, I know I will never forget it.
I was working, driving the company van to pick up students in our summer program. While waiting for a few of them to arrive at our meeting point, here is what went down:
Kurdish female #1: I need to walk back to my house to get something I forgot.
Me: Do you want me to drive you back there?
Kurdish female #1: No, it’s just three houses down. I can walk. I need the exercise.
(Seven minutes pass. I see her in my rearview mirror begin to make her way back to the van. The neighbor across the street, a bearded, heavyset man is taking out his garbage and watering his lawn.)
Kurdish Female #2: I can’t stand that guy.
Me: (thinking stereotyping is bad and wanting to encourage these students to get to know people before placing judgment) Why do you say that?
Kurdish female #2: He and his wife are always yelling at each other at like 4 in the morning, cussing at each other and waking up the whole street. And, he never keeps his dogs on leashes, so they chase my sisters and me.
Me: That’s no good.
(At that moment, as Kurdish Female #1 is nearing the van, I hear a scream. I quickly look in the passenger side rearview mirror to see a dog, barking and bolting through the scene. I then look at the driver’s side rearview mirror to see Kurdish Female #1 sprint through the view, only to land in the grass, viewable out of the driver’s side window. I think she’s going to get up, crying and injured because a loud and large dog chased her and knocked her down. Instead, she rises to her feet, visibly angry.)
Kurdish female #1: I’m f***ing tired of those f***ing dogs not being chained up and chasing everyone down the street!
Neighbor: What did you say to me?!
Kurdish female #1: I didn’t say anything to you! I’m frustrated with your dogs chasing people and knocking me down!
Neighbor: Well you Iraqis need to stop hitting them with sticks!
Kurdish female #1: I don’t hit your dog! And I’m not Iraqi!
Neighbor: Well I’ve seen these Iraqi kids come up here and hit my dog and beat it up!
Kurdish female #1: Maybe that’s because your dog chases them! And these kids aren’t even Iraqi!
(At this point, the two students we’ve been waiting on drive up. Two Kurdish males, lovable, but testosterone induced teenagers, roll down their window because they can see there’s some sort of commotion.)
Kurdish male #1: Is there a problem?
Neighbor: Why don’t you mind your own damn business?! This doesn’t concern you.
Kurdish male #1: It does now.
(He backs up his car to park so he can get in our van so we can leave, which I’m praying happens VERY SOON.)
Kurdish female #1: His dog just chased me and knocked me down!
Neighbor: It’s ‘cause you Iraqis beat it! And you can’t park! Why don’t you get your car out of the road?!
Kurdish male #1: I’m parked just fine. Why don’t you mind your own business?! And don’t call me Iraqi!
Neighbor: Go back to your own country! Get out of my country!
Kurdish male #1: (Flips bird as he gets in van)
Neighbor: Oh, you think you’re a big shot?!
Me: Get in the van! (Exit.)
A few observations: I wasn’t aware this man was owner/operator of the United States. I wasn’t aware there was one, but I guess I’m pretty lucky to have met him. But had I known, I certainly wouldn’t have expected him to live in a mediocre suburban retreat with a crappy lawn and dead plants. And I wouldn’t have pictured the owner of the United States as one who parks cars on the front lawn, but then again, I guess if he owns the place, he can do what he wants.
Secondly, because this man believed the entire country was deeded to him in some redneck poker game, he by no means found it necessary to learn the difference between Kurdish and Iraqi. He’ probably never heard of Kurdistan, mainly because his two news sources (local paper and other fat fishing buddies) rarely talk about such a difference. The crap Phil Valentine sells him has become his modus operandi, which apparently gives him free reign to blame one young female for his lackluster house and life (even though, again, he is owner of the free world). He also didn’t realize that the students he was telling to go back to their country could (and will) outvote him at the next election (4:1), given that they’re all United States citizens.
Later, after processing this incident with the students, we took away several lessons that I hope none of us will forget. We talked about the need to work through the existing channels to combat this. Clearly, this man needs to keep his misbehaving dog locked up so that it won’t run out and jump on people. There are authorities that can be called to make sure this happens. There is a necessary and important middle path between the silence their parents push for and the violence bred from their very real and justified anger. There is a way to speak out without being violent, open to everyone in this free country.
We also talked about what it means to ‘frame the debate.’ The real issue this morning was the dog jumping on the woman. The fat redneck turned it into a race issue. And while everyone present can argue, debate, call names and stereotype, if there is to be progress, the debate needs to be properly framed once again. This means that for the time being the racial issues need to be checked at the door while we first make sure his dog no longer chases and jumps.
And now, as I reflect hours after the fact, there is a brokenness within me. This brokenness is nothing new; I experience it often in the social service sector. I see people victimized by the cold-hearted and neglected by those closest to them and it breaks my heart.
My heart breaks when a callous white male call names.
My heart breaks when I take an 18-year-old male shopping for clothes because his parents kicked him out with nothing but what he was wearing, and it’s me (and not a parent) who teaches him the differencebetween generic and name brand soap and it’s me who takes him on his first trip to a mall.
My heart breaks when an ignorant young male tells a Muslim female she is not Muslim because she chooses not to wear a headscarf and skirt.
My heart breaks when a student doesn’t want to go home because there are no guarantees in her neighborhood.
My heart breaks when I see teenagers eat prepackaged granola bars by the boxful because they may not have eaten since the same time the day before.
My heart breaks when a soccer ball can provide all the happiness missing from a life.
My heart breaks when children have no chance at community unless they join a gang.
My heart breaks when I realize my actions and inactions help perpetuate the system that has produced the above.
Because I, too, have called names.
Because, I too, have neglected to teach those who need to learn from me.
Because I, too, have made statements about others based on what they wear.
Because I, too, have driven by and ignored the neighborhoods and neighbors with no guarantees.
Because I, too, have thrown away food when there are those with empty stomachs.
Because I, too, have tried to relegate my giving to possessions, thinking that enough 'things' will eventually make anyone happy.
Because I, too, have shunned creating authentic community with others on account of my own fears, vulnerability, and comfort.
And I realize that as a social prophet, when I call attention to the things that need fixing and yell from my laptop at the people who need to start fixing it, I’m at the top of that list. As uncomfortable as it is to realize, my being me sometimes hurts others.
And no one wants to hear this. Not even me.
Big companies don’t want to hear that they’re not paying a living wage because their profit margins will get a little slimmer. After all, they’re paying them something, right?
Conservatives don’t want to fund social handout programs because people should be able to get jobs and work for a living. After all, the poor are poor because they’re lazy, right?
Liberals don't want to bring God into the mix, because some people don't believe. After all, what good has God ever done anyway, right?
No one wants to make schools a priority because they don’t generate revenue like sports teams and businesses do. After all, old textbooks and improperly trained teachers worked for you, right?
At times like these, I want to shun everything that is evil and harmful. I don’t want to be a Christian because some of them crusaded and some of them hate women and some of them beat their kids. I don’t want to be an American because some of them kill people and some of them call names and some of them are addicted to consumption. I don’t want to be a white male because some of them are egotistical and some of them are incompetent and some of them are dishonest. And I don’t want to be me because sometimes I’m not who I want to be.
As much as I see myself one day sitting in a book-lined office on a famous campus, playing Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” while I help plan a sit-in protest with a group of students, I know that’s what ultimately would make me safe and comfortable. And at other times, when I want to start the quiet, subversive revolution and buck the trends of ownership and consumption, selling my house, foregoing my insurance benefits and emptying my bank accounts, making my own clothes while I walk the earth with no place to lay my head, I know that this life, too, may only be desired because I want to shout from the mountaintops how good I am, and how pathetic you are because you can’t be like me. And at other times, I want to be a Boondock Saint, knock on that neighbor’s door and punch him repeatedly in his fat belly until his hate is aborted. And at other times I want to get the big house behind the gated fence in the expensive zip code and live off the healthy profits I’ve made in some business venture.
But all of those scenarios are about me, and not about those who need me to be me. And I realize I’ve got to reframe the debate. There’s been bad and terrible men, women, Christians, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, teenagers, adults, whites and blacks, but that’s not what the debate is about. We can’t shun the title because someone’s made a mess of things. While some groupings like the Branch Dividians, the Klan, and Right Said Fred can’t and don’t need to have a resurrection, other terms can be reclaimed for one person at one point in time.
My Kurdish teenage friends know that not all white American males are mean and racist because they know that I will be there every morning in the van. The young man I took shopping knows that not all adults don’t care about him because of the three hours we spent shopping on a Friday afternoon. I pray that others can see me and know, despite my inner fault lines that sometimes lead to a breakdown, not all ___________ are bad, because I’m a ___________, too, and I’m okay.
Because those are the moments that really do change everything.