If the recent election proved anything, it’s that the face of the U.S. is a changing face: younger and more diverse. It’s an exciting time to be a citizen, but a challenging one as well.
I’ve written before about my daughter, Maria, and one of her encounters with cultural diversity. She was a teenager volunteering to help at the coat check at a hotel during a charity event. The evening was hectic as everyone seemed to be arriving at once and coats were starting to pile up.
Suddenly, a hotel employee, perhaps of Asian origin, walked into the coat room and proclaimed, “Mohangas.” Maria, in the midst of greeting many, turned to him and replied, “Mohangas,” thinking he was greeting her in his own language. Immediately, she knew her error, as he handed her a pile of, yes, “more hangers.”
We laughed about Maria’s well-meaning mistake, but there’s a deeper story here, one that tells of our wish and desire to be culturally responsive to others but how easily we can misunderstand. Sometimes we can be inadvertently insensitive.
I witnessed that struggle at a conference I attended recently. The irony was that the attendees were all people who were activists and worked in social justice venues. We were a diverse group.
It happened when one of the event organizers recruited a hotel workman — again, a man whose background couldn’t be immediately guessed. The organizer asked the man if he would take the group picture. The organizer wanted to be in the picture also, so he explained to the man how to work the two small cameras.
They were simple cameras, basically your point-and-shoot variety, and the man agreed cheerfully. But when he began to snap the photos, something went wrong. Although he’d been directed to hold down the button for a few seconds, he pushed quickly, over and over, and the flash didn’t go off.
“Hold the button down,” directed the organizer, from the back row of the group. “Hold it down for a while.” Soon other voices joined his, with the same basic instruction. But the man continued, with frustration, to unsuccessfully press the button.
Finally, someone murmured, “Can someone say it in Spanish?” Even then, it took a few seconds of confusion before a young nun said, “Senor,” accompanied by a few quick words of Spanish.
The man then easily completed the photos. I think we all wondered to ourselves, why did it take us so long — albeit, just a short while — to recognize a language problem? Shouldn’t each of us have realized that issue right away, rather than repetitively shouting our directions in English?
Later, in the airport, I viewed the diversity all around me. A Sikh man strode by. A group of Hasidic Jewish men waited to board my plane. A call went over the public address system: “Could an Arabic speaking person please come to Gate A9?”
A wise teacher told me that when Jesus approaches a border in Scripture, pay attention. The physical border was often with Samaria. He crossed other borders to women or lepers or others perceived by his society to be of reduced status. Jesus favored a diverse group while sometimes eschewing the authorities, the rich and the powerful.
At Christmas time, we remember the child Jesus, who crossed the border into exile in Egypt as just a baby.
We pray for all those who do their best to make a new life in a new place, who are forced to cross borders in exile, and we ask God to teach us how to cross borders with sensitivity, thoughtfulness and delight.