August 15, 2004
It took me a while to figure out how to write this, and even longer to post it because I worried that part of it would hurt Phil’s feelings and I wanted to talk to him about it first.
Phil has been an intern at LAUP (Los Angeles Urban Project) working at a small Christian school in North Pasadena called Harambee for the last six weeks. It’s a Christian community-building project that has been in progress for the last 20 years or so. The link gives some background. Over the last few weeks, we’ve written a few letters back and forth because he has been without email or telephone access. They had an open house a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t go. Phil finished LAUP on Saturday afternoon, and I drove down on Sunday to hang out with him. He invited me to go to church with him. I met him at the Harvest Time Fellowship, just a few blocks away from where he had lived and worked.
When I got there he gave me a big hug, and several people around us introduced themselves. The church was majority black (the area is about 50/50 black and latino), and they know how to do church music. I had a great time singing along with songs that I didn’t know but that were natural enough that I picked them up after one verse. It was a small room, and the music leader was very energetic and you could just feel the sound as much as you could hear it. Then they had all the new people stand up and introduce themselves and say how they came to the church that day. Apart from me there was a family of three who were checking it out and a woman who spoke about her challenges turning her life around after drug use and prison. Everyone was very accepting and encouraging.
Then there was some more music, and then the sermon started. After about five minutes, I saw where it was going, and I felt myself start to withdraw. The pastor spoke about the ease with which people claiming to be Christians had found “new” ways to be Christian, but that the only way to heaven was through Christ. She said that people had become spiritually ignorant, that they didn’t read their bibles. She said that our leaders were ignorant of the bible. I found myself staring more and more at my hands. She pointed out that many things now were legal and acceptable that never used to be accepted. She was really going, now. When she got to the word “abomination,” I literally flinched. I couldn’t believe the hateful invective that flowed through a room that only a few minutes before had been filled with happy people singing about love and salvation.
It is one thing to read polls and realize intellectually that you are philosophically in the minority on an issue. But I’m sheltered. Like Phil pointed out many times when discussing the state of life around Harambee, I just wasn’t exposed to the kind of surroundings that define that culture. Being surrounded by it made me sick to my stomach. I stared straight into the back of the chair in front of me, swallowing profusely, and tried not to hear the echoing “Amen”s of people around me, agreeing with the terrible things that had been said.
And then I got angry. I wanted to stand up and shout at them for having so fucking little perspective. These are black people. Historically oppressed and denied rights. The pastor said she had become a Christian in the sixties; she lived through the Civil Rights struggle. How could they all sit there and listen to her say “A man has no right to live with another man, to marry another man” without stopping to think “Hey… I don’t really like this talk of denying people rights just because they aren’t like us…”? How could she say such things?
The sermon wandered away for a while, and I had a chance to cool down a little bit. When she returned to the subject, I felt my throat tightening again, so I stood up, placed the welcome packet they had given me when I introduced myself on top of my seat, and walked out.
After church ended, Phil showed me the Harambee school and where he’d been staying. And then we piled into Anabelle (as much as one can pile into a Miata) and blasted out to Upland, where his friend Jonny was having a barbecue for various IV people. I finally met Jonny’s wife Tanya, about whom I had heard over a year ago on Catalina, and she was both beautiful and charming. Liz and John (a.k.a. Alumnus B), two Mudd alumni, were there, so it was good to see them and talk a bit. There was a guy who had recently gotten back from Turkey, and was telling stories about his travels and some places he’d been. It was really interesting. I had to stifle a laugh when he said you can buy a beach-front house in Turkey for $20,000. Couldn’t even pay six months’ rent on one here for that
And there was Croquet, of which I played several games using very nearly the same set of rules each time. I came back from ridiculousness to win the first game I played. I was stunned. Luckily, I kept my head about me as I graciously lifted my arms above my head and bounced up and down in what I’m certain was a sportsmanlike display. Liz (not for the first time) told me to watch where I was swinging the mallet. The play of the afternoon, though, would have to be when I was the last non-poison ball left, and Jonny (I think) was chasing me around the lawn. Because I would lose if he hit me (but not if I hit him), my strategy was to hit the ball really hard. If I made it through the wicket, good to go. If I hit him, I could take another shot. If I missed, I’d be ‘way over somewhere else. This worked really well until I got along the edge of the lawn in a little rut. Jonny hit his ball toward mine, and it was running right along the edge of the lawn, sure to hit mine, until a low-hanging branch was there. His ball rolled up the branch, until it was almost directly above mine, then fell off sideways. Saved!
And then I lost the next turn. But it was still really cool.
After the barbecue, Phil went back to Harambee for one more night, and I drove back home, stopping at Ikea on the way to get lost for a few hours (but that’s a whole nother story).