We are all neighbors
It filled in a trickle. One here. Another couple there. The sanctuary of the Universal Unitarian Church held the atmosphere of a regular Stars Hollow, Connecticut town meeting. What with some waving from across the room. Others standing around catching up, “The last time I saw you was when . . .” Conversations muddled together making it impossible to track one too far.
He came in later than I did. I was sitting on the aisle seat. The girl with the stripped knit hat came and sat directly in front of me, blocking my view of the podium. I noticed the seats were not offset from each other, so it really wasn’t her fault, someone in front of her was blocking her view, and so on all the way to the front of the room. We sat about three-quarters of the way back. Several rows behind where the comfy chairs gave way to the still cushioned but metal stacking chairs. He sat two seats over from her.
Right before the meeting begins, the woman with the silver ponytail standing in the aisle to my right says to the group of white-haired women sitting across from me, “I thought we’d made a lot of progress in my lifetime.” Her words are muffled by the crowd. I hear, “Vietnam War.” Then, “Now I feel like I’m 18 on campus again. We’ve got one more revolution in us.”
And the annual meeting of the ACLU began.
In this town where I now live, I feel out of place most places. I am not vegan or organic. I don’t grow my own food or much of anything that doesn’t spring up on its own. I don’t compost. I don’t even own a bicycle. I do not make my own detergent, or wear hemp clothing. I have never smoked anything. I don’t have tattoos, and the only piercings I have hold the pearl earrings I put on every morning before I head out the door and remove every night just before I turn out the light. I refuse to wear Birkenstocks or Danskos—though my friends tell me that when I purchase my first pair of either, they will know I have truly conformed.
I work for a religious publishing house in a city known for its higher than average “unchurched” population. I straddle a line between faith and culture. Never sure exactly where I fit. As I learn the layout of the streets, I learn to walk this line. I am still finding my voice and learning what it means to be a woman of faith in a culture that expects me to be silent about my beliefs. In a place where baristas poke fun at Sunday being “the Lord’s day” upon learning that I consider every Sunday a holiday. In a church that expects me to be seen and not heard.
As everyone around me turned to their neighbor telling the story of what brought them to this meeting, I stay silent. I don’t have words to tell anyone that I feel betrayed by the people I love, like Toto just pulled back the curtain on Oz. People who taught me values like civic virtue and the common good---placing the good of the collective above your own individual interests—loving your neighbor, speaking up for those who cannot. These people seem to be abandoning the very values they led me to believe we were all striving for.
I watched the man in the plaid button-down and the blue stocking hat, shake hands with the woman in the stripped knit hat who blocked my view of the stage.
Over the drone of the voices surrounding me I heard him say, “I am a Muslim.” She replied, “I am so glad you came today.” He spoke more. Words I couldn’t make out. And then he paused. Silence in a room full of chatter. He looked up at her, eyes rimmed red, and finally he spoke once more. “I’m sorry,” he said. An apology for his emotion.
He bowed his head down. An attempt to hide his pain, perhaps. But it was too late. One large tear fell to the seat between them. She too wiped her eyes.
These people here, they don’t look like me. We wear different shoes. We hold different things sacred, be it Allah, Jesus, or the earth. But we are all human. And history has taught us that isolation only serves to drive us apart.
These people, they are my neighbors in this city I now call home, in this nation I no longer recognize. I see their pain. And I know I will not be silent.