Monday, October 6, 2014

To Boldly Go Where You Have Never Gone Before

I stood in the doorway to my dorm room and announced: “It looks like pexadition in here!”

My roommate looked at me with a blank face and then asked, “What on earth are you talking about?”

“It looks like pexadition in here.”

“Pexadition? I have no idea what that means.”

“You don’t know what pexadition is!?” How was it possible that she had lived this long and didn’t know what the word pexadition meant?  

So, I started asking other people in my freshman dorm and NOBODY had any knowledge of the word. And yet, as I was growing up, I had heard it on a regular basis. Most often, it was used by mom as she pronounced judgment on the way I kept my bedroom. “It looks like pexadition in here!” Pexadition, as I understood it, meant that the place was a dump, like the slum area we had back home in Hamilton, Ohio.

I decided to go to the source. So I called my mom up and I asked her about it. Well, as it turns out, pexadition was really Peck’s Addition. It was named for a man named Peck, who owned the land where the dump was located and where the housing projects were built for the poor people who lived in my hometown. The word I was using had no meaning for anyone who didn’t come from Hamilton, Ohio. And that was the first time I can recall realizing how small my world had been growing up. It took going away to college, a whole 3 hours up I-75 from Hamilton, for me to experience that.

Growing up in a city of nearly 80,000 people, I considered myself a woman of the world, but Bowling Green State University was an eye-opener for me. One semester I took a class in Black Literature. I thought it sounded interesting and it was. I was introduced to wonderful authors like James Weldon Johnson, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni.

I also learned how it felt to be “the other.” For some reason I couldn’t understand, the other students in the class hated me. I thought this was unfair because they didn’t know me. All they knew about me was the color of my skin, and that was all it took. I thought they would appreciate the fact that, as a white person, I cared enough to learn about black writers, but that was not the case. They clearly resented me for being in their class and they let me know I didn’t belong there. If I ever dared to speak, they jumped all over me. So, I learned to put a sock in it.

Near the end of the term, there was a lot of buzz about Nikki Giovanni coming to campus for a poetry reading. I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed, so I went. Every black person on campus was there. I had never been in such company and admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable when I took my seat and looked around; I could see no other white faces.

Before Ms. Giovanni spoke, some music started playing and everyone rose to their feet. I joined them, although I had no idea what was happening. Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who started singing a song I had never heard in my life. They all knew every single word, which they sang with conviction. (I later learned that it was a hymn now in our Lutheran hymnal, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, written by James Weldon Johnson. It’s known to many as “the black national anthem.”)

Wow! There was a whole other world out there that I never knew existed. I went to class with some of these people and I knew nothing about their world. Being a part of the majority, I figured they probably knew quite a bit about my world, but until that moment, I naively thought that our worlds were basically the same. I had been so wrong about that.

The best thing about going away to college is experiencing worlds different than the one you have always known. It is a transformative experience and clearly what it means when we say that once a person grows, they can never shrink back to their old size. And the thing is, until you’re challenged with new worlds, you live with the illusion that the world you’ve always known is all there is.

I remember years ago hearing the story of an ant, who lived what he thought was a very full life, only to discover that he had been living under a bushel basket all along. When he finally crawled out from under it, he was amazed to see how much larger the world was than he had ever imagined. He began to explore this big new world. Eventually, he discovered that he was inside a greenhouse and the world outside the green house was even bigger than he could ever have imagined. As the story goes on, you learn that the greenhouse was located inside the Astrodome, and the little ant’s world still had some expanding to do.  

When our world expands, we have an opportunity to be transformed by the experience. That’s why I think it’s important for young people to move away from their hometown, at least for a while. Go to college, join the military, get a job in another city… just move out so you can move on!

I’m not talking about travel. Travel may enrich us, but rarely does it truly transform us. Travel makes us  objective observers of other worlds, but we don’t get to know how it feels to actually live in those worlds. It’s much like visiting the zoo where we see exotic animals that stir our imagination, but we have no real connection to them.

I have mixed feelings about mission trips. Financially, they don’t make a lot of sense and in most cases the people served would be better off if we just sent them the money and gave them the tools to do the work themselves. But really, the value of mission trips isn’t found in the work the team accomplishes.

I’ve had the honor of taking several mission trips with college students through the years. It usually involves plucking an affluent young person up from their comfortable middle-class life and dropping them into a culture of poverty. Initially, there is always a period of culture shock. And then there comes a time when I’ll hear team members express their gratitude for their way of life back home with statements like, “It really makes you appreciate what you have.” Some of them never get past that. But those who are able to empathize with the ones they are serving alongside and form relationships with them come to ask questions like, “Why is there so much disparity in the world?” and “How might my way of life back home contribute to it?” That’s when transformation takes place, when lives are changed forever.

The fact is, there are people all around us who live in worlds we can’t begin to imagine. Back when I was in seminary, I was taken to a part of Columbus, Ohio most people who lived there knew nothing about. It was like a third world country in the middle of the city. There were no marked streets. There was no sewer system. People were living in makeshift housing. How was this possible, I wondered? The people of Columbus traveled from work to home, from church and out to eat, to school and to sporting events, over and over again, and yet they never came to this part of the city. An entirely different world existed in the midst of them, and they had no awareness of it.

Through the years, I’ve discovered multiple worlds alongside my world that I had no awareness of. There certainly is a different world that the chronically poor live in that is foreign to anything I have ever experienced. But there also is a world the extremely wealthy inhabit that I know nothing about. There is a world undocumented immigrants experience that I can’t begin to imagine. A world transgender people inhabit, Muslims, military families, Alzheimer’s patients, wheelchair-bound people… The list could go on and on. They are all people I can’t begin to understand from my own limited experience, much less presume to know what they want or need.

The life of transformation that God calls us to be a part of involves entering into worlds we know nothing of.  We could play it safe and stay within our own little world and do just fine, but I believe God wants more for us. This is just one more facet of what Jesus meant when he encouraged his disciples not to cling to their lives, but to let them go. He assures us that it is in losing our safe little lives that we find real life, full of surprise and adventure, and overflowing with love, peace and joy! It is a life that bravely moves out and moves on, facing worlds we never could have imagined. 

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