When I last posted, I wrote about how a high school teacher taught me to listen and started me on a path that I didn’t even realize I was on. I only recognized that I was on a path in later life. Funny how that happens.
Here are some highlights.
I either have placed myself or found myself among people who aren’t like me at various points in my life. In 1972, I transferred out of a college where I was majoring in English, and into Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, where I majored in Asian Studies. There I learned to speak, read, and write Chinese. Truthfully, that “read” and “write” part is kind of iffy. Written Chinese is comprised of characters, rather than an alphabet, which means we had to memorize the character for each word in order to read. We even used flash cards to help with the memorization. In the end, though, my peers and I decided that we were illiterate, despite two years of intense study.
While at Seton Hall, I made friends, many of whom were from Asia or of Asian descent. And because of that, I got to experience something many white people do not. One evening I went out with friends to a nightclub. While we were seated at a table, listening to the music, laughing, and enjoying being young adults, something hit me upside the head like a two-by-four. I was the only white person at our table. Everyone else was Asian (primarily Japanese or Chinese). The realization actually was disorienting. I suddenly felt as if I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and wondered what other people were thinking (i.e., “what is she doing with them?” or “what are they doing with her?”). After a moment of feeling weird and out of it, I decided, “Screw it,” and went back to enjoying the evening.
But I’m white. I get to say, “screw it.” A few hours later, I returned to being an insider. Not everyone is afforded that luxury. For some people “screw it” simply is not an option. They are stuck on the edges. Always.
Later, in my mid-30s, I finally answered that call from God. Have I mentioned that God doesn’t give up? God doesn’t. God is a total nudge. And all that nudging paid off, because I enrolled in the M.Div. program at Drew University in Madison, NJ.
During my time at seminary, I once again was reminded that I needed to relate to, listen to, and work with people who were not like me. One class was particularly good at this. It was called “The Black Religious Experience.” We had the usual readings, papers, discussions, and a requirement to attend one service at a Black church. But the class also gave me a huge “ah-ha” moment during one of our first meetings. I can’t remember how we got there, but the African American students among us suddenly began talking about what it was like to be Black in the United States. They spoke their pain and as I listened, part of me wanted to scream, “Hey, wait! I didn’t do that. I respect you. It wasn’t me.”
But thank God (the nudge), something (or Someone) told me to shut my brain off and my emotions up and just … well, just sit and listen and deal with the pain. After all, I intuited, my fellow students have to deal with that pain every day. Surely, I could take it for one class. JUST. LISTEN.
So I did. And it hurt. I’m not kidding. It hurt so bad to hear my fellow students’ stories. But I learned something important: if we stop listening, then we stop trying to understand, and if we stop trying to understand, then we stop caring, and if we stop caring… then we don’t help.
I never want to stop caring. I never want to stop listening, even if I do it imperfectly. Even if I blunder and say stupid things while trying to help. I still want to listen and try to be a better human to other humans.
Always a glutton for punishment, I returned to Drew University and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American Religion and Culture in my early 40’s. The plan was to get the degree and teach at a theological school. Plans are great. I’m still working at a church, and God is still a nudge.
Anyway, I lived in what was then the Graduate and Theological School dormitory. And once again, I found myself among a diverse group. The dorm was home to people from other nations Students from Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as white and Black Americans. The diversity included age. Many grad students were in their early-to-mid 20s, while the theology students ranged from their 20s into their 60s. And then there was a smattering of crazy midlife grad school students like me. And yet, somehow, we all got along, although not without the occasional spat or frustration.
Oddly enough, if memory serves me correctly, the thing that caused the most contention in our diverse little household were cooking odors. That’s right. Cooking odors. As it turns out, one person’s delightful aroma was another person’s horrendous stench. Who knew? And since every floor had a mini kitchen (and there were three floors), we were permitted to smell each other’s culinary masterpieces morning, noon, and night. Good times. Actually, I’m not being sarcastic. Those were good times.
The final part of my journey (thus far) will be up on Friday.
Keep open, my friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder