The Virtue of a Detour: Racism, Insight and Zen on an Unexpected Drive

detourI am a Christian woman currently also practicing Mahayana Buddhism. I don’t hide that fact, but I don’t talk a lot about it either, largely because I don’t understand it myself.  I know many of my Christian friends “don’t agree” or my Buddhist friends “don’t care” – so unless there’s a question, I keep the conversation to myself. Sometimes we follow a path and we don’t know why. We just know we are meant to follow it and the “why” becomes apparent down the road. This was one of those times.

We had a great vacation in Pittsburgh filled with baseball, black and gold, Primanti sandwiches, and all kinds of people from different places. Our cab driver pulled up an entire Michael Jackson playlist and we sang all the way to the airport. He told us excitedly about seeing Michael Jackson in concert in Japan when he and Michael were both younger men. Between his accent and the stress of riding through downtown Pittsburgh, I didn’t catch the whole story, but I loved the joy in the way he told it. A Pittsburgh resident for 31 years, he was from Ghana, and still calls it “my country.”

Pittsburgh Traffic - The 5th Circle of Hell.

Pittsburgh Traffic – The 5th Circle of Hell.

 Plot Twist: We got into DC 20 minutes early for the late flight to Richmond. While we were talking about how nice it would be if the next flight was early too, they announced it was cancelled due to mechanical failure. Suddenly, silent strangers became a community of angry, disappointed whiners in front of the customer service counter. We decided to rent a car and drive to Richmond but went through the line to find out how to get our refund.  In front of us was a distinguished business traveler, well versed in this process, and ahead of him stood a white couple in their mid-to-late 60’s, clearly returning from a vacation.

There were four very overworked, friendly, frazzled women behind the customer service counter with a supervisor who popped out every few minutes to ensure there wasn’t a mental breakdown or riot happening. I listened to countless people ahead of us dump their problems on the counter: I have to go to work, I’ve been here since five, I don’t have money for the night, I am never flying again…

Customer Service - The 1st Circle of Hell

Customer Service – The 1st Circle of Hell

Three of the service professionals were black women (I can’t say African-American because I have no idea where they were from), and one woman was Asian (again, no idea of exactly where). The vacationing couple was next to be called. I heard the woman chippering about something and pointing at the Asian clerk then the black women. A young man took his food voucher and left. The woman then said to her husband, “Let this guy go ahead. I’m not going to one of them.”

At first, I didn’t really catch it – but sure enough when the server called out, “next,” they let the man ahead of us go in front. They stared intensely at the Asian clerk who was wrapped up in a “complicated order” and nowhere near finished. The wife said to the husband, “You’ll have to let them go too. I’m not dealing with one of them.” So – a different server became open and they told us to go ahead. I looked at the man and he just muttered, “We’re waiting for someone else.”  They let people go ahead until the Asian clerk was open. At the point we had our business taken care of and left.

The next hour was a jumble:

  • Finding the rental car area – Dulles Airport will now be known in our house as “Escalator International”
  • A rural toll booth at 10:30 at night that only took coins and had no attendant – Where a very nice woman in a hijab got out of her car to help someone who didn’t understand what to do – and stopped to ask Cathy if she had enough coins before driving on.
  • Ridiculous traffic on the beltway – 11 at night, DC? Really? Don’t you people ever stop?
  • A GPS that wasn’t quite sure where we should exit – “What do you mean 0.3 miles, a minute ago you said 10?!”
Beltway Crash Statistics

The DC Beltway – ALL of Hell in one big circle. (the numbers on this chart are crash statistics, btw).

Once we cleared the city, Cathy asked me why the couple let us go. I said, “They didn’t want to go to a black woman. They wanted the Asian woman.”  She said she thought that was what happened and we both agreed it was such a blatantly racist thing that we were stunned. We spoke briefly about all the amazing helpful people we encountered– the lovely Latina clerk at the hotel who gave us perfect advice, the cab driver from Ghana, the customer server at the airport who had a very pretty accent, but I don’t know from where, the patient car rental man who looked like George Takei and gave me a life-saving map and patient instructions, the woman in the hijab who went out of her way to help us – and how sad it was that couple would miss these experiences because of their racism. Cathy nodded off leaving me alone with my thoughts. That’s when it got…messy.

I found their unapologetic racism shocking, horrid and wrong in every way. In my mind I piled disrespect, charges of ignorance, and hopes their hotel had bed bugs on them. I become aware I was definitely judging them and a bunch of my ideals and feelings collided like so many cars on the DC beltway.

Being a racist isn’t just something you do, sometimes it is someone you are. In naming their racism am I not assigning judgment to them? Do people have a right to be racist? I talk all the time about accepting differences. If avoiding people with black skin is their difference, am I just supposed to accept that? Why is it okay to sing “Man in the Mirror” with a Ghana-born cab driver, but I don’t want to hear people express the fact they won’t let a black woman give them a hotel voucher? Am I a hypocrite? As a person who is a Christ follower – aren’t I supposed to give them grace?  What does that mean?  Jesus was pretty clear he doesn’t like racism (Samaritans, anyone?). Does it mean “love the couple and hate the racism?”

 STOP THE CAR!  I came dangerously close to “love the sinner, hate the sin” – a phrase I have personally been both battered with and railed against for years. Love the sinner…is the Christian version of the South’s “Bless her heart.” . Love the sinner is what people say when they have absolutely no intention of accepting someone as God made them, but they don’t want to sound prejudiced.  I have always said, “That kind of love – I don’t need.”   And now…I was getting ready to do the same thing.

I think that couple is fundamentally flawed. I don’t know them, love them or want to accept them.  But I am taught to be forgiving, graceful and loving to people. All people are my neighbor.  My racist neighbors. I don’t want to love them. I want to move. It’s distressing to think your spiritual ideals conflict with your human reality. What is the answer?

My Zen practice kicked in saying “This experience is like the Koans you read every day. There isn’t an answer, a right or a wrong. There is only a lesson. Maybe you don’t have to love them, and maybe you don’t have to judge them. Maybe you can learn from them and let them go.”

My peace returned as we passed the Ashland exit and my mind and heart moved from them to me – my faith life, my expression and experiences. I’ve thrived in my Buddhist practice. My Christ-following has thrived too. I still read the Bible, pray, serve, and have my ever-present crush on Amy Grant. I celebrate my many friends and support places that “do church” well and with great spirit. On the 295 Exit lane I realized – for the first time – why I took this path.

It’s not hard to understand why I would seek God outside of the church. As a lesbian who is also an ordained Christian minister, I’ve experienced an amazing amount of prejudice/ignorance/crap in mainline churches. But that’s not the reason. I’ve also experienced love/wisdom/laughter in many churches. The reason is found in that grace-lesson-judgment conundrum. Zen offers peace and balance in a way that lets me follow the teachings of Christ and be a human being at the same time.

Some of my wisest Christian friends talk about the power of Christianity being the struggle to be forgiving when it’s impossible, or give grace instead of ancient mummy curses. The idea to “be perfect as God is perfect” isn’t an expectation – it’s a challenge, and that makes Christianity vibrant. But for me (and me alone)– it has become a losing game.

I am a human being. There are things in my life l honestly can’t forgive – but I can let them go and let God forgive them. There are people in my world I don’t love and I’m not going to love – and I can let them go and let God love them. There are things I will never accept – like racism – and when I see it – even in myself – I must act to change it, and let the fear and cultural programming that causes it go. There are lenses that I see through, and I am learning to make mine compassion and forward action. Zen doesn’t say, “I’m not perfect, but I’m trying” or I’m not perfect, I’m forgiven.”  It says, “I am the person God made me and I am becoming ever more so.”

And so here I am:  I believe in grace (and prefer it to “karma” – especially when I’m the one who needs the grace), but I also believe in the natural law of karma. Karma is NOT the idea that what you do comes back to bite you in the butt. Karma is the understanding we are all connected and one action leads to another then another then another until it comes back around the circle of life to you. That’s a kind of truth I can’t deny.

I believe in Jesus Christ and the way he taught me to live in the world. I am also more spiritually and mentally healthy when I experience zazen and let go of the pressure of “how I am supposed to be” in favor a lessons in who I am and how I become.

So now, thanks to the detour, an unpleasant couple and a long, dark drive, I finally understand what I’m doing here. Now, to sit still and move forward.

Whatever you encounter in the drives and detours of your life – I hope you will find the best practice – or a mix of them – to move you steadily forward too. Most importantly, if you don’t know why you are on a certain path – it’s okay. You don’t have too. Eventually, some detour might help you figure it out.

lotus

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