This past week, I was at a music/arts/justice/spirit festival in North Carolina, called Wild Goose. My friend, the poet cin salach, and I were co-leading a small workshop at the festival about writing, about writing the truth, about how we need to tell the stories it scares us most to tell because that's how the healing happens, how the holiness squeaks through.
In the midst of it, I started thinking about a story I haven’t been willing to write about yet in this blog, one I've been scared to tell, because I felt people might think badly of me because of it, might tell me I should be ashamed of myself.
Or they might tell me I did the right thing, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Because both those things are what I’ve been saying to myself about it.
And maybe both of them are true.
That's when I decided I needed to tell this story. And see what happens. So here it is..
My husband Gary and I went camping in late October with our daughter, Zoe, who at that time, was in her senior year of college.
Now, I’m not much of a camper (read: NOT A CAMPER AT ALL). Friends who saw Facebook photos of me in full camping regalia had concerns about whether my body been taken over by a camping-crazed alien.But when your 22-year-old says she wants to spend the weekend camping with you in the midst of the beautiful New England fall colors, and this is something she's wanted to do the entire time she's been in college...well, you do it.
When we got to the idyllic New Hampshire campsite we’d reserved, it was growing darker and colder by the second. We wanted to get our tent set up immediately, while there was still a bit of light left since, have I mentioned, some of us aren’t really campers? But when we pulled into our campsite there was a couple there already, a man and a woman, eating a take-out dinner, spread out all over our picnic table.
We went over to them and Gary said “Hey, how are you…ah, looks like this is our campsite…so we’re gonna go ahead and set up our tent before it gets too dark.” The couple smiled and said sure and not much else, and we went off to the other side of our fully-paid for space and got the tent put together in the almost dark and except for the fact that the tent door’s zipper didn’t seem to be working properly (READ: HARDLY AT ALL), everything went fine.
I fully expected the couple to leave by the time we finished the tent deployment. But no, strangely, they were still there.
At this point Gary and Zoe decided to get the fire going while I headed to the grocery store for some food to cook on the fire they were about to build. When we announced these plans to the couple at the picnic table, I fully expected them to take the hint and leave. But instead, the man stood up -- and he was a large man, tall and strong looking, possibly half again as big as my husband, or perhaps it was just the lack of light, with some sort of foreign accent, Russian, perhaps – and said he’d help with the fire.
This is when it went from awkward to weird. Who were these people squatting on OUR campsite? Why weren’t they leaving, now that we, the proper holders of the campsite, had arrived? Even if they didn’t want to leave the area, they could go squat at another picnic table. And why was the guy offering to help start the fire like he was our new best friend?
By the time I got back with some food, chili in cans, it was an hour later, and I was so hoping the Russian couple would be gone. They were not. They had, in fact, spent most of the hour sitting around the fire with my husband and daughter, making awkward conversation. Except for the moment the guy decided to strip down to his underwear and take a dip in the lake.
It was practically 30 degrees out.
And yeah, underwear.
And he didn’t immediately get re-dressed after his dip.
As we warmed the chili on the fire, there was a glimmer of hope. The woman started complaining about the cold. She got in their car, sat in it with the motor running. But the guy continued to sit with us at the table, drinking alcohol from a bottle… which he’d offered to us, and we’d refused.
Oh yeah, did I mention he was drinking…a lot? To make pleasant conversation I said, “So I hope your girlfriend is gonna drive. Cuz you know… drinking and driving…”
“Oh no, I’m not driving tonight,” Russian guy said. Then I thought he added, “Because we aren’t leaving right away.” Though it could have been “We aren’t leaving for two days.” That’s what Gary later told me he heard, anyway.
Whatever the guy said, it did not make us feel good. Was this guy unclear on American camping rules? Was it a cultural misunderstanding? Or was he up to no good? My whole system was on Stranger Danger red alert on the one hand, and also trying to not overreact, trying to be polite…because I'm a good person, after all...but not too nice…because I really didn’t want this guy around.
Our tent wasn’t that big.
So as I began dishing out the chili, I made a decision.
I didn’t offer him any.
I could easily justify this decision, because he and his girlfriend had already eaten. I’d seen them.
But that wasn’t the real reason I didn’t offer. I did it because I wanted him to leave. I wanted to say he wasn’t welcome.
He was an intruder. And a huge unknown. An over-6-foot-tall and quite muscular, vodka-drinking unknown. And unknown is scary.
Niggling around in my brain was the fear he was there to do us harm. Kill my husband and I, kidnap and rape my daughter, and who knows what else.
Me not offering him a bowl of chili was a subtle message… but he received it. He heard it loud and clear, more clearly than the other hints we’d been making. And it made him angry.
He went off a little. Said in his country, you would offer, you would share your food. This was the point at which my husband and I told him quietly but quite clearly, this was our campsite, and it was time for him to go.
He was not happy, but he got in his car, and pulled out of our campsite. However he didn’t actually leave. He just parked his car across the road from us, in clear view. Stayed there a couple hours before finally driving away.
Let me just say not much sleep happened that night.
In a lot of churches this past Sunday, the ones that follow the lectionary, the scripture passage they read was from Luke 10, the story Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan. I read that story again this past week myself. It's one of the classics, one of the greatest hits. And it has always seemed fairly clear to me, pretty simple, message wise: To be like Jesus, we need to be Good Samaritans. Take care of the people beaten up and left in the ditch on the side of the road, not ignore them and walk on the other side.
It’s a message we need to hear now more than ever in our world it seems, when it feels like a lot of people are being left in ditches. 60 million refugees worldwide. Transgender people in North Carolina. Many who have experienced their black lives mattering too little. This past week, the friends and family of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling and Jerry Williams are feeling deep in that ditch, I imagine.
And I've been one of those people who's taken part in marches in support of that "be a Good Samaritan" message and posted about it on Facebook, posted about how we need to open our borders to refugees, how we need to stop systemic racism and injustice, how the doors that keep some people out, that create an in group and an out group, need to be unlocked.
This message has always seemed so clear and simple... until my little camping trip with an uninvited guest.
One of the things that used to be so clear to me was that the Priest and the Levite in the story, the two guys who walked by on the other side of the road and didn't help the man left for dead in the ditch -- they were the bad guys. And I judged them for their actions. Look at how awful they are, I thought.What jerks. How could they have done that?
But now, since that night in the New Hampshire woods, I find myself seeing them...differently, I've started seeing them as simply so very very human. Simply human, and unsure of the right thing to do, and/or afraid if they do what they think might be the right thing it will be the wrong thing, and it will not end well.
Who may find themselves holding back the cup of chili. In fear for their very lives.
Who is my neighbor? That's the question the lawyer in Luke's gospel asked Jesus - the question that got Jesus telling this Good Samaritan story.
Who is my neighbor? he asked. The thing is, Jesus didn't give him a simple and direct answer.
He told a story about people traveling the same road, people, all of them, just like us, all trying to figure this whole life thing out, trying to raise our kids, make it home safe at night, have enough food on the table, have a roof over our heads. Be secure. Feel loved.
After my Stranger Than Strange camping experience, I’ve started thinking that maybe Jesus didn't give a direct and easy answer, because it's not so simple, it's all very complicated. Maybe Jesus didn't want us to snap to quick judgements about any of the people in this story. Maybe Jesus wanted us to realize we are all neighbors here. The guy in the ditch, the good Samaritan, the Priest, the Levite.
And at any given moment, we may be the one beaten by the side of the road, we may be the one who’s afraid and trying to keep their distance, we may be the one who, against all odds, all better judgment, takes the risk to be kinder and more caring than sometimes feels humanly possible.
Maybe Jesus didn't want us to see the Priest and the Levite in the story as the bad guys, but as our neighbors, and as ourselves. Maybe Jesus wanted us to feel compassion for them too. Compassion for all of us who don't always make the right choices, even when, on some level, we want to.
When I told people about the campout with our unexpected scary guest, when I got home from the weekend, everyone said, I’d done the right thing. I still don’t know. I did the smart thing, for sure. I did the safest thing, definitely. But I have been left feeling a little ashamed, wondering how things might have turned out if I’d been less afraid.
Fear beats me up on a daily basis, pretty much. Leaves me in ditches on the side of the roads of my life.
Fear seems to be behind a lot of the decisions us humans make, whether we realize it or not. I read about some research recently that said deep-down-in-our-bones fear is behind our racism because fear of the unknown is built into our DNA.
I was telling my friend Nannette this week that my life default position is the clenched fist. And I have to remind myself that’s not the only way to live, pretty much on a daily/hourly basis. I have to remember the line from the Carl Sandburg poem that says:
The single clenched fist, lifted and ready,
Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
I don't always, I can't always manage to unclench my fist. But when I do, I notice something shift in me.
Honestly, this is what I think Jesus had in mind for all of us. The open hand versus the clenched fist.
That’s the kind of world Jesus could imagine and came to help us imagine: a world where we treat each other as our dear sweet neighbors, and where the wounded are cared for. Whether it’s the person broken by the side of the road.
Or the ones, like me, broken by fear.
Who is my neighbor?
I think you are.
And, perhaps, I am too.
I think the Russian guy at our campsite that night was as well.
Maybe, we are all neighbors here.
And we need to help each other through the fear, help each other get through the scary nights on dangerous roads. Help each other get bandaged up and back on our feet.
And we need to realize we're all just trying to get home, safe and sound.
I don't know what would have happened if I'd offered a cup of chili, in Jesus' name, that night.
I hope next time, I have the courage to.
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Here's another post I wrote about fear, in case you missed it: My Top Ten Fears of 2014
Another post about racism: Racism, White Privilege and What I Got at Water Tower Place.
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