I live in the small city of Northampton, Massachusetts, Noho prides itself on it's diversity and progressive sensibilities. So I see all manner of people on Main Street. When I lived at the Center For Renewal in Simsbury, Connecticut the culture in which I was embedded was substantially more homogeneous; Noho's heterogeneity took a bit of getting used to mostly because the folks I spent most of my time with were very much like me. After five years, I've gotten very used to the Paradise City's people; those living there for many years, or living there for a time (such as students at Smith), or just passing through.
For most summers of my married life which just happens to be a little less than 2/3rds of my life so far, we've vacationed in Ventnor, New Jersey at the summer home of Tricia's family just a block away from the Boardwalk and beach. In fact, our kids remember it more than any other summer vacation spot we visited, although there weren't that many.
My purpose for writing relates to an experience Tricia and I had on our the late afternoon walk heading north to Atlantic City. Depending which direction you take and how far you want to go, the walk can be anywhere from 2 miles to 10 miles round-trip. We decided to go to up to the Boat Mall in AC, a round-trip of 4.5 miles. It's a trek we've made daily for years.
As we got nearer AC proper the number of people increased. We weren't sure if there'd be a crowd because it was the end of the 4th of July weekend when many weekenders head home after a final day at the beach.When we got to the first casino there was quite a crowd and the diversity was a melting pot of humanity. There were black folks (many from AC), white folks (casino patrons or walkers up from Ventnor and Margate), Latinos from Mexico, Central and South America, Asians from Korea, Vietnam, Japan and China) and Arabs, the men wearing white caps called taqiyahs, and the women wearing scarfs or hajibs. They gathered in families, couples, singles, groups of teens, old people, gays and straights, poor and wealthy, addicts, street performers, police and casino workers.
You could hear more than one language being spoken openly as people strolled on the Boardwalk together. There were street performers, one of them playing Jesus Loves Me on tenor saxophone, people sitting at outdoor restaurants on the Boardwalk, or at outdoor bars on the beach. Some, like us, were strolling through the results of a sandcastle competition; others were coming onto the Boardwalk from the AC Beach still in bathing suits, and with dripping kids in tow. There were people everywhere.
I take note of it first because in my view was a Sunday afternoon melting pot snapshot of humanity. Everyone there sharing a common space and experience. It felt a little like bazaar scenes I've seen in movies. I know such scenes go on all over the world, but I was struck in the moment at God's creation of peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. I was also struck that we were together in proximity, but far apart from relating to one another other than walking the same Boardwalk. We all kept to ourselves and what we were doing. We were separate together.
I realize it's a common experience to gather in places for an event or stroll, and not really engage people other than who you're with. For some reason it just stood out to me to me our different cultures mixed together with little or no interacting beyond a look, if that. And we are separated by more than just proximity or race. For instance, pundits and commentators have observed it's becoming more common for immigrants in the US to speak their native language here as much, or more than English (if they learn it at all). I've experienced seeing that too. When it happens, we it feels to me become another degree separated; I don't know what you're saying, nor you me. We can't really connect in any substantial way even if we wanted.
So we gradually settle further into being strangers together. Conversely, being able to talk and share points of view builds a bridge between people. Yeah, I know we're becoming more contentious and distrusting as we navigate through really tough times of emotionally strong and competing worldviews, but unless we find and share a common language through which we can hear one another's hearts, we're in deep trouble. Not talking honestly and listening well works to foment untested suspicion and foolhardy anger. They naturally build on themselves through hearsay, even willful deceit.
Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed the separation so much except for the fact I'm taking more notice of the deepening social divisions (and anger) occurring in our country. I'm more troubled by it than ever before. Our widening socioeconomic inequities fueling some of this are real. But our American culture seems to be coarsening, in general. You know I lived as a participant through the socio-political turmoil of the 60's, but I now view much of that era as the opening of a social Pandora's Box resulting in horrors. I know that's a strong statement, but for decades I've had to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by the drug culture, sexual "freedom," the unholy trinity of "me, myself and I,"and the dreary entitlement ethos. There's a dark side to what's occurring as we divide more and more over morality, politics, race, and rights. Something quite menacing is afoot.
At the same time, I think the churches of the missional way have extraordinary opportunities to cross divides as peacemakers, ambassadors for civility, and champions of the Gospel of True Freedom and Community. We should avoid any impulse to bury our heads in our sub-cultures so that we fail to be what Christ summons us to. Hatred and self-absorbed ignorance will grow like a cancer if we remain sequestered in our safe zones merely content to pray, sing, and be fed by bible study and Sunday worship. What if we started being courageous citizens of the Kingdom who are also gracious servant citizens of our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces? And what if we crossed the divide to where the chronic poor and broken among us stay ghettoed downtown or a few blocks over? Could we break down walls and weaken the separation with kindness, compassion, and understanding?
Shouldn't we? If not the Church and other like-minded servant hearts, then who?