First Parish of Honda, #1: Refuge

The Memoirs of a Theologian/Uber-Driver in Boston

For several months, I have been typing up and sharing on Facebook the stories of the people I meet as I drive around Boston as an Uber Driver to work my wife and I through my PhD in Theology. People have really seemed to enjoy these stories. I’m now going to start posting them here on a regular basis under the poorly-titled series heading ‘First Parish of Honda.’ These are the stories of beautiful, hilarious, and weird people and everything they teach me about life, faith, and God.

2/11/17

“Refuge.”

This might be my first entry of stories in a formal blog, but it also might already be the most important. Last night was one of the most life-altering trips I’ve had yet. My condolences to you if you have the misfortune of reading this whole long thing. Honestly, though, I do hope you read to the end. I save a very special story for the end, a story that I will cherish and that will also haunt me for a long time.

It was a snowy night. Everyone wanted a ride, no one wanted to walk. It might have been one of the busiest nights I’ve ever driven. It’s a surreal experience, all these people getting in and out of your car. You catch little snippets of people’s lives. And so diverse, so many countries and cultures all What a beautiful, sometimes weird, occasionally confounding, often amusing, sea of human beings.

In case things got dull, I had a conversation starter handy: My copy of Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self.

One great academic achievement took place last night, someone helped me decide I should do my dissertation on the religious origins of sneezing rituals, and figure out why in the world we don’t say “bless you” when people cough. It’s not very fair to people who cough. #SneezePrivilege

One guy got in my car, and I noticed immediately that an odd odor surrounding him. He was dressed to go out on the town, so it must have been his scent of choice for a night of clubbing? I guess? But it was so strange. It reminded me of… really freezer-burned frozen green beans. I spent a lot of time turning this problem over and over in my head: ‘Is this a new scent trend I haven’t heard about? Smell like your favorite frozen food? Is that a new Axe line? I know I’m getting old but am I really this out of touch?’

I actually smelled the exact same scent again a few more times throughout the night. This must be a new thing.

After a few hours it finally struck me:

‘Huh, so, maybe that’s what marijuana smells like?’

Forgive me, #Homeschooled #WesleyanUndergrad #Seminarian #JesuitGraduateSchool.

Last night was not a good night for Feminism. Or, actually, maybe it was a good night for Feminism in that it made me a Feminist all over again. Because, I was reminded again, that Men.Are.The.Worst

Example #1: First trip of the evening, some punk MBA men going on and on about who they’ve been hooking up with. One guy was excited about a WOMAN (no sir, she is not a “babe”) he had “chatted up” during class that day. She’s Belgian, because apparently that makes her hotter? He didn’t say that specifically, he just said “she’s Belgian, ya know?” and the other guy was like “ah yeah man.” Those exotic, white, European women… sorry, I mean “babes.”

“Is she hot?” the other asked.

“Yeah, she’s like, attractive, but not a ‘smokehouse’”

(I didn’t realize that comparing women to places where meat is cured is a token of approval).

They then went on to talk about the WOMEN they would not hook up with because they are “too insecure” and would be “super dramatic” about ENGAGING IN INTENSE PHYSICAL INTIMACY WITH ANOTHER HUMAN BEING LIKE IT MIGHT BE A BIG DEAL OR SOMETHING.

Example #2: Secondish (it was in the midst of a string of pool trips, so they all kind of ran together) trip of the night, some YOUNG WOMEN IN COLLEGE were talking about how one of them had had an ‘in’ with one of the Patriots’ body guards* and she was able to get into a club where some of the Pats guys were celebrating after the homecoming Super Bowl parade. Okay, pretty cool. Funny enough, she didn’t really care that much about seeing the Pats, she was more concerned with outing some other YOUNG WOMAN who was bragging about being at the club and that she was going to hook up with one of them (the YOUNG WOMAN in my car was proud to report that she saw other YOUNG WOMAN had been turned away at the door, despite her spreading the rumor all around work the day after that she had indeed slept with one of the Patriots).

But, anyway, all that to say: She talked about how the Pats guys had a back room with a curtain and they literally directed their body guard to invite women into the back room they hand-selected from the crowd because they liked the looks of them. It’s like something you’d read in the account of an ancient Mesopotamian warrior-king selecting his harem. The YOUNG WOMEN in my car commented on how this was very gross and perverted, and how they would never sleep with any of them. Good for them.

(These are the people we idolize. No wonder we elected a ‘locker room’ President. I digress).

Example #3: Later in the evening, a couple got in my car. It was an awkward situation in that I already had two people in my car, and one of them was a very tall man who had never been in an Uber pool and was not happy about sharing the ride (his female companion had been the one to order the car, so he didn’t know what he was getting into). Indeed, it was very cramped. The other couple was also a little miffed about how little space there was, but they were good sports about it. Except that this guy was very quick to disparage the YOUNG WOMAN with him: “that’s what you get for letting the women call the car.” I arched my back. What a jerk. He made some other sarcastic, but disparaging and demoralizing comments throughout the trip. At one point, he made a particular joke at her expense. The car was awkwardly silent (not so much in judgment, but just because the joke fell flat). I had gotten the joke, but I was not going to dignify it. “Didn’t anybody catch my joke?” he asked. “Oh, I got it,” I said, and didn’t laugh. Jerkface. After we dropped off the other passengers, the really tall guy, this second couple started making out. Really, Ms. YOUNG WOMAN? This man is awful to you. I say kick him out of the car.

In the middle of example #2’s rides, I picked up a 30 or so year old woman with a fairly thick accent I couldn’t quite place. She was so very chipper; truly, like unusually serene and congenial. Providence was involved in this encounter, I do believe, for I very nearly almost gave a ride to a very drunk man who thought I was his Uber when I was supposed to be picking her up. She was quiet, except for a few pleasantries, until I dropped off the two other young women I had picked up.

At that point, we only had a few more minutes before her stop, but those few minutes were weighty, and have clawed at my soul for the hours since.

She was dressed like any average city-living woman on a casual Friday night in snowy Boston. Thick jacket, a colorful beanie, solid boots. She asked me to stop at Whole Foods so she could pick up some groceries she had had put on hold (they now have this order ahead of time and pick up by the door thing), but they were closed we got there, she had lost track of the time. Turns out, she actually works there. She works in the mornings at Bank of America with ‘very anxious and grumpy customers who don’t want you to mess up their money.’ But then she gets to go to Whole Foods and work in the wine and cheese section, and talk to people about wine and cheese, and she loves it.

She asked, and I told her about what I do. “Ah! Yes, my friend also studies theology. You are like her, there must just be a certain personality that does theology, just, the same demeanor.” The word she used was “very measured.”

“So, how how long have you lived in the area?” I asked.

“Oh, about 3 and a half years.”

At this point she became not an ounce less cheerful, but much more reserved.

“And where were you before that?”

“The Middle East.”

“Oh really? Where? Is that where you are from originally?”

“Yes, from Syria. I am from Syria.”

What exactly does one say at this point? It’s clear she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, she’s not a novelty. What do I ask, “Oh! Please do tell me all about the war!”

The best I could do: “So how exactly did you come? What brought you?”

“The war. Yes, the war. The war is terrible.”

“So, you are a refugee?”

“Yes.”

“Do you still have family there?”

“No, we all came together. But we left everything. All our possessions. We left everything behind. We come here to get away, this country… this country is our safe place.”

I’m silent.

“We are so glad to be here, we are safe. But, you know, uh…” (she chuckled, but with a sober sort of chuckle) “…we think, Mr. Trump, not like us very much.”

“I’m…”

What do I say? It’s cool, he’s just messing around. Or, no, no, no, you have it all wrong, maybe he’s going too far, but Americans are just concerned about their safety…

Really, am I supposed to lecture a woman who escaped a genocide on worrying about safety?

“Yeah… I know. I’m sorry.”

She said this next, and I wasn’t sure if it was about Trump or just a general thought: “You know, everybody is different. Like fingerprints. Some are good, some are bad, [or maybe it was, we have different parts that are good, parts that are bad] but we are all human.”

Somewhere in here I started to tear up. I don’t think she noticed.

“Is your family Muslim? Christian?”

“No, we are not Muslim. . . . but, it does not matter. We are all the same. We are all people.

…and you know, I was reading the Bible last night, and he [Jesus] said, you should forgive your enemies. And his words, these words give me hope, they calm my soul, but it is very hard. How can I forgive, when some people do so much evil?”

“I know. It seems impossible sometimes.”

I gave her info about our church, the only thing I could think of, in case there’s every anything we can do. I told her we pray for her country and her people all the time.

These are the sorts of moments that make you rethink all your priorities. God is near to the brokenhearted, all the time I spend elsewhere is wasted.

Why do we waste so much time where God is not? God is not found in safety, God is not found where we are comfortable. God has told us millions of times where God is to be found. Why do we make it so complicated?

What am I trying to say? I’m still trying to process that encounter, it reminded me that up is down, the first are last, the place where we have our eyes fixed are the places that will be brought down and humbled. Words beyond that escape me, maybe I’ll have better words later, for what this woman, this emissary of the Spirit-who-is-near-the-poor-in-spirit showed me.

Truly, I try to imagine standing before the Judgment Seat and telling an executed, beaten, ostracized, criminalized, refugee of a Palestinian genocide that I was preoccupied with keeping safe, too preoccupied with my day-to-day, too preoccupied with my books, with my money… to welcome him when he was wandering, and feed him when he was hungry. Really, in that moment, what is so easily forgotten in this life will be clearly the most important thing, we will wonder why any other concern ever seemed more pressing.

Matters of the soul, matters of the polis, matters of the road. www.skylej.com