Four days before Christmas my neighbor invited me to a "Christmas concert" at her church. I like music and the inspiring classical sound of carols and church songs can be quite lovely. So I accepted her generous invitation and was whisked away a few days later in the early afternoon to imbibe the musicality of the season. I never bothered to ask her which church or where since not being a churchgoer, not being Christian and not being much of a faith-based thinker, all churches seemed pretty much the same to me. Being in a generous and accepting mood and fairly content with my current circumstances, my heart was open, my spirit was bright and I was ready for "a sleighing song tonight."
I never expected to see at least a thousand people filling the seats an hour before the concert actually began. This large cluster of folks unnerved me a bit but since the concert was free and had a few famous folks in the line up, I realized this was probably an ongoing annual tradition that had spread far and wide. Normally being in any space with over a hundred people triggers my claustrophobia so I avoid crowds like the biblical plague. My neighbor, a sweet woman in her 80's, was so excited that she was introducing me to her world, I dismissed my gut feeling that something was a wee bit off about all this and went with the flow of kindness and generosity that I was feeling.
About half-way through the concert, I realized the congregation was at least 50 percent non whites, a mix of various Asian Americans, a very few African-Americans and a pretty large percentage of Latinos, like my neighbor. And yet all the singers and musicians on the stage up to this point were either white or singing European-centered songs. Hmmmm. I wondered why. Here was this fabulous mixture of ethnicities with great traditions brought by every person there ranging from cultures spread wide across the globe and yet...nothing. Here we were in an area a few miles from a giant city with one of the most diverse populations on the planet and yet...nothing. No representation on that stage of the traditions of the people who were in large part the congregation.
Curious. But it was what it was; I was okay with it since it was their church and not mine. I didn't pay for the concert and I was being neighborly. All that warm human glow began to dissipate, however, when the Pastor, The Reverend Conservative Christian Anglo-Saxon Male, asked anyone who liked Southern style gospel to raise their hands. ("Southern style" being a euphemism for African-American). My hand, of course, immediately shot up and about a dozen other people sheepishly raised theirs as well. The Reverend then mockingly suggested that it was only one song and it was over quickly. Regardless, I expected to hear at least a smidgeon of soul to get me through the remainder of the concert. Instead three more Anglo-Saxon males sang the most non-Southern style Gospel rendition of an old Black hymn I had ever heard with what can only be described as sickeningly glued-on Al Jolsen-like smiles.
A few more songs later the final singer, an actual African-American male, stepped on the stage and brought the house down. It was like a miracle had occurred right in front of me. The congregation went crazy for him as he walked proudly off the stage as if to say, "Do you see the hunger here for something that reflects the reality of the folks who give you their money week after week, year after year?" But then as if it never happened, the Reverend took center stage and began to rail about each and every person sitting there being sinners, how there was nothing we could do about it because we were born sinful and how each of us was doomed to eternal hell unless we accepted Jesus as our personal savior. I'd never seen anything up close and personal like the smug arrogance painted across the face of this man, delivering his "truth" to a congregation of devout believers, many of whom were immigrants from cultures where skin color was not so snowy white. Where I come from (that devilish state of liberal cults aka Massachusetts) not even Albert Einstein had so many clear cut answers. Old Albert didn't have too many hard and fast rules about anything except E=MC2 but not so the Reverend. To hear him tell it, all you had to do was accept your innately evil-doing nature and recognize the one true religion, his apparently, and everything bad in this world, global warming, wars, disease and death, would be eradicated in the blink of an eye. At least for you and all the people who think like you. I guess the rest of us who dared question the logic of this could and would go straight to hell.
After we left the concert and were having dinner, my neighbor began to expound on the importance of my accepting Jesus as my personal savior. I straightened her out politely. I told her I was Jewish. She then told me she "loved" Jews because "you" had given "us" the bible even if it was incomplete and "you" need to read the rest of it where Jesus (I am told) played a big part. I dared not tell her I was agnostic and leaned towards Buddhism. That Jesus was probably a Jewish radical who pissed off the traditional Jews and the Romans, was more than likely dark-skinned and not blue-eyed and blonde like well...the Reverend. I didn't have any desire to upset her further. It was bad enough she was breaking bread with me. After all, I had no clear answers to anything and was now feeling mildly uncomfortable because I had lied to an 80-year-old woman to some extent about what I was. Or wasn't. I was too confused at this point to know. I realized sadly this was maybe one reason why America is currently so divided. There's a very large percentage of people, a few who may have been sitting right in that church, who have no fear of the so-called "coming Apocalypse" because they were "right" with god. Does this mean they would do nothing to stop Armageddon and even perhaps are praying to hurry it along? I hope not. Even Pope Francis had this to say recently,"Through humility, soul-searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God."
After dinner we said goodnight with a promise of driving around our neighborhood together to check out Christmas light extravaganzas in a few days. The next afternoon wishing I could have experienced more joy and less frustration in the time I spent with my neighbor, I bought her a Christmas card about god's love being eternal. There was nothing on it about her being a sinner. I hope she wasn't offended but I don't see people in those terms. Whether she or I or you for that matter accepts anyone as their personal savior is irrelevant to me. I saw Christ's message clearly through my interaction with her. And it was real. Love one another. Despite and because of your differences. Not an easy thing to do, is it?