Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fear, Perceptions, Reality, and Seeking the Middle

“So I finally caught the Baptists yesterday who keep leaving all that literature in my doorway and told them to stop,” I tell my friend in passing. It's a big victory for me, they've been leaving this stuff for me at work at least once a day and at my house 2 or 3 times a week. There's nothing I can do about it at work, where the pressure to provide amazing service makes it too awkward to do anything, but there's no reason for these people to come up to my house. They aren't from within my neighborhood, but they van in and hustle from door to door dropping pamphlets with a train on it asking if I'm on the rails to hell and asking how can I be “sure” I'm on the right track. While amusing to view the first time with their Harry Potter-eque train stop asking what, to me, is the weakest argument to join a faith ever created, they become a nuisance fairly quickly. If nothing else, it's a waste of paper—and waste like that is against my religion.

“Wow, your balls. I'm always impressed how brave you are!” She jumps in. She's shaking her head, at me though and I wonder what's going through her mind. We might be best friends but she's in Massachusetts and I'm here in Alabama. The physical location distance makes guessing exactly her reaction and meaning harder than it used to be. I never thought that your physical place in the world would give so much context to my thoughts. Even being outside of modern culture as I strive to be, doesn't make me immune to it's projections or the subtle assumptions continually pushed on my thinking.

“Maybe it was too forward? Are you sure you're safe?” She continues.  My deep thought face usually give away when I need more context, and it seems my friend can see it just fine over skype. This is all for the best as her words prompt a visceral almost visual portal from her mind to mine.  I can practically smell what she's thinking and feeling.

She's seeing the deep south—the white cross burning Alabama. And of all the southern states, Alabama might as well be the poster child for the Bible Belt intolerance in the USA. The Alabama, that even in my liberal haven of Huntsville, just a few short months ago denied a Wiccan Priest the right to give the invocation at the town meeting (the situation has been rectified and it appears to be one man's prejudice as opposed to the community, but it doesn't mean we don't feel the blow less—after all it only took that one man to keep us away from our right to participate in the rotating invocation program). Even though I am white and my fiancee is white and we live in an upscale end of the state, she sees this simple religious difference and the attention I bring to it as threatening. She's imagining people stoning me and police joining in. She's seeing my home in flames and riots in the street. She's seeing someone grabbing me as I leave my job at night and taking me and doing terrible things to me because I told the Baptists “no” to any more literature at my home.

It's not her fault, it's part of our collective unconscious image of the South (an image that admittedly is fueled more strongly up north than here in the south, but southerner's are not ignorant of this portrait). Truth be told I have this same image in my own subconscious. It's why I knew exactly what she was worried about. She and I have seen discrimination of all kinds and people range from rude to scary. We think intolerant south and our mind jumps to violent-- an action that I'd be hard pressed to decide which of us fears most.

I weight every choice I make about announcing difference based off of this possible outcome. And it is totally crazy. I am not a prime target for any of these scary images. A young polite white girl in upper middle class suburban America, if a little rural, is perhaps as safe as you can be. My Hindu friends are in far more risk than I am. And yet I see their quiet guarded choice to share their food, their faith, and their culture, gently and carefully—and I think, if they can do it, the least I should manage is telling the Baptists to please stop leaving their literature at my door. I understand their mission but they need to understand a polite no thanks if they are ever going to be successful in their mission.

“You jump to the idea that I'd just tell people I'm Pagan too fast,” I tease my friend because again I can see what she's thinking. Up North, especially in college, I would just announce I was pagan when the topic turned to religion. I came out loudly and often. I never softened the blow and on a few occasions, I was intentionally inflammatory. I like to think I grew out of that before I moved, but what we would like and what is true is not always the same.

In any case, I did not tell the Baptists what faith I believe in, I didn't see how it was appropriate or their business.

“Here, you tell them you've found your faith already and they assume you're another kind of Christian. They don't tend to ask, usually telling them you are completely satisfied with your current faith practice and relationship with God/Divine sets them wrong footed,” I tell her.

“But you can't just tell these people no,” she begins.

“Why not? I'm sure they hear no all the time.” I ask, intentionally being dumb. I want her to either think about that fear or I want to actually hear her articulate that ugly horrible irrational fear we hold in our hearts of lynchings and brutalization because I won't accept an infinite number of pamphlets from a Baptist church.

“Don't joke,” she chides, “these are not rational sane people. These are not people you can reason with. These are not people whose next move you can predict. These are the kind of people who picket soldiers funerals, and who send their children out to preach the word of God as manipulative tools. These are people who attack OBGYN clinics because one of their services include abortion. These are people who preach abstinence only and would prefer people live in disease and poverty than offer out condoms and birth control. These are people who think they are warriors of God and are not afraid to inject violence into a situation to get what they think is right. These are not safe people to disagree with.”

The thing is: she's not wrong. I've never physically been to a soldier’s funeral, let alone one that was picketed but I've met people who proudly announce they've picketed funerals. I've met folks who will look you dead in the eye and wish violence and harm on homosexuals. I've know people who don't believe in vaccines or medicine or whatever for “religious reasons”. It's so common, the pharmacist who was offering me a free flu vaccine took my hesitation as a religious objection, she was quick to apologize if she'd offended me. I had to explain to her that I was not morally opposed to vaccines, simply afraid of shots. We laughed, but part of me thought it was more disturbing than funny that it's so common here to refuse medicine a pharmacist is prepped and apologetic if she stumbles into that territory.

Alabama only has two abortion clinics in the state. While there is a legal battle to rectify the situation, there is a law on the books that says all clinics which offer abortions have to have Dr.s that work out of the hospital (hence why we only have two in the state now). The one here in Huntsville is under 24hr surveillance by a church group that photographs everyone who goes in or out of the clinic and posts their picture online to alert people to who is “pro abortion” or “had and abortion” or “helps people get an abortion”. I don't know a thing about the Tuscaloosa clinic, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't have a similar group photographing everyone.

I've been approached by children with ages from 8-14 who want to let me know “God loves me” or want to “invite me to bible study” or want to ask if “I've accepted Jesus as my lord and savior”. Sometimes their parents are around and other times I've been alone with a wandering child. I wonder about these parents. How could they believe their children are prepared for contrary answers from strangers or do they assume that no one in their community holds a contrary belief or do they believe so completely in the persuasive power of a child to over ride contrary feelings? Oh, the stories of my “daring” with some of these children would terrify my friend. I don't want to scare her anymore.

But how do I let her know it's ok? Really, I'm going to be fine.

“These Baptists could be Those Christians but that's not the vibe I got from them. I think they just wanted to share the word,” I finally settle on, because there are Those Christians, and they are all around me. There is one of Those Christians at my work and she is technically my superior. The careful dance I have to do to not lie to her but also not reveal how scary, crazy, and inappropriate she is for work (to me for all settings) is something I'm making a mental note never to bring up to this friend as we speak.

“Well they shouldn't be going door to door like that,” she huffs, “it's crazy. It's intrusive. It's pushy.”

“I know and it's weird to go up to a stranger's house, knock on the door and share your most personal religious belief with a stranger and insist that your soul's truth is their truth. Not that these Baptists were sharing anything personal in their brochures. Do you think people really convert to avoid the potential of Hell?” I ask.

I already know what my friend's answer is. We are pretty much on the same page about fear conversion, but I want to hear the tangent again or any other if it helps move her from her own fear for me. She lets me change the subject and we go on.

Weeks later this conversation lingers with me. I don't think about it often, but I'm a Northerner living in the South. I don't think of myself as a Southerner, while I've adjusted to how things are here, they can still stir me up in a way only a Northerner could take affront. Door to door conversion happens up north. People handle it differently. Sometimes they are rude. Sometimes they are cold. Sometimes they are polite but not open to the message even when they agree to pray or listen to the bible. I assume sometimes they are open to the message and convert or churches would invest in a different method of conversion.

The point is that up North, people might scold you for being too mean to doorstep witnesses, but most people would think since it's your house it's your right to respond to the disturbance as you saw fit. Very few people would be afraid for your safety for rejecting the message or the visitor. Heck there are a lot of people I know who were Christian of some sort and claimed to be Satanists or Pagans just to shock the witnesses. People saw these antics as funny or mean or too much work, but no one came back and said, “was that safe?”

Northerner's don't look at door to door witnessing in the south the same way they do in the North. There is fear injected into rejecting the visitors. There is all this old news reel footage in the back of our heads from the 60s from the fight for racial equality—not even related really except that there is violence and Christian religious symbols overlapped. If the South reacted that way to racial equality, how would it react to religious—I guess that's the leap we make. What can I say to my southern friends, it makes sense in my head. I think the basis is that we've seen the south use religion as a weapon and we've seen the south be violently afraid of difference. Hence all Christian people may use their religion as a weapon and be particularly afraid of difference. Forget that this footage is from the 60s and never mind that the same can be said for people everywhere. We've seen it happen in the South and we're not about to forget it.

Southerner's do not look at door to door witnessing the same way. In my fiancee's work area along probably about a third of the people there have gone door to door or have programs in their church that does this work which they heavily support. This is a done thing that we are supposed to allow. When I talk with them about how unwelcome these pamphlets are, how wasteful all the paper is, how awkward the meetings are, I got blank stares at first. Sometimes I get a “who cares” question. I mean obviously I care and I would hope the people going door to door care too.

So here I am, a Northerner, who believes I should have a right to reject religious intervention at my home but paralyzed by a the monster of Violent South that the North has a love affair with and further hindered by the carte blanche acceptance of the practice in the South. I can't just shake off my perceptions or the perceptions of others but I have to find an truth within the tangle that will suit.

The more I think on it, the more certain I am that I've done the right thing for the Baptists and for myself. I hope one day I can think of my mingling identities as a more unified compilation. I hope that one day all this baggage of prejudice and judgment will wash away, and that there won't be fear as a first or second consideration in my own personal decisions. Until then, I hope to continue to have a discerning glance that can review my own perception for prejudice and can pick at where there may be truth and where there just may be rampant unreasonable fear.   

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