I am a New Yorker. I’m not from Maine — though I’ve lived and loved here for just over 4 years. There are things about me that are distinctly New York, including but not limited to, my overt sarcasm. When I moved to Maine, I was repelled by the idea that you can’t be called a Mainer. You have to have been born here to earn that title. There’s some strange logic about buns in an oven to explain this. I don’t even recall the phrase. It just never made sense. Still, when I moved here, the message was clear. You’re not one of us.
I remembered that this weekend when I started to read Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains. In his description of the main character, a refugee from Burundi, Kidder highlights the use of the term New Yorker. It’s one that creates insiders and outsiders. It’s one that divides rather than unites. (I admit I’m guilty of this one.) More to the point, it’s not helpful. It doesn’t help us build a better world or deepen our community, but we can only work toward that idealized world where justice flows down like water if we learn about to talk to each other. We need words to describe the vision that we seek. Moreover, we need words to understand how I’m going to better understand your story and my own.
And yet, in the state where I don’t belong, we’re creating more divisions. The headlines announce: Lawmaker introduces Arizona-style immigration law. My soul quivers because we’ve failed. We’ve failed to understand that one scrap of paper isn’t going to explain an entire life. It’s not going to articulate why I have the right to be here anymore than another does. This is what scares me about the immigration debate right now. We’ve forgotten how to relate to others. We’ve gotten caught up in labels and divisions rather than seeing that this person reveals the image of God. In Fidelia’s Sisters, a publication of the The Young Clergy Women Project, we’ve been exploring this question of diversity all month long. Today, the article entitled Hapas, Hybridity, and Harmony: Raising Non-White Kids in a White Congregation introduced a new vocabulary word for me: hapa. I had no idea what this meant so this innocent well-meaning white girl sent an email to ask what this meant and how it might be used positively. I don’t want to use words like New Yorker or Mainer that divide us rather than bring us together. I don’t want to use words that fail to articulate the divine bond we share. Still, it leaves me wondering how I can use these words when they aren’t part of my vocabulary. I’ve used other words that harm — in ways that demand papers from another so that they must prove they are indeed feminist or gay-friendly or local foods oriented or even Christian. I don’t want to do that. Not anymore. Not when language is so charged in our common speech. I want to find a way to use words that empower us to seek more unity than division.