Friday, January 30, 2009

A Resident Alien in the Land

In previous posts I've mentioned the need for hospitality in the church. But what about the rest of life? 

Twice a week I volunteer at a local youth organization. It's been quite a few months of showing up and trying to talk with teenagers who have their own world. I'm not athletic, so playing soccer or basketball's not the way to enter the community. They're either done with their homework or don't care about it, so trying to help them with that's a hard sell. Talking with them and attempting to play pool? I can do that. 

In the months I've been going down there, I've learned how slowly I've become part of the life there. Sure, I'm not the most popular person there, or the most respected, but I have my place. While they may not remember my name, they do remember who I am. 

A few weeks ago, I accosted some teenagers on the stairs who kept using a vile, derogatory term for gays. I told them not to use that word, to which they replied, "Ok, fine." Once I was all the way down the stairs, they belted it out, just to attempt to show me how "bad" and macho they were. 

Now, I never had much experience as the target of that word. No one in my high school used it, none of my friends used it, no one around me really used it. Even so, that word provokes a gut reaction in me, and that's fear. That 'f' word carries with it a subtle threat of violence, and it reminds me that there are some who wish or even intend to do me and other gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people harm. Even as an adult who was never directly threatened as a teenager, that word brings up a lot of fear and pain.

One of the teenagers on staff noticed the pained look in my eye and asked me what had happened. I told him, and he accosted them and told them to leave. The teen center director also heard about it and told them to leave. 

Now, the first reaction I have is still a bit of fear: am I now the whiny volunteer? The previous teen center director tried to get them to stop using the word 'gay' as a synonym for stupid to some success, but he was respected and beloved. 

Just this past Wednesday I went down there again, and later in the day another teen started using that horrible word. I told him to stop it, explaining to him exactly why it was so violent a word, but he refused to stop. Another teenager saw me and asked me what happened, so I told him. This teenager brought us both to the teen center director, and the director told the teenager using that word to leave. 

If I had that fear before, now it was even more! I was going to be the volunteer who got on people's cases about the 'gay' thing. And now they were going to suspect that I was one of those gay people (if the cardigans hadn't tipped them off). The word was powerful because it was a threat against me just as much as it was a threat against any LGBT teen within earshot. 

The teenager who brought us to the director then apologized for what happened. He told me that he understood why that word was so hurtful and hateful; his twin brother is bisexual, so that word is a threat against his brother. Hearing this teenager tell me how much it angered him to hear people act tough like that by using hurtful language. 

Hearing all this, I realized I was part of the community; people were concerned about my well-being. I'm not as much a stranger as, say, a "resident alien." I'm not a teenager, not a staff member, not a fixture in the community, but I am part of the community. They have all been hospitable to me in slowly inviting me into the group. They'd humor my bad jokes, my awesome and nerdy wardrobe. 

It brings into light the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, that story's not about "how gays are evil," but inhospitality. Lot defended his guests from the attacks of the people of Sodom, and Sodom was punished for trying to violate and degrade others. Its grave sin was hurting the 'other,' the stranger in the land. 

The community leaders at the teen center have, then, invited me into their house as a guest and as a friend. They took steps to help me in a time of need and to defend me from powerful yet hurtful words. The fullness of their hospitality has slowly come into being; I'm no longer a stranger but a "resident alien" in the land. 

In what ways, then, are we recipients of hospitality? How are we strangers or resident aliens? How far does hospitality go? Would we tell someone in our community to stop it if their abusive words hurt the stranger or alien in our group/church? 

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