Monday, October 13, 2014

when bicycles and torah intersect: my teaching on yom kippur afternoon

A few days from now I will head home to Portland, to that bastion of bike-friendliness where I can ride almost anywhere I like and when I get tired I can toss my bike on public transit.
Lately there have been lots of people complaining about the state of "alternate" (read: NON-car-dependent) transportation in my lovely city.
While I'm sure that many of their complaints are perfectly valid, I would invite them to do what I've done -- come and spend five weeks in Overland Park, Kansas, with nothing but a bicycle and trailer to get around and an occasional ride from a car-centric pal when the lightning and thunder come out. Do that, and THEN tell me the transportation picture in Portland sucks.

Because when you compare it to other cities it's actually not bad at all.

Of course, it could be better -- there's always room for improvement -- but the kind of better I envision is when every major US city has decent public transit in ALL quadrants and no quadrant can shut out the busses or light rail to keep undesirable folks out of their sterile suburb. Because that scenario plays out in so many suburbs across the country it's pathetic.

Thirty years ago, I spent a semester off from college living with my mother in the metro Atlanta area. I had recently gotten my drivers' license. My mother worked in downtown Atlanta. I had gotten a job at a print shop not far from her house. So every morning, I had to get up and drive my mom to the park-n-ride nine miles away, over the county line, where the closest MARTA bus stopped to pick up passengers. MARTA wasn't allowed to operate in Gwinnett County, because that county's residents didn't want black people coming up from dirty, rundown College Park to look for jobs or to shop in their fair, very white county.

In 2014, there are still US cities that operate with the same mindset: If we don't let the bus system in, then Only People Like Us will live, work and shop here. Sadly, this scenario is playing out in Johnson County, Kansas, just over the state line from Kansas City, Missouri. I am told that people move here mostly for the quality of family life and the excellent public schools, and that is certainly a factor. Johnson County public schools are some of the best in the nation. They are also, demographically speaking, some of the whitest, a fact that no one likes to talk about out loud.

But I digress.

I recognize that, as a visitor very much from the Outside, I must step lightly and speak gently. But I also recognize that, with repeated visits to this place, and more of these lovely people asking if I might ever move here so I can serve their synagogue community full-time, I have an opportunity to share a different perspective. And when I am asked to teach the lesson around the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, using a combination of discussion and music, I realize I've been handed a gift. I have to unwrap it very carefully.

The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur afternoon is Leviticus Chapter 19 -- commonly called The Holiness Code. In it there are all kinds of instructions on what constitutes holy behavior. I focus on one important point: "Do not hate your kin in your heart." I ask the people assembled in the sanctuary, Who is your kin? And when they begin to offer the predictably correct answers -- the homeless, the stranger, the orphan -- I stop them, and ask, Do you really mean that? If a homeless person who hadn't bathed in a week approached you at an ATM and asked for help, would you take him home and let him use your shower to clean up? Would you make him a meal? Or would you simply try and get away as quickly as possible? People began to squirm, but not uncomfortably; at this point the vibe was like getting caught passing a note to your friend in class. Everyone was in on it and no one would get sent to the principal's office.

I went further, talking about the fact that my home state of Oregon may seem all hip and cool, but in fact has had a pretty shameful history of racism that once included sundown laws (some of which remained on the books until the 1930s) and redlining agreements between realtors. People looked surprised. They were interested to see where I was going with this.

Where I went with it was to talk about the source of hatred.

What is the root emotion at the heart of hatred? I asked. Immediately, someone answered, Fear.
Absolutely right, I told them. And fear left unexamined can lead to mistrust -- which, in turn, can lead to hatred. 

Then, I went for the jugular.

I talked about my experiences as bicycle rider in Overland Park, a place that was to be my home for five weeks (including the High Holy Days). I spoke of what it was like to be unable to rent a car (due to night-blindness) and to depend on a bicycle and trailer to haul my guitar back and forth to temple each day. On my days off, I said, it would be nice to be able to venture farther afield, and maybe even explore downtown Kansas City. People nodded in agreement; they may live in the suburbs, but they still think downtown Kansas City is a cool place to show off to visitors.

So where are the buses? I asked. In my five visits to Overland Park I'd seen exactly one bus stop sign and no buses -- and had just learned on this visit that the one bus stop sign I'd seen was being taken down and the bus route eliminated for lack of use. Because in Overland Park, everyone drives a car and wants to keep it that way. Overland Park does not want public transit because that would mean Kansas Citians would pour across State Line Road to shop and work in pristine Overland Park. And while Overland Park is almost exclusively white, Kansas City has a very large black population and pockets of high unemployment.

I didn't say anything about race or racism at this point in my teaching. I didn't have to. I'm pretty sure folks got the message even though I limited the labeling to Missourians and Kansans. I urged them to consider the source of their fear and entertain the possibility that some fears may be, well, unfounded. And then I taught them the song Gesher Tzar M'od ("The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to let fear rule").

I am sure that even if I never hear about peoples' reactions to my teaching, the rabbi who hired me could get an earful from his congregants after I go home. We'll see. Anyway, I stand by what I did and make no apologies for it. If I got one person in the room to examine his or her fear around transportation and that leads somewhere positive, then I am happy. Change is slow and incremental. I'd like to think I made as much or more of an impression by my stubborn insistence on riding in the rain (when there was no lightning, anyway) as I did when I asked why there are no buses here.

Tomorrow I will take the loaner trailer back to the temple, and Thursday I'll drop off the Kansas bike at the rabbi's; he will store it for me and then hand it off to the music director, for her to use until my next visit. And I'm fairly certain that somewhere down the road there will be a next visit, because the community and I have developed a sweet relationship over the course of the last year and a half.
On Friday, I get to go home to my Sweetie and our kitties and my bicycle and our lovely city, whose transportation troubles seem paltry compared to where I've been lately.

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