observations and opinion
Riding my bike from Toronto to Chattanooga
We lived near the lakeshore, in the Toronto neighbourhood called “the Beaches” (locals would often drop the “es” and call it “The Beach”, a term intended purely to distinguish wheat from chaff). In the mid-90s the Beaches, er Beach, was on its long ascent from its Working Class/Ex-Hippy phase to its current era of Stupidly Expensive. Downtowny lawyer-public servant types, like my household, were pushing prices up out of reach.
Our house was ancient, at least 80 years old, a great wooden relic of the days when the Beach was a resort community. The small square front porch was laden with thick vines, dating back to World War II. The neighbours immediately to the south were a wonderful Irish couple, who became dear friends; those immediately to the north were blockheads, the couple who barked almost as loud as their dog. The Flintstones wouldn’t have hung out with them.
One afternoon my doorbell rang and I found standing there a slim, black-suited young man – himself very black – with a stiff white shirt and dark tie. He held pamphlets. I knew instantly that he had come to save my soul.
I expect that most of the time, if such a person arrived unannounced at your front door ready to show you the pathway to heaven, you would not open the door. Or you’d shake your head politely and say “no thanks.” Sensible. I’ve done that to Girl Guides hawking cookies (the mint ones, which are gross) but on this occasion, I felt different. It struck me that this young guy, polished and sleek and pointy as a pencil, had been trudging door to door for hours, trying to save souls (his own too, maybe, but also others’). Perhaps he deserved a hearing.
He got one. He recounted a brief and rather rocky personal history, culminating in the Kingdom Hall where the Witnesses brought him in, cleaned him up and set him right. Here was a young man whose life, along with his soul, may have been saved by the intercession of earnest believers. It was impressive. He was impressive. So I listened, thanked him for caring enough to wear out his new shoes pounding the pavement, taking rejection for hours and yet still, coming to my door. And then I said goodbye. Or so I thought.
It’s not clear to me how proselytizer identify “a live one” or prospect. Maybe the mere openness to a conversation is, like a pinprick of light in the darkness, enough to draw them to one’s door – like moths banging against the screen door on a hot summer night. Perhaps the simple fact of listening – of not being rude or impatient or worse – is such a balm to the weary converters that they come back, just to feel a little better than lousy. My guess is there’s an instruction manual back at the Kingdom Hall which lists the clues describing a candidate. Whatever the allure, my conversation with the young man, was enough.
He came back. And we spoke. And he came back again. And we spoke. I was in each case cheerful, polite and as I recall, vaguely nice about it while delivering the message of “thanks but no thanks.” Yet he was deaf to the “no” it seems, and so returned a fourth time. He warned me about that one – he might bring the Elder – and indeed, he did. The Elder was a middle-aged white guy, also in a suit – presumably a businessman of some stripe – who walked up my street towards the house with the young man.
I was not at home. No, I don’t mean that I was hiding behind the curtains. I was literally not at home – I was across the street, having just pulled up to the curb in my little blue Nissan Sentra. Pulling the keys from the ignition I could see the two of them, strutting deliberately up the slight hill. There was no doubt in my mind where they were headed. Feeling tired and not at all prepared to debate the Elder, I did what any sensible person would do – I ducked down in my car.
Peering out over the window edge, I saw the dynamic duo march onto my porch. The disappeared behind the vines. My then-spouse, who was so hostile to such visitors that she’d have spilled hot soup on them with half a chance, wasn’t there or did not answer. After a time, with me hunched in my car as if in fear for my life, the two men stepped away and returned towards Queen Street, where they were parked or could catch the streetcar away. When the coast was clear, I went inside.
But home did not remain safe from those determined to save me. Within days, on a weekend afternoon when I least expected it, they were back on my porch. I readied myself for the final encounter. It wasn’t simple: I had no wish to be abrasive or rude, although I might have had the right to be by then. But the young man was new at netting converts and I didn’t want him to look bad in front of his boss. My role, I decided, was to be the one that got away – a fish worth catching but which, after a good fight, breaks the line and escapes the fry pan. That way they could feel justified in having made the trip, the young guy wouldn’t look silly and their mission – hopefully – would finally be put to rest.
We chatted. I listened. Pamphlets appeared. It was explained to me earnestly and politely, that I had a soul and that it was in jeopardy, “out here among the English” (that’s my line, they didn’t really say that, but they meant that.) There was only one way to safety, and their brightly coloured hand-outs, like Auto Club Triptiks, contained the map.
“Yes” I said – I have a soul. And “yes”, I said, there was an ultimate destination for me that I should be walking towards. But “no”, I added politely, theirs was not the only way.
In a moment of inspiration – divine or otherwise – I saw instantly what to say to these people that, if it didn’t convince them I was right, could convince them that I would not be moved. “Here” I said, and with that I raised my hand slowly and drew a large circle in the air. And inside the circle, I drew spokes, converging at the centre.
“There is a place we are all headed” I said, pointing to the centre of the wheel. “You gentlemen are on this spoke” – I drew a line with my finger. “But me, I’m over here on this spoke” – pointing to another imaginary line on this imaginary bicycle wheel.
They stared intently, as if the wheel were right before their eyes. They were listening.
“You are on your spoke, your path, going from the outside of the wheel towards the centre.” The centre was heaven, or God, or whatever it is that connects us all. “I am on my spoke, way over here. And I think I’m heading towards the centre too.”
Silence. I offered the view that in our tradition, at least in the Abrahamic faiths, there was only one God. There might a thousand ways of worship, a thousand routes, spokes that were straight, bent or broken, but we were all on the same wheel, rolling along, headed hopefully to the same destination. To the centre of the wheel.
“So ,” I said, pointing at the centre of the imaginary wheel. “I’ll meet you there.”
They understood. Most likely they did not agree (they had the only true roadmap, after all, in their minds) but they understood my message, that I was clinging firmly to my spoke and would not let go to grab theirs. We shook hands, they shuffled down my steps and we parted – not as friends, but as friendly strangers.
Not long after that. my then-spouse and I separated. We had been on our own spokes for a while but the wheel was bent and going nowhere. So we sold the house with the vine-covered porch, split the spoils of our eight years together (she got the books and the CDs, I got the utility bills) and moved on. Almost twenty years and a whole other life have passed since. To be blunt, I seldom think of her or those days, or of that house.
But this morning, on a long walk from the cottage into town, I was carried back two decades to that afternoon on my porch. I listened to an NPR report about Chattanooga. The city is wracked with grief, in the bloody wake of a young Muslim man’s massacre of five U.S. Army soldiers. Chattanooga, like many American cities, has a Muslim community, which shuddered in dread at the news that one of their co-religionists had committed an act of crazy terror.
These Muslim neighbours fear backlash, and they may see it, but last night they saw something else. At a heavily Christian service, held in a Baptist church, the Muslims huddled at the back and were quiet. But when their presence was noted, suddenly the whole church rose up on its feet and to a man, woman, boy and girl, people applauded. Suddenly, the town was one. The Muslim neighbours were safe, and treasured. They would not be blamed for one man’s acts of murder any more than all white people wear the stain of what so many young, white men do with guns in America.
What the Chattanooga churchgoers understood last night, as bloody and grim as their grief may be, is that their grief does not define them. Their fear and suspicion does not weigh more heavily on the scales than their yearning to love. Believers, non-believers, Muslims, Christians, Witnesses, we are in this life on different paths -very different, in some ways. We see each other across the road, we may hide from each other in our parked cars sometimes. We may only ever part as strangers.
You are on your spoke, and I am on mine. But those spokes all support the same wheel, and those spokes all connect at the centre.
I’ll meet you there.