Monday, May 30, 2016

Thelma the Buddha at the Golden Corral

This weekend I met Thelma,a waitress at The Golden Corral

The Golden Corral is an all you can eat feast for 8.99. They have steak,roast turkey,pot roast, collard greens and steamed zucchini,endless real mashed potatoes with two kinds of gravy,a taco bar,honey mango chili chicken wings, vanilla soft serve ice cream,a chocolate fountain for strawberries and fresh baked bread pudding. You pay first which is where I was introduced to Thelma.The manager, a hefty guy with really black shiny skin and really bright bright eyes asked my son if he liked the Red Sox,pointing to the familiar logo on his t-shirt.

"Looks like a little Tom Brady doesn't he " I said , "doesn't he?". "He Tom Brady son...?," the manager asked all poker faced in the question 'til he cracked a neon smile and let out a ginormous bellowing laugh."He do,he do look like Tom Brady son! I just messin' wit ya'.Hey Buddha,you done wit yo' table yet?" The manager was talking to Thelma. She had a drink in one hand and as she passed she poked him with her other one. "That's Thelma.She da' Buddha 'round here. She de whyyy..ze one." I burst out laughing with a deep spontaneous belly roll right along with the other two brown girls facing me getting our drinks. Thelma looked asian-ish. But the whole thing was really funny. It just was. My thoughts stopped in a jolt as I realized how taboo my laughter was by so many accounts in so many places, but it didn't stop me. Our laughing was not a taunt or a jab, neither was it a micro-aggression. It was a celebration. And Thelma was the center of our happy thing in that moment.There is a quirky, funny joy which springs from the hearts of regular people who haven't been schooled at the Ivy League and aren't easily offended by life. Aren't we all just starved for that ?

I thought of Cambridge and my last morning walk through Harvard Yard. Heads on moving bodies down, ears plugged, the students measuring their steps with precision in perfect single file.All seem steady in their surety not to offend anybody or anything, not to molest even one sacred blade of grass on the push forward to class.Then flashback further to 1986. I see my brother Henry calling my name outside his yellow window at Wigglesworth."Over here sis"!" There was lots of meandering in the yard back then.Students ran back and forth across the grass and rarely followed the paths.There was unpredictability. There must have been micro-aggressions too but in and around a beauty and vibrancy which accompanies human spontaneity and it's open-ended precariousness of assumptions. There were so many jokes. Lots and lots of jokes with him and his friends. I don't recall ever being saddened or offended in the way that makes one's heart sink down.I do remember that being with Henry and his friends meant laughing all the time.It was joy guaranteed.

After we sat down I asked Thelma how much someone can make at the Golden Corral.She looked at me with that quick and steady evaluation common to women who've seen it all and don't judge."You lookin' for a job?",she queried. "Maybe",I said as I surmised the deep lines around her dark slanted eyes."I make 3.39 an hour. On the weekends the tips are good and some day I make more dan twenty five,twenty six". I felt ashamed as I realized that I didn't have any tip money in my purse."Can I pay the tip with this?",I asked as I held out my red piece of plastic."No, dat ok if you don't got.You enjoy wit your boy",she said. "Alotta people come here wit kid dey don't have no money for tip,but I like my job." By then we were on our second helpings and third drink refills.Thelma was serving us with enthusiasm knowing that we probably weren't going to tip her.She was serving us for 3.39 an hour.

I wondered if I could wait on family after family with sometimes crying kids who leave really big messes and stay so positive hour after hour. Could I keep my composure doing so much for so little with so few guarantees and have enough left over to actually share joy with people ? Could I be a Buddha like Thelma? I know I could not. Feeding people is deeply spiritual.I'm not that spiritually evolved.

I thought about the many happy Buddha statues we've all come to know.

 Buddahs come from Asia.
I didn't ask Thelma where she came from because I guess I already knew. Thelma comes from us and I'm with her.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Milwaukee, Poverty and Presbyterianism

 I love Book TV. There are so many brilliant writers featured on CSPAN. Today I watched Professor Matthew Desmond talk about his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City:,in which he looks at public housing and poverty in America through the prism of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eviction is devastating.Pictures,electronics,dishes,the spice collection,irreplaceable mementos and sheets disappear.The experience is totally de-humanizing. It's not just your stuff that you lose,it's whole parts of your life-every piece of energy,happy and sad breathed into the walls,every conversation you had there on the couch is somehow ripped from you and thrown to the street. You have to start over from scratch which costs money you don't have.and getting new stuff is the easy part.Recovering from the humiliation is a process ongoing.What productive measures are Milwaukee churches doing to help the evicted who by circumstance of accident or abandonment or despair, find themselves desperate? This question led me on a Google search of Churches in Milwaukee, the city highlighted in Desmond's book.What were they doing about it.I landed here. Wow! nothin'- I mean, at least for the Presbyterian Church USA and specifically the Milwaukee Presbyterians, the eviction crisis and subsequent homelessness problem does not even register on their disaster assistance map.Presbyterians built so much good in this nation from the ground up.From the the Bill of Rights,to the Abolition of Slavery,to great hospitals and colleges, Knox and Calvin's theologies are woven into many of our institutions.So why are the American poor, all fifty million of them, not registering star wattage for disaster assistance on the Presbyterian radar at this critical time in our nation? Well, the trend du jour seems to be about divestment rather than investment , about tearing down rather than building up.The church of my ancestors is not building schools, colleges and hospitals anymore.They are focused on the Middle East, more specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Really?

We have so many social problems right here in the United States.Especially problems concerning the urban poor which could and should be solved if people of faith with resources were living out the gospel mandate.Government can only do so much and the housing crisis is massive with many layers of fallout which will reverberate for generations.We have work to do here folks.It's time to ditch leadership conferences and roll up our sleeves.Helping the poor in our own communities is our obligation.If you belong to a church,you are not exempt.No act of individual charity goes uncounted. Loan someone a utility bill.Drive someone to the DMV. Babysit for a single mom.Lend an ear to a prisoner.Just imagine if millions of capable Christians gave sacrificially without counting the cost. Black, white and brown,we could change our cities one family at a time and rebuild.If we don't focus on healing this land,one city street at a time, our nation will not survive in any form worthy of our children.

All of the mainline Protestant Churches who have focused resources on political campaigns in foreign lands that do anything other than announcing the gospel should be ashamed of their silly hypocrisy. Why does it take a secular academic ethnographer to highlight the plight of the American urban poor? Where are the preachers to proclaim social redemption  in the streets ? Where are the banking vocations of old to build a greater society by uplifting the poor ? Your funds should be used to build low income housing and make interest free loans to the poor not to divest from international corporations in the name of Middle East peace. What about divesting from corporations who take our jobs to China? Finance, in the American Church tradition,should be a vocation to build, not a licence to political critique of other nations when our own is bleeding out hope.Where are you Presbyterians? Remember who you once were.Milwaukee is calling.