Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Between Heaven and the 101 Freeway

So this white agnostic and devout black Christian are on their way to a Jewish wedding…

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke your drunken coworker might tell at a Christmas party, but I actually lived it last weekend. It all started with a simple question:

“Can we carpool to Santa Barbara?” M. asked.

Her query caught me off guard, so I quickly answered in the affirmative. It was a month before our mutual friend’s wedding, and I figured I had three weeks to concoct an excuse to get out of driving with M.: “I think I’m going to take the train.” “I'm going to visit friends in Agoura Hills right after the reception.” But every excuse I came up with sounded lame to me. Since I was too chicken to tell M. the truth, I realized with impending dread that I would end up driving 166.8 miles roundtrip with this agnostic white chick.

It’s not that I have issues with folks who question the existence of God, but M. hails from that new school of agnosticism – shrill, condescending and intolerant toward others who don’t espouse her beliefs – or lack thereof. She has been known to utter such witticisms like, “The Bible is shit,” and “Those damn Christians.” In the past when I politely pointed out that such bluntness might be offensive to some believers, she shrugged it off, saying, “That’s just who I am.”

I’ve always harbored the suspicion that M. could just as easily substitute “blacks” for “Christians” in her comments. Growing up in a working class hamlet in the Badger State, she recalls that there was only one African-American student in her high school. Black women who vote, don’t speak Ebonics, and who forego acrylic nails are anomalies to her. Her way of leveling? She taunts me for allegedly saying “birfday” and “reckanize.” As a result, I’m often reactionary in my dealings with her.

I’m all too familiar with W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness – that feeling of otherness many blacks experience while trying to maintain their identity within the majority culture. But as a Christian of color, I have co-opted a trinity consciousness. Around my white peers, I’m acutely aware of how I speak, taking pains to never run on CP time, and putting as much intellectual distance between the ‘hood and me as possible. As a believer, I constantly have to prove that I’m a critical thinker, that I’m kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental – often in the face of folks who act quite the opposite.

With all of these misgivings, I arrive at M.’s apartment to pick her up for the wedding. As I sit in my car waiting for her, I worry that I’m not dressed appropriately for the occasion. I have on a lilac number with spaghetti straps – a bridesmaid’s cast off – but it’s the only decent dress I can squeeze into. Such an unseasonable look wouldn’t cut it on the East Coast, but it’s 75 degrees and sunny, and I live in La La Land. I blend in perfectly with the perennial sun seekers who rock flip flops and shorts year-round.

M. trudges to my car wearing all black and a perpetual scowl. Complaint is eternally etched into the corners of her mouth. Sighing, she sinks into the passenger’s seat, an agnostic with the misfortune of having a biblical name. “I didn’t know what to wear,” she says. “I’m not dressed up enough.” With her black boots, black blouse and black skirt, she could be en route to a Marilyn Manson concert. I’m Spring; she’s Fall. Opposite equinoxes.

Feeling gracious, I tell M. that she can listen to whatever she wants on the radio. She scans stations, stopping on a hard rock channel. The entrance to the freeway is less than a mile ahead, and we make small talk about the upcoming nuptials. We both bemoan the fact that we’re in our 30s and unmarried. “We can at least get some ideas for our own wedding,” I say optimistically. “I’ll be dead before that happens,” M. scoffs. The 101 Freeway unfurls before me like a tattered rug, and I think, “I have to drive 83.4 miles ingesting this negativity?” As if providing the theme music for our journey, “Welcome to the Black Parade” blares through the car as we travel north to Santa Barbara.

Forty-five minutes into our trip, I discover that carpooling with M. is not as painful as I predicted. Our small talk morphs into something meaningful. Against a backdrop of mountains and the rippling Pacific Ocean, she opens up to me about her family, and I open up to her about mine. We don’t share close relationships with our fathers, and our mothers are blunt, cynical, life-of-the-party types. M. is actually quite pretty when she smiles, and her childhood stories crack me up. Aware that she’s been hogging the radio for most of the ride, M. starts surfing stations again, pausing on a hip-hop song. “Did you put that on because I’m black?” I ask. She gives a sheepish grin, busted. I realize that we have a longer journey ahead of us.

We arrive safely at the Santa Barbara resort, and traipse through the outdoor plaza where the wedding will take place. M. and I know no one besides the bride and groom, so we stay close and try not to look lost. I see a table covered with purple yarmulkes, and realize that they match the color of my dress. I want to don one. Observant Jewish male skullcap as fashion statement. I feel an affinity for Judaism because I grew up reading Judy Blume. I was the only 10-year-old in my inner city neighborhood who knew the meanings of “goy,” “sitting shiva,” and “Mazel tov!”

Sitting on a damp chair yards from the Pacific Ocean, I reflect on the ceremony, and what the briny breeze is doing to my straightened hair. I will have a baby Afro before the breaking of the glass. The Rabbi is hip and funny with a sweet singing voice – a Jewish Aaron Neville. At any minute, I expect him to break into “Everybody Plays the Fool.” During the seven blessings, I recognize a single Hebrew word: Adonai. It simply means “Lord” -- one of the many names of God in both Christianity and Judaism. It’s as if the Creator has followed me up the coast to Santa Barbara, and caresses me from beneath the chuppah.

By the time M. and I head to the reception hall, we have shrugged off the shawl of discomfort that cloaked us earlier. The lead singer of the band is a white woman channeling Alicia Keys. I ask M. if she's going to hit the dance floor, and she replies, “If you go.” We two-step to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and I’m surprised (but not totally) to see that she has more rhythm than I do. I’m still notches above her on the soul scale because she doesn’t recognize the band’s next cover: Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me off My Feet.”

It’s after 11 when M. and I finally tear ourselves away from the revelers and head back to North Hollywood. In seven hours, religion hasn’t entered our conversation at all. But something is prompting me to get all up in her spiritual business. M. tells me about her Catholic upbringing, and how her mother swears her downfall began when she didn’t get confirmed. “I was looking forward to my confirmation, because all the girls I knew who were doing it got a shitload of money,” she explains. “I was 14 or 15, and I was taking all these classes, when I realized this religion crap didn’t make sense to me. So I told my mom I wasn’t going to do it.” In between catechism and confirmation dresses, God had been ritualized out of her life.

“What happens when you get depressed or lonely? Do you pray?” I ask.


“Who do you pray to?”

M. pauses. “I guess I pray to God,” she answers gruffly. “I’ll say, ‘God, if you exist, and if you can hear my prayer, will you please help me?’”

I want to hug her when I hear this. Not only because she seems so vulnerable, but because I, a Scripture-quoting Christian, have uttered that same prayer. Not too long ago, I was lamenting to a good friend that God didn’t seem real to me. “I just don’t feel loved by Him,” I told her in between sobs. Now here M. is confessing that she feels the same estrangement. Despite our skin color and divergent belief systems, we’re more like sisters than we realize.

Wanting to celebrate our newfound camaraderie, I put on Kurt Carr’s gospel song, “In the Sanctuary.” Over the upbeat chorus, I say, “Come on, sing it with me!” M. raises the roof in jest for a few moments, but twenty Hallelujahs into the song, she grows impatient. “When is this going to end?” she sighs. I want to say, “I sat up here and let you listen to hard rock and pop punk and post-hardcore music for nearly two hours, but you’re tripping over a six-minute song?” Instead, I laugh it off, ejecting the CD. My passive proselytizing has ended … and so have any feelings of kinship. M. quickly flips back to her rock station, and a familiar tune filters through the car:

“If God had a name
What would it be
And would you call it to His face
If you were faced with Him
In all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?”

Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One of Us” is one of the few rock songs I love. I smile to myself, thinking the Almighty does indeed have a sense of humor …

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make His way home ...

A few blocks from M.’s apartment, I feel the urge to say more to her than simply goodnight. I doubt the openness we shared on our road trip will be experienced again. Come Monday morning, we’ll continue to rotate on separate ends of the celestial sphere, Spring and Fall, opposite equinoxes. “Well,” I say awkwardly, “I just wanted you to know that God loves you.” It’s not much, but it’s a seed. An intangible tract dropped into her $5 purse.

M. laughs, albeit with less derision than is customary, as she opens her door. Gazing back at me, she says, “Thanks for the ride … and the interesting discussion.”

Coming from her, that’s high praise. Driving down the street, I re-insert my gospel CD, letting the music baptize me. As Joan Osborne sang earlier, I'm learning to see God everywhere and in everyone, even in an agnostic with a biblical name. Maybe M. will learn someday that He does answer prayers, and He’s always down for the ride. Even in a mobile sanctuary traveling between Heaven and the 101 Freeway.