I’ve taken a temporary contract job, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is enough of a shake-up of my usual work-at-home routine. I have to be up (and dressed), and at least marginally sociable with someone other than the dogs for forty hours a week. Yes, I admit it; I’ve been spoiled in my writerly life. But I’ve done the work-week thing for over thirty years, so it hasn’t taken long to get back in the
The greatest lessons lie beyond the physical demands. I’m working as research assistant to the president of a small, all-black seminary. Those of you who know me, let that all sink in and you’ll understand the challenge for me.
Race isn’t an issue for me; never has been. I’ve long believed if the world would simply stop focusing on skin color and start relying on character, we’d all be better off. But I confess it is odd to be in the minority as one of only a handful of light-skinned employees on staff. Lesson number one: empathizing more fully with those who find themselves at odds with the majority, for whatever reason. I’m often there myself, of course, with my many out-of-the-norm philosophies in a cookie-cutter society, but those internals are more easily hidden than the color of my skin.
More difficult, and apparently the more-needed lesson, is the religious aspect of my surroundings. I wrote my senior undergrad project paper on religion (“Why God?” – send me a comment if you’d like to read it), studied it for years from a variety of angles, including as a ’70s Jesus-freak evangelical, and know more about churches in general than many who attend on a regular basis. But this is different. Here I spend my days in the midst of those for whom religious belief is a daily focus, a way of life I look at in bafflement. As I perform my research duties helping the president – a vibrant, energetic 70-year-old trail-blazing woman – I’m exposed to authors I would never encounter in my world, Christian credos I’ve long since discarded, and cultural norms (religious as much as racial) that keep my brain buzzing.
Lessons indeed. Most telling for me is the realization that I couldn’t have done this job even a few years ago. During my undergrad work in the World Classics curriculum at Antioch McGregor (now Midwest), when we spent a quarter immersed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I spent much of the class railing against the sins of the church in all its forms. I know now I was working through past issues, but it’s taken a good number of years to reach the point where, instead of reacting from a defensive posture, I can step back and take in the topic more dispassionately. I still have to work at it, but it’s getting easier each day as I continue my assignment here.
Guess my mind was finally ready for the next big lesson.