The moment I thought of myself as a real urban dweller was when I decided to give up owning a car. I come from a family of self-made mechanics and race-car drivers living in rural Iowa, so the idea of not owning a car or driving on a regular basis had seemed unthinkable if not sacrilegious. But when an odometer check revealed that I had put fewer than eight hundred miles on my Toyota wagon during the two years I had lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the decision to forgo needed repairs and rising insurance rates was surprisingly easy. I had learned to navigate the Metro subway system expertly so that it could deliver me to and from my job and other locations in less than an hour. My car’s absence was not an issue, and for several years my new identity as an urbanite was sealed.
That sense of urbanity was immediately challenged, however, when my employer decided to relocate to the far suburbs of Virginia. The commute on public transportation turned into a three-hour round-trip—if I was lucky enough to make the multiple connections on time. Despite the inconveniences and increased costs of mass transit, I stubbornly refused to buy a car. Instead, I soon came to imagine myself as part of a sort of community of fellow commuters, many of them non-English-speakers hailing from a wide swath of countries from El Salvador to Ethiopia. While some of my coworkers looked askance at my choice, other sympathetic colleagues graciously delivered me to the nearby suburban transit center at the end of each workday. Thus, I managed both to maintain my carless status, the dubious locus of my urban identity, and to get to work dependably. It worked out reasonably well.
Except when it didn’t. One day, when my ride to the bus terminal was unavailable, I found myself at a street-side bus stop, the skies threatening rain. Standing alongside me was a young Hispanic woman I recognized as part of the housekeeping staff in the office building where I worked. We nodded and smiled—not sharing a common spoken language—and waited for the once-an-hour shuttle to the transit center. A few minutes later, however, that bus rushed past without stopping to pick us up. We looked at each other in alarm, shrugged, picked up our belongings, and proceeded to make the two-mile walk to the transit center to catch a regional bus to the Metro station.
We weren’t far along when an aging Nissan pulled up alongside us, driven by another Hispanic maintenance worker from our building. My companion climbed in to catch a ride to the center, leaving me to walk alone. Less than a minute later, at the stoplight, they honked at me, motioning to me to join them. I hopped into the back seat, the first drops of rain trumping my initial hesitation.
ROAR. My ears immediately began ringing from the sound of mariachi horns exploding from the radio, and my eyes beheld a plastic Jesus figurine firmly attached to the dashboard. Spanish chatter, animated and rapid-fire, gushed from the front seats, while I sat back, marveling at my sudden, brief immersion in a new culture and basking in a warm hospitality expressed through action rather than words. Arriving at the transit center in now-pouring rain, I could only shake hands with them and say “Muchas gracias.”
I’ve often thought of this incident, always with gratitude but also in wonder at those few minutes of being an “other,” having my self-satisfied sense of carless, cosmopolitan urbanity exposed as just another form of privilege and pretense. After all, most days, my life only intersected circumstantially with these housekeepers, in the hallways at work, or on the bus. And while there was always respect and friendliness in those encounters, there was the inevitable distance created not just by language but by my “majority culture” status—a status that has the effect of rendering as “other” those outside the culture. An invitation on that rainy late afternoon to enter a space not my own challenged my sense of “non-otherness.” We could not share conversation, but that did not stop these workers from according me dignity as a fellow traveler and offering shelter from the storm to a stranger in need.
Whether we are urban, suburban, or rural, it seems that Americans like me are having more regular encounters with “otherness” these days, in ways that were at best unlikely even a generation ago. Some of us embrace these changes with eagerness, others more warily or even with hostility. But I suspect that most of us are somewhere in between, living benignly with the circumstantiality of coexistence, neither seeking out nor recoiling from cultural intersection. We are content to let the “other” stay other but rarely think of ourselves as being “other” to them—and, like me, are surprised when our assumptions are upended. Indeed, even in the most intercultural of places like Washington, DC, tribalism is still more often the rule than the exception. We tend to gravitate toward those more or less like ourselves. Seeking out those who are other becomes merely a price of doing business or an ideal to be talked about in the abstract.
That’s certainly true in our faith communities as well. Language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class status too often keep us apart, as do differences in theology and politics. Truly multicultural, multiracial congregations are still extremely rare. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that conforming to the majority culture takes precedence over openness to change and unconditional welcome. And this extends to our practices of faith as well. Even those who confess a common creed can find themselves divided by how that confession should be made manifest in faith rituals. The welcome we extend too often is contingent, assuming common practice, relegating some fellow believers to the place of “other” at the altar where we all come to worship.
A few years ago, I went to a local Episcopal congregation to hear a well-known preacher. My friend Bob, a nonpracticing Catholic for much of his adult life, accompanied me. Because of his limited experience in Protestant congregations, Bob always marvels when the liturgy echoes the language and music he remembers from his youth. Still, hearing the Old Testament referred to as the Hebrew Bible may cause him a moment of confusion, and nongendered God language sounds awkward to ears accustomed to “He” and “His.” But his greatest perplexity, when he most feels like an outsider, comes during the Eucharist, when he must navigate the various ways in which Protestants choose to receive the bread and wine. Thus, when it comes time to take communion, he always tries to position himself at the altar in such a way that he can follow my lead.
On this occasion, communion was by intinction, a practice Bob had never witnessed. Neither the presider nor the worship bulletin offered any instructions to the congregation, and I could only whisper, “Watch me,” before it was our turn to process forward to the altar rail. There we arranged ourselves so that he would commune after me. However, our plan was thwarted when the communion assistants changed the direction of service. Handed the bread, he followed his natural instinct and ate it. Seeing that I and the others around him were holding on to our bits of bread, a panicked look came over him, as he realized that the cup would not be offered for him to drink from, and he had nothing to “dunk.” Unable to ask me what to do, he stared uncertainly at the chalice held out before him.
He dipped his finger into the wine and reverently stuck it in his mouth.
One could recoil in horror at my friend’s breach of communion etiquette or double over with laughter. But with this simple, awkward action, Bob reached out beyond his otherness to be one with his fellow communers. Certainly his method was unconventional, but that is how boundaries get broken—by breaking with common practice, taking chances, refuting the idea that otherness is somehow either avoidable or all-defining for anyone. “Otherness” can be manifest in the person standing next to us at the bus stop or kneeling next to us at the altar rail. We may recognize it in the person sitting across the dinner table from us or in the person across the checkout counter. But otherness may also have to do with the invisible ones at the other end of a supply chain as well as the all-too-visible person reflected back at us in the bathroom mirror. It’s an inevitable fact of life, just waiting for our risky, even heretical responses.
In any time or place, we may chance upon the other, the outsider—or discover that we ourselves have become the other. The bus may pass any one of us by. The chalice may appear before us, and we won’t know what to do. And when that happens, the choice is presented to us: Will we abstain, decline the invitation, keep on walking, turn the cup away? Or will we take the chance, dip our finger, and taste what is offered at the risk of ridicule or reproof or even rejection? Might we even jump in the car and go along for the ride, accompanied by celebratory horns that declare more about our common life than a common language ever can?
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.