Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Guy in the Park, or, The Random Diatribe

I was at the park this morning; the two bigs were off playing and I was standing watch over the two littles, who were just piddling around in the picnic shelter (in spite of the very appealing playground a few yards away, I might add).

A man strolled over, walking his black poodle around the park perimeter. He told me the dog's name. "He likes kids," he declared as the two littles came over and started petting him. "I like the logo on your shirt," he added.

I was wearing an old Saint Paul School of Theology Shirt which has a logo on it that uses the shape of the cross perched atop Kresge Chapel on the campus in Kansas City. So I explained to him that I am a pastor and this is a t-shirt from my seminary.

"What church do you pastor?" he asked. And I told him, "Campbell United Methodist, right up the road."

It was then that I noticed his cap, which identified him as an Ozark Minuteman, which served as a precursor to what he started into next.

What followed was probably a 5 -10 minute diatribe about how pastors of the past would never have stood by and watched while "all of this stuff" is happening to our country, but how fear of losing the tax-exempt status for our congregation prevents us from doing so. "All of this stuff" happening to our country consisted, for him, of pretty much every talking point of the political far right, including the one about Obama forming a kind of private army of some sort which he said that he saw a video of on the internet.

I tried to deflect to more superficial topics, like kids and the dog and the weather - to no avail. My new friend pit bulled the conversation, latching on to his tirade and refusing to let go, following me around the picnic shelter as I chased toddlers in two directions.

And so, what strikes me about the incident is not so much what the guy was saying. Nothing new there. What made an impression on me was how quickly and in what tone of voice he began sharing it with me. It was as if seeing the cross on my shirt indicated to him that I would be in sympathy with his rather grumpy viewpoint automatically. I'm not, but that's not really the point. The point is that he assumed I was.

The things the guy in the park was saying would have been better left to a time when a relationship is established and the conversation partners know each other well. And it would have been more appropriate in a calm, reasonable tone of voice. Rapport like that is what allows for respectful, grace-filled dialogue to happen. The guy in the park took a huge risk, and assumed I was going to agree with everything he had to say - and he thought it was okay to take that risk because I had a cross on my shirt and had told him I am a pastor.

And ironically, it WAS safe for him to take that risk, but not because of the reason he thought. He assumed it was safe for him because I was just as mad as him about "all this stuff" the President is doing. Rather, it was safe because I'm not going to pass judgement on him in any way for what he believes one way or the other. I allowed him to express himself as I would any random stranger. Having no relationship with him, my role was simply to smile and nod. Which I did. A lot.

Of course, I am fully equipped with the knowledge needed to go point-by-point with everything this guy was saying. I've done my reading and I could have responded to him if I had chosen to. And of course, if I knew the guy well and felt comfortable offering my contrasting opinion and could do so in a respectful and calm way, I would absolutely have pushed back a bit. But a random stranger, in the park, me trying to keep track of four kids? I don't think that was the time or place, to say the least.

So I smiled, nodded, and chased the kids around until he felt like he had said what he needed to. Then he walked on and we went over to the slide. And that was that.


Anonymous said...

I have struggled in these kinds of situations, too. But my question is at what point our nodding and smiling and failure to engage in conversation (even when it is obvious that the speaker is not open to hearing another point of view) constitutes an avoidance of controversy and failure to stand up for what we believe is right. Are we allowing the other person to assume our agreement with his point of view and then, particularly when we have been identified with our church, spread this falsehood around (albeit unwittingly on his part)? Does this damage our credibility at all?


Anonymous said...

As the mother of said four kids, you definitely did the right thing not to incite any controversy at that time as you had their safety in mind. Also, I know that you would have been willing to share your opinion had he come into your office during the week, respectfully, "to talk". I think your balance is amazing! -- Erin

Kory Wilcox said...

I haven't quite perfected the smile and nod yet. I openly admit that I really, really, really don't want people to think I agree with them about things like this.


Glad it was you, not me.