An American Joke

We sat on a Qatar Airlines airplane, on the tarmac at Doha international airport. This airport is a beautiful modern building. Everything is brand new, sparkling and populated by people that approach me wanting to offer assistance.
“Can I help you find the shower?”
“What? There are showers in the airport?”
“What kind of restaurant are you looking for?”
“In the spa you can get a full body massage.”
I have a ten hour layover. Qatar Airlines provides a free tour of the city so folks won’t be so bored. They are quite proud of Doha. This is clearly not LAX!
The desert of Qatar is much like my home in Tucson, Arizona, hot, barren and dry. It is October 2016 and I am returning from a month in Nepal. Nepal is nothing like Qatar. In Nepal everything is bright, colorful and ancient. In Qatar many women wear burqas with only a slit for their eyes. Men wear modern, western business suits or long flowing robes. In Nepal people wear bright, colorful smudges on their foreheads, until you move up into the high Himalayan plains. Then people exchange their smudges for elaborately decorated yak wool caps and brightly painted buildings. It is the movement from Hinduism to Buddhism. On this day I am much too tired to process any of this. It is a bit overwhelming to think of the fifteen hour flight that lies ahead which will be followed by the fast moving, overcrowded construction site that is LAX. I am surrounded by people. Exhausted I am determined not to make eye contact. I travel a good bit and have developed the ability to navigate airports, sit in lounges or on airplanes book in hand looking through the people around me. It is not energy efficient for me to make social contact too easily. I miss quite a bit of goodness by ignoring interesting people. Not today.
Today, like everyone else, after boarding the plane, I am sitting in a row of three people. We introduce ourselves and ask the obligatory, “What do you do?”
I am a retired pastor, trying to become a writer while working to fulfill a lifetime dream of visiting the Himalayas. I say I’m working on it because it is clear to me that I will come back. The previous month I walked around Mt Manaslu with three other American friends, a Nepali guide and two Nepali porters. I had never considered hiring porters but I am not as tough as I once was. This is a surprise to no one but me.
The young man beside me is from India. He is an IT contract worker in Los Angeles. To keep his Visa in tact and his immigration status legal he can only stay in the United States six months at time. Then he must return to India and reapply. I ask if he worries about his ability to return to the US after these return trips. Does he worry that Americans will take his job; that there will be no need for him? He gently laughs and assures me that his company is always shorthanded. If there were Americans to do this work they would not have hired him in the first place. He is not unskilled labor and he is not underpaid.
The woman on the other side is a bit older than me (I’m 63) and quite elegant. She is from Tehran, Iran. Every year she comes to the US to visit her son and her grandchildren. She is part of a group of Iranians, mostly residents of the US, who raise money to pay for cancer treatments for children in Iran. She graduated from Mississippi State University, in the 1970s, when there were many Iranian students scattered across the US. Since the Iranian hostage crisis at the end of the Carter administration they have not been as welcome. Together we lament the absence of this kind of cultural and academic exchange. She tells me that it created in her a deep love for America. The young people she knows in Tehran today only know America as a mystery. They don’t believe the propaganda that comes from their government yet they have nothing with which to replace it.
For the next fifteen hours, between meals, movies, novels and naps we talk about our countries of origin as well as everyone’s desire to have access to America. I have not been to India or Iran and would like to go. My new friends assure me that I would be received joyfully and with a generous spirit. Contrary to the propaganda we receive Americans with the right attitude are welcome almost everywhere.
As I write this blog it is a few days before Christmas, my favorite week of the year. I think of the multiple opportunities it provides to welcome others. As I consider these things I think of these traveling companions and I think of the innkeeper. A whole mythology has risen around this person who is not mentioned in the Bible.
“She gave birth to their firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
If there was an inn there must have been an innkeeper. I was raised on the myth that they went to the barn for birthing because it was all the innkeeper had. “He gave the best of what he had,” people said. “A good generous man who offered his barn.” I’m not buying it. He had a room of his own and could have offered it. It seems to me that he, in avoiding eye contact, sent them out of sight, offering the least his conscience would allow. I’m familiar with that response. I’m sorry to say it has been my response to more than one person hoping to catch my eye.
As our plane prepares to land we wonder how we will share our experience of friendship and loving acceptance with others. We do not take this question lightly. The the young Indian man speaks up.
“We are like to beginning of an American joke,” he offers.
Both of us look at him, a bit confused.
“You know how it goes,” he assures us. “A Hindu, a Christian and a Moslem walk on to an airplane.”
We look at each other, laugh at his joke and begin to say,
“Or a temple or a mosque or a church.”
“Or a bar or a movie or a concert hall.”
“Or a University, or neighborhood schools.”
“Or a political rally?” We all laugh and say, “Maybe not!”
“Or each other’s home for a meal.”
Yes we reply, each other’s home. That would be nice.
I’m thinking, once again of the innkeeper. What if he had written himself into a better part in this story? Imagine what the Bible might have said if he had invited them in.
“And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in clean sheets as she held him tight under her blanket. They were warm, safe and well fed because the innkeeper was good, generous, kind, unafraid and welcomed them into his home.”
My new friends are brown, bright, well educated and eager to be embraced by America…eager to be embraced by me. I’ve not always been welcoming to strangers. I want to be. It’s clear to me that I’ve got plenty of time to write myself into a better part in the narrative being played out all around me. The next time there’s a knock at my door. I intend to open it with eager joy and invite them in.
Merry Christmas
Billy

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