Traveling the World with a Mug of Tea

My Column for the Antelope County News 10.14.2020

While I was on vacation for two weeks, I sat with a black minister as he preached a gut-wrenching sermon to white America.  I traveled on a transport ship with a poor young woman from England as she was sent away to imprisonment in Australia for a crime she didn’t commit. I wandered rural Sweden with two men whose lives diverged and converged again in heartbreak and happiness. I stretched and dreamed and danced along with a middle-aged reporter who convinced a professional ballet company to let her perform in their production of the holiday classic, The Nutcracker.

While on vacation I saw the ghost of Emmet Till and ghosts of myriad other young, murdered, black children standing witness and inspiring courage to end their slaughter. And, on the same vacation, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, I watched as two family’s lives entwined for better and for worse. In the evenings Billy Crystal regaled me and Mike with his too true, righteously funny tales of aging. In the mornings I sat with an ancient song-writer singing of God’s faithfulness.

All these experiences took place from the comfort of the guest house where we stayed in the Black Hills of South Dakota. With a book on my lap and a mug of tea at hand, I traveled the world, thinking deeply, laughing, crying, empathizing, learning.  

Books open us to the whole world of ideas and experiences. Books allow us to travel places we will never get to go and to visit times we have never lived. Books help us to walk in the steps of, and live in the hearts and minds of people we otherwise might never understand. Books help us be more humane, as through them, we open ourselves to new ways of understanding our neighbors.

For the Good Book, and for all sorts of good books please join me in giving thanks.

A Lot to Learn

My Column for The Elgin Review October 14, 2020

A girl in my high school had a crush on me. I didn’t get it. It was just six years after Stonewall. It was six years before the first known case of AIDS. In my insular little world homosexuality wasn’t something I was aware of. “Coming out” was something I read about on the society page of the Omaha paper when daughters of the wealthy were formally introduced as debutantes, ready to take their places in high society. Coming out back then had nothing to do with telling someone you were gay. My classmate wasn’t “out.” I just knew that being her friend felt complicated so I found ways to stay too busy to invest much in our friendship. Years passed before I understood why she seemed so hurt by me. I had a lot to learn.

My boys grew up in a different world after the worst of the AIDS crisis. Once, three years after Matthew Shepherd was brutally killed for being gay, when my boys were middle-school aged, I was putting laundry away in the linen closet outside their bed room when one of them was with a couple friends from school. I heard the boys say, “Oh! That’s so gay!” and they laughed and threw the term around loosely. This was “gay” and that was “gay” and it was clear that “gay” was decidedly un-cool.

After his friends went home, I asked my son about it.

“It’s just something we say.” He claimed.

“We don’t mean anything by it.”

I asked, “Would you say it around someone who’s gay?”

“No, Mom!” he insisted. “But I don’t know anyone who’s gay.”

A beloved member of our extended family, a member of the choir at church, his grandparent’s pastor, his own school principal who helped him adjust to life in his new school were all gay. I could see the cogs turning in his head as I “outed” people he loved to him.

“Is there anything un-cool about these people?”

“No. They’re all really kind to me.” He looked crushed. “I’ll never use ‘gay’ again to describe something bad.” 

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad.”

This past Sunday was “National Coming Out Day.” I’m thinking about the incredible people I know who are gay and “out.” I’m thinking about how much poorer my life would be without them. I’m thinking about their contributions to the churches I’ve served and the neighborhoods I’ve lived in. I’m thinking about the heartache many of them have faced, the cruelty many of them have been subjected to. I’m thinking about the ways the church, through bad scholarship and selective application of scripture has perpetuated the silencing and sidelining of beautiful children of God solely because of who they are attracted to, who they love.

I’m thinking we’ve come a long way since I was in high school. We’ve come a long way since my sons were in school. But we still have a long way to go. I’m “coming out” to say, we still have a lot to learn.

**

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome at Park Congregational United Church of Christ. Ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south. Worship is at 9:15 on Sunday mornings.  I love to hear from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

The Power of One

My Column for The Elgin Review 10.7.2020

Sometimes all it takes is one person to restore another person’s belief in humanity.

Mike and I are just back from a two-week vacation in the Black Hills. Our plan was to hang out in a beautiful place and keep away from other people as much as possible to avoid the risk of COVID-19. It mostly worked except when we took the 1880’s train from Hill City to Keystone round trip.

Mike’s a train buff. His dad worked on the Union Pacific when Mike was little. Mac died when Mike was fourteen so early memories of riding the rails with him are especially fond. We stopped by the station where signs were posted to stay six feet apart. Sanitizer stations marked the entrances. Plexiglass shields protected souvenir buyers from sales folk and vice-verse.  Comfortable that precautions were in place, Mike ordered our tickets.

Before the conductor yelled, “all aboard” and the engine let out its’ distinctive first “whoosh” of steam, I was already steamed. We were surrounded by people without masks, standing too close to each other on the platform. When we boarded the train, the windows were closed against the chill of the day. On our car every seat was full and only two other couples wore masks. Grandma and grandson wore theirs onto the train, but when they sat down two feet in front of us, they took them off.

The scenery was breathtaking, but I was holding mine (well, trying to) that whole first hour. When we stepped onto the platform in Keystone while the engine switched to the other end of the train to make the return trip, once we were finally socially distant from others, my first words to Mike were,

“I hate people.”

“Oh, Becky. That’s not true. You, of all people, do not hate people.”

I assured my beloved, “Oh, indeed I do.”

“How hard is it to err on the side of caution and wear a mask?” I snapped.

“I hate people.”

Back on the train for the return trip, I was by the window and I opened it despite the chill. With air whooshing in I felt safer.

At the first crossing out of the Keystone station, a lanky young man with a buck-toothed grin in a floppy hat stood outside a white van and waved with great enthusiasm as the train passed. I and others waved back. Surprisingly, the same man stood waving at the next crossing and the next. The older man, at the wheel inside the van, waved too. Fourteen crossings, more than an hour of driving and stopping for the same train. Fourteen times, the young man with the grin and special needs, waved and shared his grin with us. The older man (his dad?) had the route down pat. Perfectly timed. They’d done this routine a gazillion times before. The old man racing the train, stopping and parking again and again and again so the young man could wave and grin as we rode by. 

I wept a little and whispered to Mike,

“I don’t hate people anymore.”

**

If you’ve soured on your fellow humans, if you find yourself wondering where’s the good in this world, I hope you’ll find your way to worship with us at Park Congregational Church ten miles west of Elgin on Highway 70 and ½ mile south where God has never failed to show up to show us self-giving love every time we gather. Worship is at 9:15.

I love hearing from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com