About Tolerance and Faithfulness
- Monday, July 30, 2007
My friend Barry is a Jew. We connected almost by accident many years ago, and he has taught me a number of lessons about relating to someone different from me.
In the early 1970s Barry--a native of Southern California--took it upon himself to see the Deep South. I'm not sure of the details, but believe he flew into Mississippi and rented a car. He drove to Oxford just to see for himself the university where James Meredith had been forcibly installed as the first black student, an incident much in the news back then.
In Jackson, Barry drove around, found the Capitol, and walked into the governor's office. Everyone was gracious--he had not been sure what to expect--and next thing you know, he showed up in the office of the First Baptist Church across the street. The receptionist, Mickey Brunson, stepped across the hall to my cubbyhole of an office, and said, "Joe, we have a gentleman here who would like a brief tour of the church. Can you do it?"
That's how we met. And started corresponding. In 1981, when the Southern Baptist Convention met in Los Angeles, Barry picked me up at the hotel and gave me the grand tour. We attended a baseball game in Anaheim and checked out the campuses of UCLA and USC. And I embarrassed him.
In a restaurant, we ran into some of Barry's friends, all Jewish. I was the odd man of the group, being Baptist and the lone Southerner. At some point, they started telling Jewish jokes. We all laughed and then--anyone who knows me will shake his head "yes," because I know a lot of jokes and stories and am irrepressible once I find an audience--I told one. Yep. I told a Jewish joke to some Jewish men.
I have long forgotten the joke and have no memory of how it was received. What I will never forget in a lifetime is what happened when we got back to the car. "Joe, you embarrassed me back there." I said, "Then tell me what I did, because I don't have a clue."
"You told an ethnic joke to my Jewish friends." I was incredulous. I said, "Barry, they were telling them. Theirs were worse than mine. Mine was pretty tame." He said, "No matter. You had no right to do that. It was humiliating."
I thought then and still think it was a rather unfair standard he had erected, and I quickly decided my friend was thinner-skinned than I had known. I apologized, and I learned something.
It's one thing for a minority group to tell their own jokes and even use put-downs to one another. But don't you try it as an outsider. It's a vastly different thing.
Barry continues to have these quirks that seem a little unfair. For instance, I used to try to witness to him about the Christian faith. One day he told me pointedly that he did not appreciate it, that he was Jewish, always had been, always would be, and was fiercely proud of his religion. I protested, "Barry, you don't even practice it! You don't go to the synagogue. You're critical of your faith and have nothing good to say about the rabbis."
I wanted to go further and say that he did not have a faith--at least nothing he was practicing-- that he simply had a religious identity, but it was clear he was shutting down any further discussion on this topic. So, we changed the subject and I went away scratching my head about this enigmatic fellow.
The funny thing is after that he began sending me materials on Judaism. I wanted to reply, "I know about Judaism--I've read the Old Testament, remember?" But the subject was off-limits. He wanted me to do what he refused to do--read up on his religion--so I thanked him for the books and scanned them and made some comment on them to which he never responded.
These days--some 35 years after our first contact--Barry is semi-retired, still living in Southern California. He calls me every six months or so, out of the blue. No one sounds like him on the phone. I answer and he begins talking without identifying himself, making comments on what some college football team has done or some coach is doing. He sends me stuff in the mail. When Marlin and Mike McKeever died--legendary USC football stars of the 1960s but no relation to our clan--he sent me the clippings.
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