by Donna Schoenkopf
I was late.
And it wasn’t my fault. It was the usual horrendous Oklahoma signage that got me discombobulated and turned around backward and tense.
I hate being late. By the time I was in my forties I had gotten so bad about the whole subject of lateness that I would stress for a week or two before an appointment or a party or a meeting. I would go over and over the route I had to take, the time I should allot myself, the possible problems I could run into. I had never had obsessive behavior until then. It really began to make me miserable, so I decided I would rid myself of this ridiculous preoccupation.
My plan was to deliberately make myself late just to prove to myself that the world wouldn’t end if I showed up after the appointed hour. At first I was very tense about it, turning up the radio as I drove, taking deep breaths when I felt myself tensing up, but after I had done it a few times I felt the curse fade almost completely away.
But it does rear its ugly head now and then and this time, on my way to the skin cancer doctor, it was coming on in spades.
I got caught on one way streets and ended up in the parking lot of a large hospital. I thought I had finally found the right place and ran inside to try to find a clue as to where my doctor’s office was, found none, but did find some information guys who were having an extended private conversation. After I cleared my throat to let them know they had a customer, they finally broke away from each other’s attention and told me that I was not even close to where I was supposed to be and had no idea what I was talking about.
Now I was really late.
I ran outside, hopped back in my car, called the doctor’s office, got directions from the receptionist (and found out why I had missed my destination in the first place—you couldn’t even see the clinic from the road because it is hidden behind a huge Sonic Drive-In), drove like mad, making dangerous left turns and trying to change three lanes in one block that was extremely difficult because of the avalanche of traffic coming behind me, and finally found the place, parked, and ran into the office.
The receptionist remembered me. She wasn’t even vaguely perturbed that I was late. (When will I ever learn that being late is not the end of the world?) She handed me some stuff to fill out on a clipboard and as I sat filling in the blanks of the long list I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation that was going on across the waiting room.
The room was filled, and I mean filled with older folks with large bandages on their faces. Large puffy bandages. You see, I was in the waiting room of a doctor who specialized in the Mohs method of skin cancer removal. I was there because of my pesky patch of skin cancer. It had not been gotten rid of in three attempts by a previous doctor, so dear Helen had recommended the Mohs method and this doctor. The Mohs method involves taking ever-so-thin slices of the affected areas of epidermis and, if it is bad enough, dermis, examining each layer under a microscope while you wait in the waiting room with a large bandage on your head, until the good doctor declared the area was completely cancer free.
But I digress.
So I heard two men having a loud conversation. A loud conversation in a waiting room in Oklahoma is a rarity. Most people here speak in hushed tones when they are in the company of strangers. So I looked over.
Two older guys were sitting next to each other and I heard one, a guy dressed in overalls and work boots, with his puffy bandage on his forehead, say to the other guy that those Muslims are part of a religion that was evil to its core. The other guy, who was wearing a nice outfit of slacks, dress shirt with no tie, sport coat, loafers, responded that yes, indeed, it was. He had a gentle smile on his face and leaned in when the first guy spoke. His voice was the practiced voice of a speaker. His smile was the gentle smile of a person who was the leader of a flock. It was obvious he was a man of the cloth.
Overall Guy remarked that he had gotten his information from his favorite radio talk show and that Muslims hated everyone who wasn’t a Muslim and that they would kill us all, given the opportunity.
Preacher Man responded that his son was in the Middle East and he could attest to the fact that Muslims definitely were an evil religion and hated everyone else. He gave several examples of their evilness.
They continued their conversation while everyone in the waiting room listened, keenly, to all the dirty details. I began to see people nodding their heads, ever so slightly, in agreement.
Why did I sit there without speaking up? Why did I turn into a lump with no spine?
I’ll tell you why. It was because I honestly thought I would start a huge fight in the waiting room and I couldn’t bear the thought of being ostracized from the group and maybe from the clinic.
What is happening to me? I have never been afraid to speak up before.
As I sat there listening to more and more crap coming out of their mouths, I realized that I was slowly becoming acclimatized to Oklahoma culture. I did not open my Big Mouth. I did not join in and give examples of all the crazy stuff in the Old Testament about killing all nonbelievers or killing your son in the marketplace if he didn’t work or stoning women for adultery. No. I didn’t say a word. And I didn’t because, being a Big Mouth, I have lately been shunned because of it. Yes. It’s true. If you live in Oklahoma the worst possible thing you can do is be different. And if you happen to be a person with different views, you are supposed to shut your mouth and smile.
But, because evangelical conservative Christians are by far the majority here (53% of the population compared with 16% mainline Christians, 15% Catholics, and the rest “Other”) they feel no compunction about making their views known. They are happy to tell you, publicly, that the reason the climate is so weird lately is because the End Times are upon us. They also feel no compunction about telling the world that Obama is the Antichrist and a host of other very meanspirited things. They actually feel honor bound about “witnessing” because their faith tells them they must witness to others. And if someone disagrees with their point of view, that person is, at the very least, dangerously ill-informed, or at worst, from Satan himself.
Evangelical churches hire speakers who are paid good money by good members of the congregation and these men go from church to church, spreading hate and fear. They make a very good living at it. That particular form of evangelicism had made Oklahoma very, very conservative, but not conservative in the classic sense of being Edmund Burke followers. Instead, this conservatism warns of the End of the World coming NOW. And this idea is spreading from church to church, and into the general population. Glenn Beck is the most famous of this group. He sells survival food, warns of the Muslim caliphate, and speaks of the End of the World. In my humble (and somewhat cynical) opinion, this intense fear is a way to keep their flocks from straying. Hellfire and brimstone and the End of the World. And the biggest targets these days are Obama and the Muslims.
This way of thinking is very, very, very hard to penetrate because it is wrapped in Faith.
I have seen all this before, but never like this. Here, in this beautiful state, in this day and age, some very intense believers are putting anti-scientific, fearful stuff into the minds of anybody who’ll listen.
It is scary. Seriously. Because how do you argue with faith? Faith, by its definition, is not open to argument. You believe. You don’t need proof. God has His mysterious ways which our feeble brains can’t process.
And if you speak your truth and make your arguments, you will be shunned, which is a painful punishment because we humans, being herd animals, hate being kicked out of the group.
It hurts. A lot.
So I sat there, not saying a word, and sure enough, Preacher Man revealed himself to be a minister of the Christian faith. Ah, yes. The inflections, the room-filling oratory, the beneficent smile as he spoke, the perfect clothes, all of that should have given me a clue as to his profession.
His eyes moved around the room and I held his gaze for a moment, not smiling, just very, very serious, and it shook him up a tiny bit, but his gaze moved on to more friendly faces.
I got up and handed in my clipboard and in a few minutes was called in for my examination. As the nurse and I walked down the hall I told her that I was really troubled by the loud conversation in the waiting room. I searched for a word to describe the conversation, because I realized if I said something about the two guys hatin’ on Muslims, she, I was pretty sure, would side with them and I would be a person under suspicion. So I described it as a racist conversation, giving no details. She tut-tutted and that was that.
I got examined, etc., etc., and headed for the receptionist’s window and when I got there the receptionist told me she was so sorry there had been a problem in the waiting room and to be sure to tell her next time anything like that happened again. (Word gets around fast!)
I thanked her and went back into the waiting room. The Overall Guy was gone but Preacher Man was up and talking to several women. He was adding fuel to the fire and had those women in the palm of his hand. So smooth and good. I sat in the chair and stared at him as he poured more gasoline on their hatred. His eyes swept the room again and caught mine. I stonily shook my head slowly, staring him down. He looked nonplussed for the briefest of moments and then continued his golden-toned pronouncements.
I left the waiting room. Took some deep breaths outside. Hated my cowardly self and his hate-filled message. As I stood in the parking lot I saw him leave, so I went back into the waiting room and when I entered I heard one woman telling another, verbatim, everything that guy had put into her head.
The hatred was passed on.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t say anything about the Old Testament calling for the killing of all nonbelievers or that a man should kill his son in the marketplace if he doesn’t work or that you should stone women for adultery. I just swallowed my bile.
I have been thinking a lot about that afternoon. It sits in my heart, a wound that is deep and shameful. I feel compelled to try to atone for it in some way. Make it right. Show some courage.
That’s why I have written this piece. It serves as my public proclamation to speak truth to power. To risk being shunned. To risk being hated or feared. To speak out, even in a waiting room, in front of strangers.
So, my dear brothers and sisters, I use this space to reveal my cowardice. This is my public confession, my sackcloth and ashes, as I stand in the public square.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.