Palermo Perspectives # 1: On Being American

Palermo Perspectives # 1: On Being American

As part of my Global Ministries placement this summer, I am to share my reflections. So every couple of weeks, I will also send a “Palermo Perspective” to Old First, sort of a report since you all are making my summer service possible.

The FB post was silly, about the fear that welled up in me upon encountering a bathroom outfitted with a bidet and therefore no toilet paper. I have a funny bidet story from Easter Eve in 1982, and a little experience I didn’t want to have to rely on.  Is being American being overwhelmed foreign hygiene customs?

I have been thinking a lot about what it does or doesn’t mean to be an American.  I often become more aware of “American-ness” — my own and others — when I am abroad. In fact, my great accomplishment during the first year I spent in Europe was learning how American I was / am.  I should probably consider, or at least remember, it more often when I am at home!

I was expecting as much this trip, as I’d been warned I would need to answer questions about the current political situation in Washington. So far, only two people have brought up the subject, but I think that is because I am meeting new people,  and they are being polite!

I found myself first focusing on the question on my long train ride, 11 hours, from Rome to Palermo. With me were Italians, Germans, North Africans, Brits, Filipinos, French, Scandinavians, Australians, Arabs, Chinese, and others I could not recognize. I happened to be the only person from the U.S., and I noticed pretty quickly that I was being called, in languages I knew and those I did not, l’americano.

Factually, it was of course true. But I was aware what a broad description it is. I wondered how adequate it was to give people any sense of me? I could think of other one or two word definitions that felt more telling, at least to me! Christian minister. Father. Gay man. …And I worried what l’ Americano might suggest about me to others.

But even before the issue of stereotypes, there’s a problem with the label “American”  — too much expansionism in the name (or claim!) that springs from the last word in our nation’s name. Am I really any more of an American than a Mexican or a Canadian? Or a Chilean for that matter? America is the partial name of two whole continents. Yet like so many other things, we in the U.S. hog it.

But perhaps even more problematic are some of the attitudes that accompany American identity. i’m thinking in particular about our difficulty recognizing that we are only one state in a world of nations. At least that’s what I began feeling on the train. …That the U.S. too often forgets about everyone else.

I fear I can be guilty of failing to “recognize our relativity” even though I’ve lived far from North American hegemony. I have spent  extended time abroad and traveled a lot. And my adult life has been lived in urban neighborhoods in large U.S. cities with significant foreign-born populations. I always hear other languages and have been enriched by different customs being held up and honored.

When I would ride the subway to work in NY as the UCC’s regional minister, as we’d be coming into Manhattan off the eponymous bridge, the advertising signs would all be in Chinese. I couldn’t even recognize the characters. I used to think that was helpfully humbling — and a reminder how big the world is. But I’m not so sure that’s enough anymore.

Even as I have been aware of the other peoples of the world, have I without thinking, adopted a typically American sense that we are at the front of the class? Have I allowed our size or might or wealth or leadership to unwittingly lead or leave me in some American arrogance?

This confession comes from a man who is often quite critical of the U.S. politically, both in domestic policy and international relations. Still, have I unwittingly assumed American superiority in certain senses?

The U.S. is a very big, influential country with only two immediate neighbors who have never overtly threatened us. Otherwise we are “oceans” away from other nations. And many if not most of them… we are so much bigger, stronger, wealthier so as to effectively overlook them, if not expect them to serve our needs as some sort of modern-day vassals.

The “foreigners” we most often meet at home are on our home turf, and mostly, one way or another, they are people who have left much of their home behind to put their eggs in our basket, investing themselves and their lives with us. Even those of us who are thankful because we believe our culture is enriched by the constant dynamic of diversity that newcomers bring, don’t we trust there is a big American store of culture able to assimilate every new wave, rather than be unalterably changed (at least in the short run of any of our lifetimes!)?

‘Making America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ are just the most recent albeit ugly and virulent forms of a much longer strain in our culture. And surely some of this challenge to our nation’s humility traces back to the chutzpah with which the young, small European-descended nation along the Eastern seaboard felt its manifest destiny to take the whole continent. Perhaps we need to blame John Robinson’s ‘City Set on a Hill sermon’ as the Pilgrims were getting ready to step off the boat at Plymouth Rock?

Even today politicians and the public can expect that “American Exceptionalism” is a reality and commitment that needs to be honored???

On that train, I realized that there was nothing endemically different about my home than anyone else’s in that crowded train car. Our homes have formed us even if there are parts of our cultures we would rather disavow. All our nations have strengths and challenges, their own unique histories. And all should be afforded the opportunity to offer their citizens a safe, adequate and stable standard of living.

I am painfully aware of that as I head to Palermo to work with Syrian refugees offered a “humanitarian corridor” to asylum through Italy from the refugee camps in Lebanon (more on that in an upcoming Perspective).

I am an American. it defines me and colors me more than I like, how I experience and act in the world. But could it do less blinding me to others?

My insight riding on a train with others from nations just as comfortable (wealthy, secure, medicine d, privileged?) as my own… And with those whose homelands are not as comfortable, but just as formative and dear for those individuals; nations that may well deserve getting a larger slice of the world’s pie than they enjoy… My insight was that all this must begin with a greater awareness, some cosmopolitan, international sensibility that offers greater recognition and respect.

How will my thinking be further changed in my experiences with refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, people who had to leave their homes and seek safety in foreign nations?

It occurs to me that church could help with all this. As opposed to American insularity and exceptionalism, church exhorts me to a certain “supra-nationality,” wherein we are one of many and God favors all. (this is one of the reasons I find the American flag inappropriate in a sanctuary– while we should pray for the nation that is host to that congregation, not to the exclusion of any other nation in need of prayer. Sanctuaries should be some sort of de-nationalized zones!) I am remembering the hymn in the New Century Hymnal “This Is My Song:”

This is my song, O God of all nations, a song for peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover and pine. But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, God of all nations, a song for peace for their lands and mine.

Prayerfully,

Michael