Tuesday, August 11, 2009

White privilege and isolation Part 2

Had I found a new sangha with the Lao temple I had discovered? I wasn’t certain; but I did believe my kamma had guided me there. Before going further, you should read Part 1 of this memory, as I must be up front about it: what I am writing here is from memory. We don’t always remember events accurately, although we like to flatter ourselves in this respect.

I can remember when I first visited the Lao temple, it was late winter, 2007. Remember, I was working on a story about the Buddhist congregations in the Holland, Mich., area, and my deadline was in early March. The story wasn’t to be published until late March. (I don’t have hard copies of the articles I wrote, and when the paper was bought by another company and switched to the new company’s platform, all the archived material under the previous platform was lost: it “disappeared.”) The monk liked me enough that he consented to another story idea. I knew that the Lao New Year was approaching (April 14 that year, according to my e-mail files). This temple, like others I had encountered, had “fudged” the date for this event so that a celebration could be held on a weekend. Anyway, the monk said I could come and write about it for the paper and we could take photos and even film the ceremony to be posted on the paper’s Web site.

I prepped my “crew,” a photographer who took outstanding photos (few displayed with this blog entry) and a videographer. I gave them a basic primer on Buddhist and Asian etiquette – don’t be afraid of them, they are people just like you, but take your shoes off at the front door, don’t pat anyone on the head, and when you sit on the floor, tuck your feet under your butt; same goes for the monk, don’t be afraid of him, he’s not the pope. Also, I said, most do not speak much English; they will smile a lot at you and nod, but that doesn’t mean they understand what you are saying.

It was a splendid event and we had a wonderful experience. The photographer was inspired with the many photo ops he saw. The Lao people were happy and very friendly, making sure we got plenty to eat. And we were treated to some amazing solo chanting by the resident monk. It was so beautiful.

So in a relatively short sequence of time my general story about the Buddhist community in the area was published, followed a few weeks later by the story of the celebration at the temple. During this time I had also been communicating with a few of the “board” members about the travails the sangha was facing in its dealings with the township zoning board.

During an interview with the township attorney, he made a comment that he felt empathy for the folks at the temple, but they didn’t seem to be able to get anything done. I took the liberty to speaking freely with him. First a bit of background: this area of Michigan is the home turf for two of the most conservative and politically influential Christian denominations in America – The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. People like Gary Bauer, James Dobson and the Prince family (you know Erik Prince of Blackwater fame? That family) were all well-connected to these denominations, even though they may not be church members. When the attorney made his comment, I told him I might have some insight into the situation because I was Buddhist. He was willing to listen, so I went out on a limb.

I had no idea what religious affiliation this attorney held, but the odds were he was either CRC or RCA. I said in many respects, the Lao Buddhists were not much different from the Christians in the area: they also took pride in their temples and worked hard to build them on their own. It was how they provided support to the monks, who in most circumstances had no means of economic support. This group, however, was primarily working class families who had limited income as well as limited opportunities to work. Unlike the wealthier white Christian churches, they didn’t have the cash flow to hire contractors, nor did they have temple members who own their own excavation companies to come out and complete the site work for free. Instead, they would get a building permit, but would be unable to finish the work before the permit expired either because they ran out of money or they simply couldn’t get the job done in time. Plus, even the best English speaking member representing the congregation, the board president, seemed to me to not fully understand all the legal requirements of each individual permit. Perhaps, I suggested, during future township meetings, the township zoning board could take a little extra time to ensure that communication with the temple was successful?

Did that make a difference? I don’t know. All I can say is that conversation occurred roughly during the same time period as when my articles appeared, as well as other stories I had assigned for a reporter that covered the township’s zoning board meetings whenever the Lao temple was on the agenda. By spring, several “white volunteers” showed up at the temple and spoke with the president. A week later, someone showed up with a backhoe, a bulldozer, building supplies; the recreation building that had stood as an unfinished shell for two years got completed, the grounds leveled and the drainage completed, and a parking lot covered with asphalt before the end of June.

To be quite honest, I really don’t think I had anything to do with this outcome. And yet, it still might not have happened had I not asked to do a story about the Buddhist congregations in the area. It kind of reminds me of what the white monk near Lansing would tell visitors to the temple, folks who seemed curious but somewhat skittish about what went on there. “Hello, welcome, we are friendly here, we do not sacrifice animals here, we are quite harmless.”

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