Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Showdown at the Patio Table

Here's a funny story. I didn't write about this incident during this post because it was already long enough, for God's sake. But sitting at the same patio table at the same hotel last night made me remember it.

It was the day I was caught and ordered to stay in town to see the CD. Peace Corps put me up at a hotel and, in a nice turn of good luck, the place was booked solid so they had to upgrade me to the Bridal Suite. Turns out, the people booking the hotel "solid" were all from a rather large missionary group from a southern church. The hotel was lousy with white people. Strangely, I didn't feel any kind of connection with them. They all had southern accents -- that twangy, sharp kind of southern accent, like you hear from poor white guys driving pickups with Confederate Flags in the windows. Not a nice, soft "Southern belle," Gone-With-the-Wind type of accent.

At lunchtime I went to the hotel's restaurant. They have a really nice one, actually with glass-topped tables and cute tablecloths and the whole place is top-notch. One table was occupied by a knot of these missionaries, almost all of them older then sixty or so, with whitening hair and evidently little concept of how people in other parts of the world live. They sat there jabbering to the Afro-Guyanese woman who was serving them food about how "colorful" the language here is, how "cute." They shared examples of words spoken in a Guyanese accent that they found "a hoot." Then, to this woman's face, one of the female missionaries referred to them as "the coloreds." It was painful. I wondered how the woman, so calmly handing them plates, could remain so stoic.

Deciding to take my lunch outside, I found a round wooden patio table and ate while I read my book. It was warm, but with a nice breeze, and I was feeling pretty good, despite the trouble I was in. A couple white guys walking by me as I ate lunch stopped to see where I was from and kindly let me know they were here doing the Lord's work. Nice. Nice for you. Seeing I wasn't in a talkative mood, they moved on.

Well, my peace was soon to be shattered. Across the street, coming from buying American snacks at a gas station, was a slightly paunchy, white-haired old firebrand fellow in a button-up blue shirt. I recognized him instantly. Occasionally in New Amsterdam an hour-long religious show plays where a white man with a thick Deep-South accent talks about how we're all born evil and only those who accept the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, and that Jesus died on the cross so that blah, blah, blah. The usual routine. And all through the t.v. show this guy's mug hovers unflinching in midscreen with a Guyanese flag draped behind him. As if to say, I'm one of you. See? Here's your flag. It was that guy, and seeing another white man, he veered across the street and came right to my table, where he proceeded to lean in to me, perched with two fists on the table.

"Florida State," he said. I was wearing my school colors on a t-shirt that said "Florida State."

"Yep."

"Seminoles," he said.

This was irritating. I got enough of that back in the U.S. "I don't care about football. I went there for graduate school, but I could care less about the athletics."

"Well, that's what that represents."

"No, it doesn't," I replied. "It says nothing about the Seminoles, about football, or any of that. Same with my hat. I don't buy clothes that advertise the athletic teams. I went there for the university, not the team."

He changed subjects by introducing himself. He stuck out his fat paw. I shook it and instantly wanted to go wash my hands. "What brings you to Guyana?" he asked.

"Peace Corps."

"Is that a mission?"

"No."

"Oh. We're here with the (something something) Church of Christ. Heard of them?"

"No."

"We're out of Branson, Missouri." I could he really was from Missouri, because he pronounced the last syllable as 'uh.' "We just came from Region 8. We spent the last couple months in Lethem."

"I've seen you on television," I said.

"Yes, I have an evangelical show in the Berbice area." From this he deduced I was out of New Amsterdam, and asked me what I do there. I told him.

He replied, "We're on a mission, here in Guyana, spreading the Holy Word."

Right, I said. And then something came over me. Perhaps it was the way he was leaning in to me in such an aggressive manner, perhaps it was his slack-jawed accent, perhaps it was the offensiveness of his very presence. But I said, "I can't stand missionaries."

"Is that right?" he asked. He pronounced "right" as "rot."

I proceeded to tell him how I felt about missionaries, how they have gone into places with fabulous, respectable cultures like the South Pacific and proceeded to wreck everything, instilling guilt and internalized racism into the youth and bringing Christianity's own brand of self-loathing to the people. I told him that these supposed acts of charity are, at their heart, advertising campaigns, where the missionaries exchange public good works for captive souls (and tithes!) and that the whole thing was so transparent. I don't remember exactly what I said, the words, but I do remember explaining to him that it isn't right to go into someone else's home, uninvited, tell them they are basically horrible, wicked people with no value, then say that only the missionaries have the key to their salvation. To me it's cruel, it's disrespectful, and I can think of nothing worse.

After this tirade, he looked at me silently for a second. I hadn't budged from my spot since he came up, and all throughout this battle of wills we leaned toward each other and never broke eye contact. At last he broke away and said, "well, I'll see you later," and departed. I felt good, like I had won something.

And for those of you who might compare Peace Corps to missionaries, I don't think it's the same. On the surface it may look similar, but despite what the mad blogger at Livinguyana might say, we're not here to spread propaganda. We don't have a message. And that's the difference.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

no wonder you got ET'd.

Brian Reeves said...

And what's that supposed to mean?