Tuesday, June 13, 2006


On the last leg of our flight to Oaxaca, we were on a regional jet with only one flight attendant. We could tell she was from Texas; she had that twang goin' on. The Houston/Oaxaca flight is a back and forth shuttle; about as common as New York/Washington D.C. but with not as much regularity. About the one thing you can count on is that some folks on that plane will be speaking Spanish as a first, perhaps only, language. So you would think that it would be a job requirement for crew members to speak at least passable Spanish. First, we were all a bit shocked at her pronunciation of Oaxaca ("oh-ah-haa-ka"). Then, when she was handing out sandwiches (turkey or ham), she asked a Spanish-speaking passenger "Paa-vo or haa-mo" which should have been "Pavo o hamon", the "h" remaining silent. This then became the joke of our week, adding more words to this Texas-twang Spanish lexicon: sinko de may-yo, gray-see-as, poor fay-ver, con kay-so. I think it helped us relieve our anxiety about our lack of Spanish as much as it was just plain stupid. Plus, Texas just seems like one big target to most folks.

The very existence of language, spoken or written, is divisive. If you can't speak the language, if you don't know the 'lingo', then you're out. Even if you speak the same ethnic or national language, there's jargon, colloquialisms, culture, slang, dialect, accents, and code words to contend with. In groups we use these as a type of shorthand; a way of defining identity to bolster the group consciousness. Eventually it becomes the language of those who are 'in', and if we are trying to increase group membership, we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort (but not really enough) to indoctrinate the newbies into the glossary of terms.

Take churches, for example. Do you know what a narthex is? Or the chancel? How about acolyte, doxology, scapula, chasuble, polity? It has been recommended that churches stop using words only used in church and choose a common language, one that is spoken outside the church as well as inside, so as to welcome unchurched folks into their midst. Some people resist this because then the church becomes more like an auditorium or concert hall than a church, a sacred place. At the church where I worship, we do not call it a sanctuary but a meetinghouse, which goes back to our Puritan forebears. The space is made holy by what we do there, thus any space, any place can be made holy (or not) by what we do, what language we speak.

Yesterday evening I was watching my 6-yr. old daughter play kickball with the rest of her classmates against another 1st grade class. I noticed the boys knew the language and rules of the game while the girls had to catch on. Of course this made perfect sense; many of these boys play little league and/or go to or watch baseball games with their fathers. I wondered why no one spends enough time teaching girls the same language; after all, baseball is our national pastime. But then it hit me: none of them will grow up to play professional baseball. There's softball available to them, sure, but it's not the multi-billion dollar business that baseball is. I discussed this with my husband as we watched the game; I could hear just the slightest edge of defensiveness in his voice, but perhaps that was a cover for the sorrow over what this meant for his daughters. It's tough for any 'in' group to admit they've kept people out, even if it was unwittingly.

I think there's a time and place for men to have their own language and meanings and for women to have the same, and to be exclusive for a while, to take a break from the Mars/Venus shuttle run. It's when it becomes divisive and systematically exclusive that we then create more distance and the need for a space shuttle just so we can communicate. None of us knows everything; we're all in need of learning, thus gaining the humility we need to teach what we do know.

Whatever language we speak, even if it is the most eloquent, if we do so without love, we all sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, says the apostle Paul. The move to unify our nation under English is without love. Joking about a working woman's twangy Texan Spanish was without love. Not learning enough Spanish before we left was without love. Some of the most loving moments I lived in during our mission trip and throughout my life are those when hardly a word was spoken. Sometimes, words are just not enough.

No comments: