I am remembering now a time when I discovered how difference in language can be so symbolic of all that can separate us one from another. It has always been so, of course, and it is what makes the Pentecost Story before us now so very wondrous.
Now this story goes way back. I was working corn pack at Del Monte in August of 1980. Most of the other college students had already gone back to school, but I wasn’t due back until after Labor Day. Like me, many of my high school friends worked their way through college by working pea pack. By August though,I did not have quite so much in common with most of the people on the line with me.
My job that late summer season was to work the cutters. This meant my task was to dislodge ears of corn which got stuck en route to being parted from their kernels. I wore a white plastic apron and heavy rubber gloves. The blades were sharp and those gloves were meant to protect our hands. I carried a wooden stick — for poking into the machines to dislodge those ears of corn. Each worker was assigned to three machines. It was not exciting work and it was uncomfortable for it was sweltering hot in there in the middle of the day. And the noise of the machines was deafening — so it was not as though conversation was likely anyway. Still, I was on a line with six other women of various ages. The other six were Latina —- members of families of migrant workers who traveled through for seasonal work every summer. And they spoke only Spanish.
Now of course it was not only our spoken languages which separated us from each other. We were also separated by the languages of our pasts, of our educations, of our likely futures. As physically close as we were then working side by side, we were actually been miles and miles apart in terms of our life experiences. Still, it was the difference in our spoken languages which brought all our differences home one morning.
For this is what happened. My first day on the job I was assigned the most difficult machines — ones which allowed no leisure time for they were constantly choking on corn cobs. I did my best to take it in stride, but was glad the day one of the women called in sick and our supervisor told me to move down — that we’d put the “new one” on the more challenging machines. I took her up on it. Well, about half an hour into our shift the new worker was getting pretty frustrated with those machines. Before I knew it, she and the others approached me together and language difference or not they indicated to me that I was going to have to switch places with her. I didn’t argue with them.
I have to say that I smiled even then to realize that for probably the first time in my life in that moment I was not the one who was privileged. At least not in that moment. And for the first time, I think, I knew the impact of the difference of language to separate and divide. Indeed, I knew even then that all sorts of other languages separated me from them: ones which would take me out of that plant and temporary jobs like that one. It was no wonder those women stuck together. I surely would have done the same.
It is so that language often divides — even when we think we understand each other well. How we communicate with one another can be a path strewn with all sorts of hazards. It is no wonder we tend to associate with others who at least can understand our words, if not always our meaning. This was certainly no different in the time of the Pentecost story we hear about every year. It is, in fact what makes this story from Acts so very remarkable. For it is so that we can make ourselves understood when we want to — as I experienced working the corn cutters so long ago. Only that speaking and understanding was about protecting one’s own or putting another in her place. Not so in the story before us now. No, this speaking and understanding travels across time and space, across culture and experience to pull together listeners into a common place of joy and hope. This speaking and miraculous understanding offers a glimpse of a time when language will not separate — nor will anything else for that matter. So much does separate us one from another in this world, in this life, but for a moment in time long ago people were drawn together by a common understanding. They were embraced by the same wondrous joy. And yet, I am glad to say that from time to time I am reminded that this was not just once so long ago. For somehow it still happens.
For you see, my nephew, Andrew, who is about to graduate from high school is now working the same sort of job I did so long ago. Only he stands behind the counter of a fast food restaurant. The men who work in the kitchen are also all Spanish speaking. Only unlike me, Andrew hasn’t let the differences divide. He’s been practicing his high school Spanish with them and they share a warm, laughing friendship of sorts. Last Sunday afternoon, I listened to him for a while. He was sitting at the dining room table in his work clothes— ready to head off for his shift. He told us then of his deep respect for those men, as he leaned forward in his chair telling us of his having learned that they work three full times jobs, some of them, just to make ends meet. To be sure, there are worlds dividing them yet — these hard working men and this young man about to head off to college. Still, I can’t help but wonder at what God is doing with this already to change the world. And just like with that first Pentecost, it all starts with reaching across the differences and speaking and understanding. Oh, it may never move beyond this time and place, but it just might. It is in knowing this that I know God is not yet done with us. Pentecost still comes. The Holy Spirit does, in fact, still move among us bridging the differences between us. Helping us to understand each other in spite of all that would keep us apart.
- Can you think of a time in your experience when language separated people from one another? Can you think of a time when that division was overcome?
- Can you think of other languages besides the spoken language which divide us? What comes to mind? Can you offer a time when by the work of the Holy Spirit those differences were overcome?