Passover began at sundown last Friday. The Secular Jewish Community had a Passover Seder the next day. There’s nothing unusual about them doing that even though a good number of the members are atheists or agnostics. It’s a comfortable part of their culture. Eating Charoset, drinking four cups of wine and hearing the children’s questions make them feel good by connecting them to their culture.
What is a bit ironic is that the story told at the seder is about the people of Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt only to face trial after trial in the wilderness. It is, in part, a story about how costly freedom can be — anything but comfortable.
Many of the small business owners on Madison Street can relate to that story. Many had well-paying, secure jobs in corporate America: stock traders, bankers, lawyers. They were, in a sense, slaves to their work. They took the risk of striking out on their own, getting rid of the safety net they had and starting their own businesses. Many are making a lot less money and have a lot more worries — anything but comfortable.
Last Wednesday, 92 Asians came to Forest Park to participate in the Association of Asian and Pacific Islanders’ 13th biennial assembly. Part of their motivation for attending was their desire to find comfort in being with people who shared their culture. Hitoshi Adachi prayed in Japanese. Surekha Nelavala wore a sari. Thiem Baccam loved eating Thai food.
At that conference, I got into a conversation with a pastor who had grown up in Hong Kong. He told me about how emotionally overwhelming his first few days in America were — a foreign culture, foreign food, foreign language. He said he couldn’t get up the courage to venture out from his room and dive into this new world for three days — anything but comfortable.
There’s a common theme here. Freedom comes at a price. The people of Israel, in fact, wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt after experiencing how costly freedom can be. At least there was security in slavery. And in order to occupy the Promised Land, they had to take away the freedom and sometimes the lives of those who stood in the way of their freedom.
These stories make me wonder if freedom is a fantasy more than a dream. There are a whole lot of 20-somethings who struck out on their own freedom quest, only to wind up living back with their parents. As a nation, we became the land of the free and the home of the brave on the backs of African slaves and at the expense of those who lived here for centuries before Europeans arrived in what they considered their promised land.
Those Asians who were our guests for three days last week have, in my opinion, something to teach us. They took the risk of venturing into what for them was a foreign land, partly because of the promise of a “better life,” whatever that might mean. Here they had the opportunity to do graduate study not available in their countries of origin. Here they could often experience a higher standard of living.
At the same time, however, they’ve also paid a price, a great discomfort if you will. The price they pay is sometimes discrimination, separation from family and friends, the hard work of speaking a second language and wearing “cultural clothing,” so to speak, which never fits just right.
A big part of what enables them to wear those ill-fitting cultural clothes is that they feel called to be here. That is to say, there is a need outside of their own comfort zone that compels them to tolerate the discomfort of never completely fitting in, on the one hand, while not trying to change by force their adopted culture in the effort to fit in better.
Dr. King had a dream. Pursuing that dream got him killed — anything but comfortable. But most of us would agree that even though he was cursed, tear-gassed and jailed, he was indeed free.
My new Asian friends reminded me of something I had forgotten. If I want to be free, it’s not about me. If my goal is comfort, I’ll never be free. I’ll always be controlled to one degree or another. I’ll only be willing to pay the price of freedom when something/someone greater than me is guiding and moving me along the road of life.