Monday most of us celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day to one degree or another, but I imagine that there were some who cursed the day on which he was born.
I can think of two reasons why many of us hold him up as a model to emulate. First, he held up a dream, a vision of a nation with a great deal of racial diversity being united as one people. Second, the way he went about achieving that ideal was nonviolent.
As you read this column, I will be half way around the world at the Asian Lutheran International Conference (ALIC) in Udon Thani, Thailand which gives me a different perspective on how to create unity in the midst of diversity.
This is my third ALIC in 20 years. I’m always struck by the diversity that exists in the part of the world we call Asia. Japan is as culturally different from Thailand as our country is from Mexico in terms of language, food and social norms.
When I was in Tokyo, I was struck by how orderly their society is. When a subway train would pull into the station—always right on time—the crowd on the platform would part to let the passengers getting off get through, and then they would in a businesslike, seemingly rehearsed manner enter the train.
When I was in Hanoi, I experienced the opposite. Many intersections in the narrow streets in the old part of town were unregulated. No traffic lights. No stop signs. The traffic comprised mainly of motor bikes coming from all four directions simply weaving through each other to get where they were going. Talk about chaos!
See, that’s the thing. In the 1960s, the challenge was to attain harmony and justice in the midst of RACIAL diversity. Dr. King led a campaign to end racial discrimination at lunch counters, in corporations and in education. In that regard, our little village has done pretty well. We have had Asian Americans and African Americans serve as council members and this time around we have a white guy and a black man running for mayor.
We have no women seeking that office in April, but no big deal because Lorraine Popelka broke the gender barrier 40 years ago by being elected mayor of Forest Park in 1979 and serving for 12 years.
But in my experience, an even greater challenge is finding some kind of unity in the midst of CULTURAL diversity. For example, one black lady I was interviewing for a story said that she generally felt more at home among educated people—be they black, brown or white—than she did with people of her own race.
The culture we grew up in has a major impact on how we lean into life in terms of our attitudes about time, work ethics, food, style, the expression of emotions, piety, respect for authority, compliance with rules and on and on and on.
Back to ALIC. So how do these people from 16 countries, many different cultures, and whose primary languages span the gamut from Mandarin to Tagalog to Korean, find any common ground? Delegates from Hong Kong are used to eating with chop sticks while Thais use spoons and forks. Koreans love kimchi, Japanese go for sushi, and Indians get into roti.
At ALIC they find common ground by agreeing to use English during the conference plenary sessions, a language which for 99 percent of the participants is not their mother tongue. They make that sacrifice because they want to get something done more than they want to have their own way and English, for better for worse, is the lingua franca of the world today.
They also find common ground in being Christian, a minority religion in Asia, and Lutheran which is a small denominational minority within the larger religious minority.
They all have to, at least temporarily, loosen their grip on their heart languages, favorite foods and many other things in their cultures which make up their comfort zones back home. They also find common ground in the fact they share not only a common religious faith—the Christian religion—but also the same denominational Lutheran slice of that faith.
So, on the one hand, birds which are not of the same feather flock together by using a common but second language. On the other hand, if you look under their skin and cultural perspectives, they are very homogeneous in terms of what they believe.
That, it seems to me, is part of the challenge that either Chris Harris or Rory Hoskins will have when elected mayor. We have diversity in terms of what business owners expect from the village and what residents want. We see things differently in terms of religious faith or absence of it. We have generational differences.
The coming debate, for example, over how to reduce the village’s debt will certainly include differences in perspective. Do we increase taxes paid by businesses or taxes paid mainly by residents? Or, if we cut services, do we eliminate snow plowing on the sidewalks of the whole town, of businesses only, or just residential neighborhoods.
Like the participants at ALIC in Udon Thani, we will have to find some common foundational values to build on and some kind of common language to talk about how we will spend limited resources in a community where the needs are much larger than the resources available to meet them.
Dr. King said that people “often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
If that is true, then it seems to me that one of the first orders of business for either Rory or Chris will be to get as much of the diversity in Forest Park as they can together in the same place(s) for the purpose of discovering what values all segments of the town have in common and thereby create a language we can use to talk about the issues facing us in a collaborative way.
If it requires free beer and nachos to entice people to come out, I’ll chip in something to make it happen.