Spending time in small town America, coming from New York, I believe I took some things for granted. Lately, I have been getting to know a side of the country that I don’t believe many people see, and what they think they know, often tends to be stereotypes derived from pop culture and media. Sure, some of that exists, no doubt, but for the most part people are people. Big City people have big city issues; small town people have small town issues. Yet as human beings, we all share similar desires, perhaps to live and love, hope and dream, grow and prosper. From the City, I tend to think and move fast; surely many of us like to drive fast, but certainly there is a more laid back attitude down South. Within any group of people there is political posturing, social cliques, and both, energetic and lazy people.
Depeche Mode, the 1980s synthesized music band, or new wave group, had a song, “People are People so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully.” Now, I admit that I liked the song back then, but my love has been and always will be real rock, I’m usually not into the synthesized Euro stuff, yet the song which I can sing by heart has some truth. Whether it small town USA, or in my City, people are people; different methods, different foods, but not so different, really.
It’s taken some time to realize this, yet I am learning fast. Through my travels across the “Bible Belt,” and even more now working within a Christian ministry, I have come to know more than I did from my ivory tower in New York. Perception might be reality, but reality is all too often distorted to create an unfair perception.
As a Jewish New Yorker, I learned to be tougher and more wary of an unfriendly world out there. Reading and watching news on Israel is a painful example of how Jews are perceived worldwide. Watching financial scandals across the country and seeing Jewish names attached generated a flurry of anti-Semitic rants in emails, cyberspace and even in small towns across the USA. I imagined what my reception would be like in this small country city, and was nervous about how people, many of whom have never really personally known someone of Jewish faith, would receive me.
Now, I had my first direct experience working for evangelical pastor and Christian Zionist John Hagee. I found, for a national figure, he is down to earth and friendly, warm and caring, and just a nice person. Without even getting to into his beliefs, of which I spent so much time understanding and even defending as his PR agent, as a person, he is a decent guy. Quite a change from other public personalities; has anyone heard the Christian Bale recordings, or remember Russell Crowe‘s tirade?
Now, fully immersed in the world of a Christian Ministry, I see a lot more, learn a lot more and have been inspired. People here pray more than I see people do, and t hey truly believe with a faith many of my own could use. Yet more, they live the way they believe. Caring, decent and loving; it defines southern hospitality.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon about living life right, respecting one’s parents and being the best you could be. The pastor spoke of her inspiration and where she learned life’s important lessons: we all needed to be tolerant of others, to be thoughtful to the people you meet on the way up through life, and that we are all replaceable, and should therefore should avoid pretentiousness. Those pearls came from a close Jewish friend of hers. The Pastor proudly attributed those teachings to Jewish values (and they very well should be), and proclaimed such to her flock. It made me happy to hear.
What brought it home for me was just today, in her home, she showed me a book that she reads regularly for inspiration – The Artscroll book on the Chofetz Chaim, “A lesson a Day“. After my stereotypes had been shattered, realizing that not all people speak badly of others and not everyone hates for hate’s sake, I opened her book to find that my Christian Pastor friend, who I have come to respect in every way, had underlined passages forbidding Sinat Chinam (Baseless Hatred) and Lashon Hora (Gossiping and Evil Talk).
I guess what I really learned is that I still have so much to learn, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world this would be if we all learned those very lessons this pastor is proud to study.
Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR and a contributor to the Cutting Edge News.