Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
November 12, 2017
READING “Gate A-4”
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help," the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she
heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
One day you go to the airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico, like the poem says.Someone asks for an Arabic speaker over the public address system, like the poem says.You hesitate, like the poem says.
You say to yourself, “There are millions of people in the United States who speak Arabic better than I do.And probably fifty of those people are here in this airport right now.”
You say to yourself, “Nobody would understand me if I tried to speak Arabic.My pronunciation is poor.And I only know a few hundred words.And I certainly would not understand anyone else speaking Arabic back at me, especially if they started speaking fast.”
You say to yourself, “Besides, it has been years since I visited an Arabic-speaking country.And aside from some relatives, I don’t know anyone who lives in an Arabic-speaking country.What would I have to offer to an Arabic-speaking person, or to anyone for that matter?I am not a doctor or a nurse or some other medical professional.I’m not a financial services person, I don’t know much about money or banking, and I don’t have enough cash with me to really help anyone.And I don’t live here.I mean, I don’t live here in Albuquerque.All I know about Albuquerque is how to find my way around the old market where so many people speak Spanish, the people whose ancestors lived right here on this land in Albuquerque before the Americans came and even before the Spanish came, just like my ancestors lived in Palestine for two thousand years since the time of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity.”
You say to yourself, “I know how this works.You try to do what you can and then they ask so much more of you.I remember listening to the stories my friend’s father told about serving in Vietnam.He was nineteen years old when he was drafted.Basic training did not prepare him at all for Vietnam.Not for the jungles.Not for the insects.Not for the heat.Not for the mines and the booby traps and the constant dread that your next apparently innocent step might be your last. Training did not prepare him for not being able to see through the big leaves of the jungle plants all the while feeling that the enemy could see you with no problem – the enemy, that is, the nineteen-year-old kids from North Vietnam who had walked maybe hundreds of miles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to push you back to the sea.Basic training did not prepare him for the blood of the wounded and the awful stillness of the dead.And basic training did not prepare him for a deeply divided society that turned their backs on him and his fellow veterans when they got home.”
You say to yourself, “But my friend’s father did learn how to survive.They asked him to give more than he had to give, over there in the muddy jungles of Vietnam, but he gave even more than that.They had no idea what he was truly capable of.Neither did he, until he did it.”
You hear the public address system in the Albuquerque airport repeat the summons for an Arabic speaker at Gate A4.You say to yourself, “I know how this works.Stone soup.You get caught up in someone’s trick, and before you know it, you and all your neighbors are feeling generous, and you give away the little you had set aside for hard times later.”
You say to yourself, “I am no hero.Not like a veteran.Not like my Palestinian grandmother who has lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon since 1948.By law, she is forbidden from returning to the village where her family lived for hundreds of years.Not that there is much left of the village now anyway, sixty-nine years later, for it has been demolished and abandoned, part of the government initiative to erase all memory of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian culture that was there before 1948.No, I am not a hero like that.I am grateful to live an ordinary life.My Palestinian grandmother once lived an ordinary life.I have a photograph of her when she was a child, before soldiers forced her into exile.But I am not a hero.I do not do extraordinary things.Whatever the trouble may be at Gate A4, I have little to offer.”
You say to yourself, “If there is one extraordinary thing I have done, or one difficult thing I have done, it is this.It is easy for me to feel road rage.It is easy for me to fly into a rage when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when someone is driving too fast or too slow, or when someone is driving carelessly and without consideration of others.I am surprised the horn on my car is still working because I have blared it so much.For me, the horn on my car is like one of those Star Wars swords that lights up when I swing it around and aim it at someone.That is how I think about the horn on my car.”
You say to yourself, “Or at least that is how I used to think about the horn on my car.Then one day my friend was observing my road rage.She said, ‘Maybe some of those people have had a hard day.Maybe some of those people just lost their job and they are angry and afraid.Maybe some of those people are coming back from the hospital where someone just died and they are grieving and preoccupied.Maybe some of those people have children who just won’t listen to them.Or maybe some of those people have parents who just won’t listen to them.’I thought about what my friend said.Then I said to her, ‘They are still driving like jerks.They are still driving dangerously.’My friend said to me, ‘Yes.But maybe you don’t need to blare your horn for a full moment – a full sixty seconds – every time someone gets in your way on the road.Maybe you can have enough abundance inside yourself to accommodate, enough abundance inside yourself to give others the benefit of the doubt, enough abundance inside yourself not to add your fuel to someone else’s fire.’”
You say to yourself, “I have thought a lot about what my friend said.Out of a healthy self-respect, I still insist on maintaining my boundaries, both on the road and in the rest of my life.And I still give a quick beep on my horn when someone is driving like a jerk in my vicinity.Polite but pointed.But I no longer blare my horn for a full minute.That is the one extraordinary thing I have done in my life.I found a kind of abundance inside myself that allows me to consider or at least imagine the situations of others from their perspective.Some of the time, anyway.”
Once again, you hear the public address system in the Albuquerque airport repeat the summons for an Arabic speaker at Gate A4.Because of the abundance you have inside yourself, you walk over to Gate A4.You see the Palestinian woman in a heap on the floor.You speak some Arabic words to her, not perfectly, but good enough.She stops crying.You explain that the flight has been delayed, not cancelled.You speak with her son and explain to him that she will arrive later.You call her other sons, and your dad, and those Palestinian poets, and the Palestinian woman speaks with them.Now the Palestinian woman is laughing.She shares those delicious homemade mamool cookies with all the women at the gate.And the airline brings apple juice and the little girls carry it to everyone.And you say to yourself, “This is the world I want to live in.The shared world.The world where no person is apprehensive about any other person.”
You understand this as a moment when everyone is having life abundantly, a moment when the Commonwealth of God breaks into life on earth and illuminates it for a brief instant, a moment that feels like the Beloved Community.
You realize that you did not have to be fluent in Arabic for this moment to happen.You realize that you did not have to have medical expertise, or financial expertise, or lots of money, or detailed knowledge of the local surroundings, to bring this moment into being.You did not have to be a war hero like your friend’s father.You did not have to be a catastrophe survivor like your Palestinian grandmother.You just had to reach out.You just had to reach out from your abundance, the abundance inside yourself, the abundance that is more abundant than you had realized.More abundant than your friend had realized.But mostly, more abundant than you had realized.
At Gate A4, in the midst of apple juice and mamool cookies, you come to understand more deeply that in relationship is the salvation of the world.At Gate A4, in the midst of people from all over the world, you come to understand more deeply that the abundance you bring to your relationships makes all the difference.
© 2017 by David Herndon