While living in Japan after college, I remember taking an overnight ferry from Pusan, Korea to Shimonoseki, Japan. I traveled third class, which meant that I had about a seven- foot by three-foot space on a carpeted platform on the lowest deck. The platform was filled with other passengers, to the degree that it was almost impossible to lay down. After a few hours of feeling claustrophobic, I ventured around the ship to see if I could rest in other space. I found the first-class lounge, with well appointed chairs and sofas, and no one sitting on them. I ventured in, expecting to be ushered out by an irritated ship steward. Maybe a few came by, but no one asked me to leave. Most everyone on the ferry was Asian. What I figured, correctly as it turned out, is that the ferry system assumed that I had legitimate access to the first-class lounge because I was white. I felt some ethical qualms about the inequity of a system that enabled me to be a squatter in a place I hadn’t paid for, but not enough to get me to move. The sofas were much too comfortable.
Years later, when I secured a clergy pass to Fenway Park in Boston, which gave me standing room access, I would head to the corporate seats near the first base dugout, find some empty seats (I was usually with my young son) and sit down. We would move as soon as someone else came to retrieve their seats; and we inevitably found somewhere else to sit. One time we sat in the same seats for the entire game; their rightful residents never showed up. We were never accosted by an irate usher who could – quietly legitimately, banish us from the park, which probably would have been the case if we were not white. I felt some ethical qualms about the inequity of a system that had different levels of response depending on one’s race, but not enough to discontinue the practice. The seats were so good, and the Red Sox were on a hot streak.
Last week, I returned to the United States after an amazing trip to Scotland and England. It was necessary to have a negative Covid test to get into the United States. Depending on what website I researched, or which airline I could connect with, it was never clear what sort of covid test was necessary. Was a negative antigen test sufficient, or was it necessary to get a PCR test, which cost a lot more. The answers were all over the place. I paid more money than I thought reasonable for a PCR test, which came back negative a few hours later. But as I snaked through the many lines at Heathrow Airport, I figured, correctly as it turned out, that the height of the covid test hurdle depended on the airline and – more particularly, on the agent who checked you in. Some were absolutely rigid, and some were lenient. I could imagine that if I had a negative antigen test – and was not white, that I could have been denied access to my plane, because I had taken the wrong test.
The lead-up to my departure was stressful, in part because the rules were so unclear. But I had some inherent advantages, which I readily put to use. I had the resources to pay for the most expensive –and reliable, test. My maleness and whiteness provided the necessary grease through the gears of a bureaucracy that seemed arbitrary, if not unfair.
Now that I am safely returned home I realize that the ordeal at the airport was a big inconvenience. And it was indeed stressful – wondering if my test would be negative and worrying that all my documents would pass muster. I need to confess that I was – and am, grateful for my privilege.
And then I began to ponder about those many people whose stress level extends far beyond the worry if they have the necessary documentation to get back home. People who worry every day if they will be stopped, or frisked, or disdained or denied simply because they don’t fit the profile of what someone else in some authority deems to be acceptable. A cultural system that has long been arbitrary and unfair.
It is often said that the opposite of love is hate. A colleague of mine recently said that the opposite of love is comfort and convenience. Like many of us, I place a premium on comfort and convenience. If I have a chance to sit in on a comfortable sofa in a first-class lounge, or in seats at a baseball park I don’t belong in but can get away with entering, I will do so. It’s comfortable. If I can find a way to get through an airport faster than the standard protocol, I will probably take advantage. It is convenient. But that need for comfort and convenience can blind me to the challenges other people face; and can tranquilize my heart to the needs and challenges of those who have either consistently been denied comfort and convenience – or who have to work twice as hard to get it.
Love requires us to look beyond our own comfort and convenience – and to do what we can to ensure that everyone – everyone, has full access to the privileges that life can offer.