In getting ‘legal’ for my work in Washington state, I and some people from the church did a lot of research about what category of work permit I would need.
For instance, after several phone calls to 1-900 government numbers (which took some ‘splainin’ when I phoned a deacon to ask why the church phone would not work for those numbers, which produced some learnin’ for me when the person carefully asked “Um, Pete, why are you trying to call 1-900 numbers?” leading to me finding out they are usually sex lines. OK, that explains it!). When we thought we had it figured out, we filled in and sent in an 18 page form as an application, and it turned out to be wrong and was sent back to us.
Eventually we learned that I needed a letter from the church describing the work I would be doing, and a letter from Classis saying I was qualified.
While this was going on I became pretty good at being honest but vague at the border booths.
Where are you going?
What are you going to do there?
Visit some people.
What kind of people?
It’s a church group. … … …
And it would go from there, but sometimes that would be enough. I got more bold and direct when I had my letters in hand. I would hand the letters over with my passport and immediately say “I’m going to Quincy to work in a church.” The first time it worked like a charm. The person perused the letters a moment and sent me on my way. The second time, the same thing happened, but a bit more. He asked “What does this church group call themselves? I replied “Quincy Christian Reformed Church.” His face changed visibly when I said that, with a kind of tilting the head and squinching the eyes and pausing in an exaggeratedly puzzled fashion. I started freezing up in my gut. Then a twinkle came to his eyes as he pondered out loud while handing me my papers “You mean you are Christian Reformed and you are NOT heading for Lynden?!!!” He sent me on my way with both of us laughing. (My apologies to anyone reading this that is not a CRC insider, just smile and read on for the next story)
The third time I crossed with the letters the person at the booth said I should go inside and have the correctness of this all verified. So I did. I got in line in an intimidating huge space, with mainly burly men in uniform walking around–you know, the kind of guys whose arms are so muscular they would have trouble pressing their palms firmly to their sides if they wanted to and besides, their guns are in the way. Us lineup people were waiting, uncertain of our destiny and if we would be permitted to go on to our destinations or detained as detrimental. I was standing there, waiting my turn, rehearsing all the steps I had taken to try to be legal, so that I could give an understandable history of how hard I had tried to do it right.
Finally I was beckoned to the next open wicket. I walked past an Arabic looking person who was on my side of the wall, explaining his situation to an African American border guard who had a deep friendly voice but an intimidating physique, reminding me of the giant guy from Green Mile or Bubba from Forrest Gump (same actor I think). Perched on his head was a black toque. I came face to face with an older white guy, whose hair may have been red at one point, but the whiting of age had given it a chiffonish hue. He fussed for a few minutes finding a mobile chair that suited him. When he settled, I said “Hello,” and handed him my passport and the letters, aiming for answering questions once he had seen them, rather than my natural tendency to want to gush my story to him right off the bat. I waited. No more than five seconds had elapsed when he looked up from the documents and began to ask me a question. I was ready. I thought. He said, with a kind of expectant look on his face “Do you love a man that follows the Buddha?”
I was taken completely aback–for a second or two. I scanned his face for what was showing there. What could he mean by such a question? Was such a question appropriate? What wrath would come on him if he was asking the Arabic guy beside me that question? His face looked like he was expecting condemnation from me. Suddenly I realized that he was expecting a Christian Pastor to tell him he was going to hell if he followed the Buddha. “Absolutely I love a man who follows the Buddha!” I responded, with an inner haste of mental gears grinding from one mode to another but keeping a mental foot near the clutch so I could easily switch back to legalities if needed.
His next statement was “Would you agree with me that if everyone followed Abraham and Jesus my job would not be necessary?”
How do you respond to that? I did not want to be telling a border guard his job was not necessary, for fear of riling him somehow. But after a moment I cautiously played along and stumblingly said something like, “Yes, if everyone followed Jesus there would be a less need for law enforcement and borders.” He was looking things up on his computer as the bizarre conversation continued, so it was not always easy to ‘read’ his face. I felt I was being ‘toyed’ with one moment, and then convinced he was serious the next.
Suddenly he stood up and reached across the front of me and next to me to touch and warmly greet the young woman who had come to the wicket next to me after the Arabic guy left. She was not necessarily meeting his warmth, in my opinion. So I began a whole other range of thought. Was the man about to ‘go postal’ in a ‘border’ way? Had he lost his mind and/or social graces from having dealt with too many evasive potential terrorists or smugglers?
He settled back onto his chair, only to get up again to go looking for a copy of the rulebook. During this search he told me he was just weeks from retirement and had lost his book and they had to pay for them now, whereas when he started at this job they were free, but he did not feel like buying a new one for just a few weeks of use.
When he got it and came back to work at the computer, he asked me “Would Jesus need a passport?” I didn’t know what to say, and told him so. I told him I found it interesting to get a theological exam to cross the border when I was prepared for more a more legal conversation.
Then he quickly stood up and in a gesture that first looked like clutching the chest with an imminent heart attack but which turned out to be reaching inside his shirts for something, he pulled out an ornament at the end of his gold necklace and held it a few inches from my nose, saying “What do you suppose this says?” It was a three quarter inch circle, the outside of which was made to look like rope and inside the circle there was some kind of Chinese looking letter. I said “I don’t know.” He said “It’s the most important word in any language” and so I immediately said “Love” which earned me a high five across the counter. Which was kinda fun, but then the big black guy said “You’re really weirding me out here” which made me a bit cautious again but reassured me that was I was experiencing was not normal procedure.
Well, after finishing his research, the man stapled a card in my Passport that validated my legally working status, even as the theological banter continued. I played along as best I could, holding hope this was some kind of a Grace sharing opportunity, yet also wondering if the man was merely funnin’ with me to make his day interesting, or if he belonged in a room bordered by padding and securely guarded.
When he was finished, the possibly most ironic moment of the most unusual crossing-the-border conversation happened. He said “There’s just one more thing” – I held my breath – “that’ll be a $6 fee for processing.” Relieved that was all – on several levels – I dug out my wallet and started pulling out some money upon which my new Buddhist friend jumped back from the counter, sending his mobile chair skittering (no wonder he has to go find it again with each new person) and, while pointing at the video cameras which had been unobtrusively and soundlessly documenting our entire exchange, said “Whoa! If those see me take money from you they’re gonna think it’s a bribe and I will lose my pension!” Suddenly he was all about the rules again.
I went to the indicated teller’s wicket, and an extremely bored and boring person took my money and receipted me. On the way out I wished my buddy a happy retirement.
From that day on, crossing the border has held no anxiety for me, and getting through with his little card in my passport has been a breeze. Each time I tell the story, I pray for him–the Borderman next to Bubba who follows the Buddha.