General Assembly, Border Patrol, and Me

June 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Miscellaneous, Religion, Travel 

This week I’m attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit.  At this meeting, many big and important things are being worked on and voted on and I’ll probably write about that later.  This is a story of something that happened to me during this week, unrelated to the GA meeting.

Because Detroit is only one river away from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I brought my passport with me in case I had a chance to go to Canada for the first time.  Yesterday, I had that chance.  So two friends and I got into my car to go to Windsor for dinner.

Leaving the US through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel we were briefly stopped by CBP (Customs and Border Protection) folks, probably because there is a little unrepaired body damage to my car.  They looked at our passports and asked why we were crossing and let us go.  Note that these guys looked like they were in army uniforms, with flak vests.

On the Canadian side we drove up to the booth and spoke to a man in a regular linen uniform shirt.  We explained who we are and why we were there.  And 15 feet later we were there.  We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, walked around a bit, and headed back.  Total time in Canada – about 2 hours.

Entering the US we pulled up to a booth.  We handed our passports to the man in the booth, and answered the same questions (are you US citizens?  Where do you live?  Why are you in Detroit?  Why did you go to Canada?  How do you know each other?  What kind of conference?).  Our first sign of trouble was when he closed the booth door and picked up the phone.  After a conversation and a lot of looking at his computer screen, he opened the door.  He said something like, “I’m going to have to send you inside this time.  Mr. Smith – you have a mismatch and we’ll fix it so that you don’t have to do this again.  Please pull around the curve and into the parking lot – there will be someone there to direct you.”

This was not unexpected.  On several background checks (seminary, Red Cross) I was initially declined because there is a criminal in another state who shares my first name, middle initial, last name, AND exact date of birth including year.  I’m sure that was the problem here.

We pulled around the corner, and more guys in military-style uniforms and flak vests.  One told me where to park and asked me to turn the engine off and put the keys on the dashboard.  We were told to leave our cell phones in the car, and to take our passports and go into the building.  We entered and another officer looked at our paperwork and signed us in on a clipboard.  We were instructed to have a seat and wait.  After a while, we were called to a counter where we gave another officer our passports and answered all of the same questions again.  We were told to sit again.  During all of the sitting time (on surprisingly comfortable stainless steel benches) we chatted about the General Assembly and church stories.  Finally, the officer asked us to come up and take our passports and we were free to go.  I asked if he’d done what he needed to do, and he said, yes – that’s what I’ve been doing.

We got into my car, noted that nothing had happened to my car (no search or anything – phone was still on the same screen), and drove back to the hotel.
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So …. something that only happens to me.  Most recent in a long series of such things.


But …. it triggered some thoughts.

1.  I don’t know why our border patrol officers have to be dressed like they are going to war in Iraq.  The bulletproof vest doesn’t need to be on the outside – it can be under the shirt like most police officers.  Their gun, cuffs, radio, etc can go on the same belt as a police officer.  I seriously doubt that a major armed incursion is going to happen at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  This seems to be intended to enforce (in our minds, and in the minds of the officers themselves) the idea that the officers are soldiers and not police.  This is intended to instill fear of outsiders, and fear of each other.

2.  The secondary inspection area is intended to demoralize people.  The seating is comfortable, but harsh stainless steel.  There is very little on the walls.  The bathroom is locked and must be buzzed open.  I understand that the bathroom is locked to prevent flushing of evidence, but still.  This doesn’t say “we have to sort things out,” it says instead, “you are a criminal.”

3.  I’m struck by the difference in appearance and demeanor between the Canadian personnel and the USA personnel.  The Canadians were friendly (though still wary) and welcoming.  The USA personnel were forbidding and suspicious.  They were doing the same job.  Both involved in the same wars.  And there’s no reason that our officers couldn’t be normally dressed and more friendly.

4.  This minor episode has clarified for me the plight of immigrants.  The song “Immigration Man” makes sense.  Our process is cold and unfeeling.  At all times the officers were polite and even friendly in one case.  But the process and design make it an unfriendly process.  This set up causes the fear, rather than the other way around.  And therefore fear of the other.  I will be paying more attention and trying to find a place to find action.

A Sad Story

September 27, 2011 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

Last night I was watching an anime (You’re Under Arrest season 3 – the story of a traffic patrol shift in a Tokyo district) episode that featured the story of a high school girl who died while crossing the street against the light, hurrying to tell the guy that she had admired from afar of her interest.  One of the traffic police who stars in the series found her diary near the accident scene, and later learned that the boy also liked her.

This brought to mind a story from my own past, which I don’t think I’ve ever told here.  My memory of events 26 years ago is fuzzy, so some dates or events may be wrong.

In December of 1984, my youth pastor asked me to consider attending an overnight retreat for youth from the presbytery (at the time I was in Tenafly, so this was Palisades Presbytery).  At this retreat the youth were led through a program about leadership development with the purpose of meeting and evaluating each other and then in the morning – choosing the Youth Advisory Delegates to the General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery Council.  One youth was allowed from each church; there were about 15 or 20 of us at the retreat.  At the time I was a high school junior, and recently elected to be ordained as a Deacon in late January.

At the retreat I met many wonderful people.  One of the earlier activities was taking and evaluating and understanding the Myers-Briggs Temperament Test.  This was the first of many times that I took this test, and I ended up being an INFP.  Later in the evening, some of us spent time chatting and bonding and discovered that we were all INFP’s – and I’ve since found that INFP’s tend to find each other at events like this, drawn together.

One of these INFP’s was Jessica Berg.  Jessica was a year older than me, a senior from Ridgewood, NJ.  She was an Elder serving on their session at the time.  She and I just clicked – that kind of natural friendship where you feel like you’ve been friends all of your lives.  We bonded that evening over laughter and late night discussions with others.

In the morning we had elections for the positions.  First we elected a YAD and Alternate to the General Assembly (national) meeting.  A girl from another church was chosen as the YAD, and Jessica came in second.  I remember her being devastated.  She was given the option to step aside from the Alternate position to stand for Synod YAD, but chose to stay as Alternate.  The second election was for the Synod (regional) YAD, who ended up being me.   In some ways, these months were the start of my journey that has me at Princeton Seminary today.

In January, my youth pastor arranged an overnight retreat for our youth group and the Ridgewood youth group at our church.  (I suspect some match-making here, but I could be wrong.)  We had a great evening, and I found myself being very interested in Jessica.  I had her phone number.  It took me a long time to get up the courage to call her and ask her out.  For a while it was “I’ll call tomorrow”.

Finally I decided early in the week to call and ask her out on a Wednesday evening.  Earlier in the week was out because I was busy with one thing or another (probably Stage Crew, music, or church).

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I was numb.  I don’t think I reacted correctly to this news.  According to my memory I was not sad, not in a crying heap.  I was just quiet.

On the following Sunday, I was ordained as a Deacon.  That evening Jessica’s memorial service was held at her church.  At that age, I was not ready to handle death well (indeed, I chose to skip my grandmother’s out-of-state funeral later), and I didn’t attend – choosing to go to my own youth group instead (volleyball with the local Catholic church group).  I still regret this decision.

Ultimately I went on to attend the Synod meeting, which continued my heavy involvement in the church.  In June, the presbytery meeting was held at my church and I attended in order to see the report of the YAD who went to General Assembly, and to prepare for my attendance at Synod in June.  (Ironically, during that meeting I ended up having dinner at the table of the General Assembly Moderator.)  Also during the meeting there was a report from the presbytery folks about youth programs.  Pictures of the retreat to choose YADs were shown, including some of me and some of Jessica.  And one of me and Jessica, with her wearing a silly hat that I brought to the retreat that looked like a bear’s head.  I still have that hat.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d called sooner.  Jessica was pretty clearly on a seminary/ministry trajectory.  She planned to attend Rutgers that fall; at the time I did not know that I would start at Rutgers a year later.

About a year later when I was at Rutgers I met another member of the Ridgewood High School class of 1985.  She showed me her yearbook, and the page tribute to Jessica.  This friend from my floor at Rutgers ultimately introduced me to my wife Carolyn, right about the time that I saw the yearbook.

For a long time, every January 22nd I would remember and say a prayer for Jessica.  As the years have gone by I have forgotten a time or two.  But I’ve never forgotten her.  And to a tiny degree, she is a part of my faith journey that has led me to seminary.

Be at peace, Jessica.  You are not forgotten.

Church – a new chapter

September 6, 2006 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

This blog has been dead for some time.  Mainly, that was due to a lack of interest in blogging, and too much to do otherwise.  However, I have something new to talk about and I’ll do that here.

First, a little history.

When I was in high school, I was pretty religious.  I was a member of a Presbyterian PC(USA) church in Northern NJ.  When I was a high school junior, I was ordained as a deacon in that church.  That same year, I was a YAD (Youth Advisory Delegate) to the Synod of the Northeast meeting.  I then became the youth member of Synod Mission Council and the Synod Nominating Committee.  At the same time, I was involved in Camp Johnsonburg as a camper, CIT (Counselor in Training) and a full-time counselor.  I also went to the Youth Triennium during those years.

Right about the same time, I went to college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ (the state U of NJ).  I started taking religion classes and computer science classes, intending one to be my major and the other to be my minor.  I was thinking that seminary could be in my future.

Then, a few things happened.  On campus, I got hooked up with an extremely conservative chapter (“you can’t be friends with Jews unless you’re trying to convert them”) of a conservative Christian campus organization.  That only lasted two months, ending after a cult-like weekend retreat.  After that, I experienced some disturbing events at Synod-level meetings involving racism and politicking in a church organization.  (NOTE:  I will not be going into those farther here.)

All of that led me to believe that church was a place where a small number of people in power used the structure to control the behavior of a large number of people.  This control was not particularly Godly, but rather of human origin with the accompanying pettiness.

I had already resigned my post as a deacon because of distance issues at college (it’s hard to serve at a worship service 50 miles away when you don’t have a car).  I resigned my Synod posts and essentially left the church.  I filled out my religion minor with eastern religion classes.

About a year later, I ran into an officer of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (now part of More Light Presbyterians).  They were looking for someone to serve as their liaison to Presbynet (a part of Ecunet – a discussion network for church issues).  I agreed with their cause, and began helping them for about 5-6 years as a supportive straight person.  This ended when again I ran into human politics and found myself being called homophobic due to my support of one strategy over another.  I turned my responsibilities over to another and left that service.  Thus ended my church career.

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This started a spark in me.  I discussed the issue with other camp staff alumni and found that many were in the same place – unsure of whether or not they belong in a church.  The camp held a retreat last January called “Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home” which covered issues of how to discern whether or not belonging to a church is right for you, and if so how to find the correct congregation.  We also talked about related issues like Home Churches and spirituality that is not rooted in a church setting.

Taking ideas from the retreat and a few of my own, I began a process of determining simulateously:  1.  Whether or not to join the PC(USA) again at this time, and 2.  If so, which one?

The first question (whether or not to join the PC(USA) now) was and continues to be the harder one.  The denomination is mirroring American society as a whole – it is dividing into increasingly separate camps based loosely along the conservative/liberal continuum.  Denominational politics were fairly hostile (though still in order) through the General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, and have only gotten more hostile since (and less in order).  All of this is a huge turn-off to a potential member – particularly to one who saw human politics overriding the message of Christ in the past.  So far, I have decided that in a particular congregation, these issues are at least buffered and NOT the primary focus.  So I’m willing to give it a try.

The second question was more fun to answer.  I went through a process of attending local churches, interviewing members and staff, and reading anything I could find about them on the Internet.  I ultimately found a church that reminds me very much of the church that I grew up in in many ways.  That could be scary, but I’ve also done as much research as I can and I believe that this church is different from the church that I grew up in where it is important to me.

So, after attending on some Sundays, last week I signed up for New Member classes for the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville NJ.  Those classes take place in late October and early November.

I plan to blog about the process of a former member again joining a Presbyterian church.  I’ll also throw in amusing stories.  I do not plan to be a blogger who hides his name or church in order to be able to talk about people anonymously.  Because of that, I will probably avoid mentioning controversial issues or controversial people, unless I’m willing to make my views known publicly.

Wish me luck.