Keep Portland Weird, Not Wary

This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on October 2, 2012.

You may have seen episodes of Portlandia. The show is Portland culture on steroids. It speaks to how many Portlanders love to make and keep their city weird. Portland is weird: Racers and hipsters, head to foot tattoos, experimental art and alternative everything. Yes, Portland is weird, but Portland is also quite beautiful: organic food, green technology and the great outdoors. But what I don’t like about Portland is that we who live and work there often use our weirdness and that of others to remain wary of one another. Go ahead—keep Portland weird. Just don’t remain wary of each other.

Recently, I spoke with a friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist priest. He reflected carefully on the subject of weirdness and wariness in the Portland context and said in response that we often only have a surface awareness of Portland’s weirdness. The Zen priest pointed to the example of a man who rides down Hawthorne Boulevard on his unicycle playing the bagpipes and wearing a kilt on St. Patrick’s Day. Sometimes, he even wears a Darth Vader helmet. But this man is more than his costume, if we would only care to know. But so often, we are content with surface awareness, afraid to penetrate the exterior to get at the mind and heart to see what makes this man or someone else tick.

Now I don’t wear a kilt or a dress or a Vader helmet, but I am an Evangelical, and not only on St. Patrick’s Day. Portlanders often view Evangelicals as being as weird as the unicyclist, perhaps more so. The problem is that many Portlanders have already made up their minds about who people are before they have gotten to know them. Perhaps this is a universal problem, not just one associated with Portlanders.

A common problem for the unicyclist and me concerns the helmet. While the unicyclist sometimes wears the Vader helmet and covers his person, my Evangelical persona is projected as that of Darth Vader. We Evangelicals stereotype, too. We’ve done it with Buddhists, among others. Some of my friends have viewed Buddhists as reclusive, rationalistic personalities who live abnormal lives. How surprised some Evangelicals were when eating with these Zen Buddhists at a potluck gathering the Zen priest and I coordinated (Listen to the audio of our partnership involving our Evangelical Christian and Zen Buddhist communities). The Evangelicals were dumbfounded that the Buddhists shared at least one thing in common with them: these Buddhists liked fruit salad, just like them. After spending a lot of time together, the Buddhists were struck by the thoughtfulness, sensitivity and extraordinariness of these particular Evangelicals. For their part, the Evangelicals were struck by these Buddhists’ alertness to the world about them, practical wisdom, and normalcy. The masks came off. We are now working out the process of revealing our hearts.

If those of us who live and work in Portland look long enough at one another, we will realize that we share not simply a like for fruit salad or Star Wars. We will find that we also share humanity; it’s about time that we get beyond the surface reading of individuals and groups. Whether you ride a unicycle in a kilt or are an Evangelical, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, Mormon, or a member of a religious school of Jedi knights (which is how a group of religious practitioners in the world refer to themselves today), keep working to preserve Portland as an eclectic place where all of us can live and work. But let’s also live together, where we work to break down negative stereotypes and move beyond wariness. Let’s take off our masks and reveal our hearts.

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