Saturday, December 21, 2013

I Believe in the Diversity of Small Town Living

This is a very different post from my usual travel stories but it is indicative of the extent that America has absorbed persons from all around the world,even into the small towns.  It also tells the advantage of small town living for meeting those who are different from you.  This is based on the "This I Believe" series sponsored by NPR and was done for a book club gathering.

I believe in the diversity of small town living.  One of the first persons I met in Paris was my realtor, 30 years my senior.  We had just moved from Houston where our social circle’s average age was 30 and I had never had an older friend.  We bonded, often lunched together, and she became my surrogate mother.  Her friendship was the first of many diverse ones I have had in Paris.   

In large cities, ethnic and age groups tend to live close together.  There’s the black neighborhoods and Latino areas.  Little Asias and Middle Eastern pockets have begun to pop up.  Unless they frequent  ethnic restaurants,  long time residents don’t often socialize with the newly arrived or persons of different color.   The opportunity to meet and work with these various groups, including those with age and class differences, is much higher in small towns, if desired.

Our children’s friends opened doors with introductions to mothers of color.  Together, we had bake sales, put on harvest festivals and planned the graduation night party. Coaching girls softball and soccer brought in relationships from the poorer neighborhoods and a connection to the Middle East and India.  

With a husband in the medical community, we have shared meals with local Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Hungarians, Vietnamese and a doctor from Spain.  The dietary requirements at a recent dinner party included no beef for a Hindu guest, no pork for the Moslem, no meat for a vegetarian, and no cilantro for me.

This small town diversity is not entirely new.  Growing up in public schools in a small community in Texas exposed me to a variety of economic differences among my classmates.  And I had many an adult who followed my school career.    But the racial integration happened as I was exciting the system while the majority of Hispanics in our classes were migrants.  Today, the explosion of immigrants from around the world has now trickled down into small towns and our children benefited from this. 

Things aren’t perfect.  Racism still sits tightly with many.  Ignorance can be frustrating.  But I have danced at an Ethiopian wedding, attended a quincienera, toasted at an Indian birthday party.  We had kosher food at a bris, Thai offerings in a downtown restaurant, and watched black, white and brown vie for the top prize in a BBQ cook-off.  I have felt underdressed at black funerals and overdressed at white weddings.  Yet, the mingling offers opportunities to develop real relationships not available in ethnic clusters of the metroplex.  My friends from big cities are amazed and so am I.  I believe in the diversity of small town living.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Isarel

Upper church at Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
  I don’t know when I first made the comment but it became the parting words of each phone call  as we planned our trip to Israel - “Let’s lunch in Nazareth.”   We wanted to drive from Tel Aviv to the Galilean Sea and stop at the Church of the Annunciation. After looking at a map of this very small country,  it appeared the drive would take only an hour (61 miles) making Nazareth the perfect spot  for Sunday  lunch.

The four lane road was very good as was the signage in English, Hebrew and Arabic and we soon exited into the largest Arab city in Israel.  Next door, Upper Nazareth is a new suburb with a high percentage Jewish population thanks to a large influx of Russian immigrants.  But the old city of Nazareth is about 70%  Muslim and 30% Christian.  Since most  of the Christians are Arabs, the area is a social scientist’s dream lab to study inter-faith relations. 

Lower church at Church of the Annunciation
Sunday is the day of rest for Christians and Moslems in Nazareth and we easily found a parking spot along the compound containing St. Joseph’s Church and Church of the Annunciation.  Inside, Christian tour groups took turns descending to the spot in the lower church where it is believed Mary received the annunciation of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. Some knelt and prayed.  Others said the Hail Mary quietly.  

Both inside the Church of the Annunciation and its courtyard are vivid stain glass pieces from countries around the world.  Artists created their vision of Mary and the annunciation in the style and tradition of each country.  The images and colors varied from high Renaissance to folk art to starkly modern.  Outside, we heard a tour group from Slovakia singing a dirge like homage in front of their outside Mary piece.  In contrast, when we ascended to the empty upper sanctuary,  church bells began ringing - not to any tune but simply in apparent celebration.  All we could figure was a ten minute joyful acknowledgment of the arrival of 12 noon.
Mazzawi Sisters in Nazareth
Surrounding the churches were  narrow streets of Arab owned stores, closed for Sunday.  While disappointed to miss the bustling market,  we found a few Christian stores open.  Inside one were two beautiful Arab Mazzadi sisters, whose wares included hand carved olive wood figures and many Christian pieces and jewelry.  They said we had just caught them as they were to close soon for lunch.  When asked where to dine, they suggested the YMCA of Nazareth.

The YMCA has a long presence in the Holy Lands, dating back to the late 1880s.  After 1948,  YMCA programs expanded into Eastern Jerusalem to cater to Muslims and Christians.  In 1964, Nazareth opened its YMCA with the organization’s  motto engraved on the outside wall , “That youth may grow in wisdom,  stature, and favor with God and man.”  Members of the Israeli Y organization include Muslims, Christians and Jews and its activities provide one of the few inter-faith opportunities in this divided country. 

YMCA in Nazareth, Israrel
After being assured of its good food, we drove to the nearby Y.  Inside,  a tour group was just departing, leaving only a few tables occupied.  But soon the 
YMCA in Nazareth, Israel - in Hebrew, English and ARabic
Arab church crowd began arriving.    Families with children, dressed in their Sunday best, filled tables.  Much visiting took place across long established relationships.  It was all very familiar - like a Paris restaurant on Sundays at noon - only we were in an Arab city in the heart of Israel.  

Small Plates served before a meal

We had loved the food in Israel and this restaurant was no exception.  It served the wonderful small plates that included homemade humus, corn salad, marinated carrots and eggplant, green salad, colorful peppers, and more.  A single order of 14 small plates with side chicken kabobs were enough for the three of us to have a healthy and filling lunch.  As we ate, the two sisters from the store joined their families at the restaurant.  Since their brother was the manager, they were obvious regulars.  

The recently defeated, long-time Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramiz Jarai  called his town the City of Peace.  Maybe that’s why Texas A&M  just announced a “peace university” campus to be constructed in Nazareth - a place where President John Sharp hopes “different people from all over Israel would not only study to get a degree but would become more familiar with each other and foster understanding”.  The YMCA has been working on that for many years.  It was an unexpected luncheon site but it gave us as much hope as any place we visited in Israel that three religions can live side by side.  

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