I am learning so much in this land called Singapore. Singapore became a nation in 1965. Their slogan is We Built a Nation. I am older than this nation of skyscrapers. I am older than dirt, at least Singapore dirt. But what is worse is they built a nation and I have only written one book and a few other things but nothing like a nation. What have I been doing with my time? These overachievers also have, count them, four official languages. I speak only one. I feel so inadequate.
Our trusted tour guide says that Singapore has three main parts of their economy: port, financial, and tourism. I have no port. My wife says my economy is broke and broker. But I am a tourist. And let me tell you Singapore knows how to do tourism all the way from one of a kind things to do to emptying any money you may have in your pockets.
The head of tourism here must be a dream to work for. One of his employees says, “I think we should build three tall skyscrapers and put a boat on top of it and use it as our iconic architecture.” Another employee says, “I think we should dedicate one floor of our National Gallery to an artist who has lived in a mental institution for the last forty years” and they do it. Another employee says, “Let us have a zoo and only let people see it at night in the dark” and they do it. Another says, “Let us build eight story concrete electric trees and make it one of our iconic symbols” and they do it. They will do anything here for the cause of tourism. And believe it or not we tourists walk around with our mouths agape loving it. But can you imagine when the tourist developers talk to the marketing team and say we need you to promote tall electric concrete trees to the world? And the marketers look confidently and say, ‘oh yea we can do that’. What a country this is.
I wish I had a boss who would let me come up with ideas like this. But no, when I proposed a Peace Museum in the shape of the peace symbol they looked at me and shook their heads no and wonder why they hired me in the first place. And because I did not have this Singapore boss, I have not built a nation.
My world view was destroyed. You see I thought I had this missing day thing down; this isn’t my first rodeo overseas. Yet for several days I lived in an alternative universe. I was living days that either had not happened or were in the past. I was never in the present in Savannah or Singapore. So where was I? I got in a heated discussion with my companion (she whose name cannot be spoken) over what day it was. She was confused too. I declared it was the twelfth in Singapore because my computer said so in the date and time. For four days I was viewing my computer calendar as being on Singapore time. Now you may think you are on vacation what does it matter? She had an appointment with a curator at the National Gallery of Singapore on the 13th and needed to know for sure what day that was. Well I, eternally trying to be helpful, told her today was the twelfth and therefore tomorrow was the thirteenth. And we went back and forth over what day it was and I quite confidently told her I had been using my computer calendar and time since I had been here and it was the twelfth. So we discussed the endless possibilities of what day it really was for a good ten minutes.
But then she did something unfair: she asked the internet for the date and time in Singapore. It was then my whole understanding of the universe was demolished. It said it was the eleventh; apparently my computer clock had not changed and I had been in a twilight zone of no time for several days. I could have denied the facts as our President is want to do. But I faced it like a man and said I was wrong. But now I did not trust anything I previously had known. The world was different and I had unsure footing of even the basics of what day it was.
Yet I had to continue to drag myself through this foreign country with sultry steamy weather. So I trudge through natural history and history museums looking for answers. I visit churches, Hindu temples, and mosques hoping for a light to be shown me. I learn about different cultures such as Peranakan, Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Muslim struggling to find my place, to live in this moment and not a moment I have contrived. And slowly the answer came to me: time is a construct. The prophet Kenny Rogers said if you can’t love the one you want then love the one you are with. So I have decided if you can’t be in the time you want then love the time you have.
This is messed up: I travel for 28 hours by plane to Singapore and it is hotter and more humid than Savannah. Then they tell me I have lost a whole day. They promise me I will get it back on the return trip. How do I know if this is true? I mean I do not deal in days. For all I know I may have forfeited the best day of my life. My daughter corrects me she says I do not gain my day back but instead I live the same day twice. Yes you heard it I will live the day of the 28 hour plane ride back twice. She thinks this makes me feel better.
What is this thing where they exchange money? I give them American dollars and they give me ‘money’ back. At least they say it is ‘money’ but how do I know this? I cannot spend it to see if it really works until I give them my American dollars. I was not born yesterday you know.
Later when I complained to a police officer he said, “I should not have exchanged money with just any joe blow on the street. You will never see that money again. You have to go to a booth that says money exchange on it.” To show him I was not a fool I quoted him the words of President George W. Bush “There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again." He appeared impressed; he did not say anything after that quote.
And I am not sure this is even a foreign country. I travel 28 hours by plane (did I mention this before?) to see a Starbucks, KFC, Firestone, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme and many other stores found throughout Savannah. They say the official language is English and it seems most people speak it here unless you need help; then the person you talk to breaks into Chinese. What is with that? They have three official languages here. At least now I know I am in a foreign country because in the United States we have one official language American.
So I traveled 28 hours by plane, I think I mentioned it before, and the tour guide tells me the ingenious Brits designed the city so that the Chinese, Muslims, and Indians would have their different sections across the river from the British. Funny, in the South we call that segregation not brilliant city planning, but what I do I know.
So the tour guide tells me with great pride that Singapore is a city, an island, and a country. A country and yet you can drive across it in two hours. I cannot even make it to Atlanta in that amount of time. I am so confused I cannot tell if this country is all confused or if (wait for it) the 28 hour plane ride here has left me all jet lagged. I will get back with you later on that.
There are sad days. One of mine was in a Chinese restaurant in Louisville Kentucky on Bardstown Road many years ago. I was working in a Baptist Center\Chapel living in semi communal style with homeless, mental health folks in crises, seminary students and other staff. I was the homeless minister for the Center and the associate pastor for the church. My boss was a charismatic woman who was becoming a liberated woman minister.
With much fear and trembling the church had told the Association, which helped pay for salaries and programs in the Center\Chapel, that they wanted her as their minister. This was a bold action as the District Director did not want this at all and it would force the splitting district to address a controversial issue such as the dreaded “women in ministry” conundrum. The end result of this could mean defunding and being thrown out of the building that the congregation and some of us literally called home.
Cindy, the woman minister, had at first not seen herself as the replacement for the Minister\Director who was leaving. Many of us encouraged her to think of herself this way because she had the gift and even the call as they say in Baptist life. But at first she was reluctant. But on a fateful night in the basement of the building we called home some staff and church leadership were talking about what we wanted in a minister. The conversation kept turning back to Cindy. But that could not happen and how would we even start to make it happen. When, in one of my rare moments of insight, I said we need to write a letter to the district saying we felt called to call Cindy as our minister. Thus the struggle began.
She was constantly under fire. The Director of the District, who was everyone’s boss, played mental games, promoting every male on staff. Pastors decried her to her face, and from the pulpit, and at Associational Meetings. And there was always the congregation and the center’s ministry being held in the balance. Homeless, Mentally Challenged, Senior Citizens, children, youth, and the poverty stricken would all suffer if she persisted in her need to be the Minister. The stress on the congregation and the staff was enormous. She was constantly under the microscope with everyone waiting for the false move that would justify her being fired. The Associational Director floated the idea that the youth minister or me would be good replacements for her and a solution for the woman problem.
Regretfully, I was becoming radicalized in my thinking about community and other issues. I was accused of promoting consensus decision-making as a power move. I was deliberately bringing gay people into the church to create a power position. I was allowing a gay seminary group to meet in the building, I was marching in Gay Rights protests. I pushed for us to be more gay-friendly. I was accused of advocating for the homeless ministry to ensure my prominence (this at least made sense since I was pushing for the security of the homeless programs as I was the Minister for the Homeless which by default was my job and by default promoted me). Even though, as I told them, they could recruit a certain person and he might do my job better. When I left, they did hire the certain person and there was no drop in the programming. Cindy was still feeling her way on many of the issues that I could afford to explore because I was not the Jezebel who was wrecking the Association. Although eventually when I was not willing to help the Director, he pointed his finger in my face twice and said, “After I get rid of her you are next.” He was a nice Christian guy.
The stress had been hard on our relationship. She was not trusting any of her staff who challenged her. We were all positioning ourselves. She was more conservative than me and we ended on opposite sides of consensus, gay rights, forcing the homeless to attend church services, and so on. I had started an annual Chester Fawbush Day in honor of a homeless man who had sobered up and became a leader in our church but right before he died, he had fallen off the wagon and she did not think we should honor him. Yet another issue we disagreed on. She was a good preacher and minister. But her sermons were not my style. I liked my sermons more hard edged and cynical J. But her sermons were probably the sustenance the church needed at the time.
But all these things had led to this Chinese restaurant. I thought somewhere removed from the Church might allow us room to breathe without the stress that lingered over us. I tried to assure her I was with the program of her being the minister especially since the Church wanted it. But no way and no words I could say would make her a believer. I realized in pushing my new radical agenda I had lost a relationship I cherished. I was deeply hurt because I never had anyone question my integrity before; disagree with me yes but my sincerity had always been respected. I realized her agenda was to see me gone or to force me to align myself totally with her agenda. She would not believe I did not want her job. Every act she saw as an effort to displace her. Every effort to advocate for my beliefs was a carefully designed plot against her. She complained that my brother, who was now on staff, voted my way on all issues, something I warned her would happen if she hired him. She complained about another staff who she did not think much of sided with me all the time. We parted the restaurant and I knew eventually I would have to leave. I had failed. My dreams of a community of love and service to the poor would not have me in it.
The battle was coming to an end and the church were planning the different scenarios of what they would look like after we left. The church saw no way to include my salary and all the homeless ministries. I would have to stay at the Center and work for the Associational Director. I knew this was an impossibility. I had hoped, or some would say had magical thinking, the Church would be bolder and try to hold to most of what the Center was doing. But the primary goal was to have Cindy as minister and keep some of the more standard programs of the Church; the other programming seemed financially prohibitive and any new space would be too small for the homeless ministries.
I left my state of denial and gave my resignation at a meeting. It was taken as a slap to Cindy and some kind of last ditch power move. My heart was broken. It was indeed time to leave.
These many years later the Church thrives in a new building and Cindy is their minister. They are recognized as a small peacemaking church. Gay marriages are performed there. They have a monthly coffee house for the homeless and their advocacy for the oppressed is alive and well. Many of the seminarians who were members back then have stayed these many years later. They stood by the woman minister so many years ago and now they reap the harvest of good things.
As for me I am an old religious anarchist who writes books and blogs. I have lived in a commune, worked with Persons Impacted by AIDS and the homeless, practiced consensus, worked as a chaplain for the homeless, pastored a small Unitarian Universalist church, and started a non-profit called Joined In Giving. Life has been good. We all have sad days that linger in the back of our mind and soul and hopefully we learn and grow from them.