Sunday, August 22, 2010

Things One Thinks in the Night: First Job Interview, Challenge to Make American Catholicism Welcoming

Things one thinks about lying stark awake on a sultry summer night: my first job interview.  I was finishing my dissertation and casting about for a job.  Any job.  It was a seminary in one of Minnesota’s major cities.

Right before I run the faculty gauntlet, I make one last nervous bladder-emptying trip to the restroom.  And as I finish, I look down to find I have peed myself. 

First lesson: peeing oneself before facing a gauntlet of one’s peers is inadvisable.  It makes for neither comfort nor confidence as the race begins.

I enter the room where the faculty wait.  It’s arranged with a huge, long rectangular table in its center.  I am at the head of the table.  The faculty sit around the sides and the end opposite me.  Jesus at the last supper.  Right before Judas delivers his kiss of betrayal.  And all the other apostles except John run like scared mice to hidey-holes.

Scowling, a priest on the faculty says, “I see from your bio that you were born and grew up in Arkansas.  Do you still feel loyalty to your native state?”

Yes, I say.  Yes, of course I do.  And then I explain.  Or try to do so (scowl deepens to a furrow plowed by a deep blade across his face).  

That’s what roots are, I say: they tie us to a particular place and a particular time.  We grow from them.

Everyone has them.  It has always seemed tragic to me when people are cut off from their roots.

And no one’s roots are perfect.  They just are—there.  To be grown from.  To ground us and provide a foundation to our growing up and away from them.  Of course there are many things about my culture of origin that I no longer accept, which I feel obliged to protest.  

But isn’t that the case with everyone?  Scowl grows even more intense.  It heats the room with black glowering fire.  Aimed at me.  (And of course I talk about the civil rights struggle in my state and city of birth, my own involvement in it, how that involvement has framed everything I do and think as a theologian—how it spurred me to study theology in the first place.)

Lesson number two: telling the truth in job interviews is a dicy proposition.  Did Emily Dickinson have a job interview in mind when she urged us to tell the truth but tell it slant?

And then I proceed—a Mexican jumping bean on an incandescent light bulb—to clatter on, in response to some other question that makes me remember Minnesota liturgist Virgil Michel.  I pronounce his surname as if it rhymes with the French name for Michael, knowing full well that it sounds like the American pronunciation of that name instead.  I stop myself and say, “It’s Mi-kel, isn’t it?”

At which a nun who has worked with me already in the American Catholic experience working group at the Catholic Theology Society of America and who has long since let me know I don’t pass muster purses her lips, sighs, eyes skewing to her glowering clerical colleague, and moans, “Yes Mi-kel!”

Lesson three: become nervous in situations designed to show you you’re not welcome and you’ll only end up validating the rituals of unwelcome designed to let you know you're an outsider.  Your blood in water is what draws the sharks to you.

The pee-stained interview mercifully over, I’m whisked to the office of the seminary rector.  Who sits in a mammoth chair behind a giant desk.  His interviewee perches on a tiny stool before him.

“And what do you imagine yourself being and doing twenty years down the road?” he booms.  “I always ask this question in interviews.”  Self-congratulatory grin at the gotcha nature of the curious, unfathomable question.

Me, I’m just struggling to keep my head above water.  I’m trying to write a dissertation as a lay theology student with no means of financial support—unlike the priests and religious in my theology program.  No one paying my rent, buying my books, seeing that the groceries are purchased and travel tabs picked up, as is the case for all the priests and religious in my program.  

I’m simply trying to muddle through.  Twenty years down the road?  Dear Lord.  I’ll be happy if I can just get through this one, get a job to pay the bills.  Write my dissertation while teaching full time, complete my degree.  

I bumble again.  I say—with total sincerity—that the point has always seemed to me not to predict the future, which no one can foresee, but do the best I can here and now.  One day at a time.  Taking more care to be who I am meant to be than to build a career for myself, to divine some “what” that I imagine as my future professional incarnation.

The self-congratulatory grin turns to a smirk.  I’ve failed the test.  Boy from Arkansas with no get up and go, no drive at all.  Wants to be a teacher, writer, scholar.  Not somebody.  

Not our sort.

The faculty member delegated to drive me to the airport, who had been friendly when he picked me up there, drives me back in total silence.  I get out of the car, shake his hand, thank him for his assistance.  He says icily, “Good luck.”

And back I fly to our little apartment, my dissertation, my job search, the inevitable rejection letter following the disastrous interview.

While the priests and nuns in my program continue to have their bills paid, meals provided, books purchased and travel expenses picked up.  By the church.  The same church I’m preparing to serve as a lay theologian with no financial assistance from said church.

And jobs waiting for them when they’ve finished their dissertations.  With tenure down the road.  A tenure that will evade me my entire academic career as we bounce from pillar to post trying to survive in Catholic universities.  And prestigious positions in the Catholic theology societies that determine whose voice counts and whose doesn’t, who will make it into the mainstream conversation and who will be decisively shut out.

And I wonder then—and keep wondering now—whether the inability to welcome strangers, which I experienced in spades at an influential seminary that trains so many priests for the middle section of our nation, and which is clearly inbuilt in American Catholicism, is right at the root of the terrible challenges we face as a church.

Since our obliviousness to what it means to make the stranger welcome eviscerates our claim to be catholic, our claim to stand for what is most fundamental to the catholic tradition: Here comes everybody.

And I wonder then and continue wondering now how this obliviousness prevents our seeing that there are, right in the American experience, deep-rooted cultural traditions of making strangers welcome from which American Catholics can learn.  (The job for which I applied was in the field of the American Catholic experience.)

Cultural traditions that include among many others, yes, my stigmatized Southern evangelical roots.  Which—and God knows there are tragic, significant blind spots in this tradition—considers it vitally important to make strangers feel at ease.  Welcomed.  Affirmed as human beings who deserve a place at the table with everyone else.

All of which I tried to explain in my fumbling, peed-on way to the scowling priest whose scowl grew deeper with each word that fell from my mouth in the ill-fated job interview.

Postscript:  two decades down the road from that interview, it comes to light that the university with which the seminary is affiliated bans cohabitation of same-sex faculty couples on school trips, while it has, in the past, turned a blind eye to the cohabitation of opposite-sex couples on school trips.

In the game that is American Catholicism, in the game called here comes everybody, some people clearly count.

Others don’t.