Solidarity is the Only Human Option

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I'd like to introduce Justin McRoberts. He's a singer-songwriter, author and pastor at Shelter Covenant Church. He offers a unique perspective on why he's participating on Save a Drink, Save a Life. I’ve faithfully flown Southwest Airlines since 1998. Among the initial set of reasons for choosing SWA was that they were the only airline that allowed me to walk on with my guitar. With SWA, each person is left to choose a seat for his or her own self. I like having the option of sitting next to (or not sitting next to) people. Last year, I sat next to David Spade on a flight. We had a very niceconversation that went something like this:

Me: Hey, man… Spade: …hey… It was great. A far better encounter with a fellow SWA passenger took place on a flight home from Chicago. I was returning after a good, but tiring, run of shows in the Midwest and was looking forward to shutting down for a bit. You see, even though I’m a “people person” I have found that I do eventually overextend myself, at, which point, I look to hide for a while. In this case, the “hiding” started once I got on board that flight home. Having been among the first few to board, I chose a window seat on the right side of the plane, put my headphones in my ears, cranked up the “Album Leaf” and leaned against the window to at least pretend I was asleep.

That’s when Joe sat next to me. Now, I don’t make a practice out of knowing the names of people who sit next to me (or at least, I did not before this). So, how did I know that this young man’s name was Joe? It was because he told me. You see, only a few short moments after Joe took the middle seat next to me, he broke one of the unspoken rules of commuter travel: Thou shalt not strike up conversation until descent.

The beauty of this rule is that it ensures that any conversation you strike up is sure to end in about 20 minutes when the plane lands, protecting both parties from having to pretend for any serious period of time to be interested in one another’s lives. Perhaps Joe had not traveled much, but for whatever reason, he was entirely unfamiliar and uncommitted to the keeping of this rule. In fact, Joe was not simply talking to me, he was leaning across both his seat and mine and from a firing range of only a few inches, riddling me with a barrage of words that shook me from the meditative state my music had lulled me to… “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, sorry, pardon me, hey there, excuse me, sir, um, hi, sorry, excuse me, buddy, pardon me, excuse me, excuse me, sorry, pardon me, um, hey there, excuse me, sir, um, hi, sorry, excuse me, pardon me,excuse me, excuse me, sorry, pardon me, hey there, excuse me, sir, um, hi, sorry, excuse me, pardon me, um.. Hi.”

I stirred, pulled by headphones out of my ears and mashed-up a few words to greet him with the now irreplaceable man-speak ‘heymanwassup?” Joe smiled and perked up as if he had suspected I was dead at first.

“What’s your name?” he asked. “My name is Justin” I replied. “Hi, Justin. My name is Joe. Can you help me with my seatbelt?”

Just as he said it, I was noting that he held both ends of his seat-belt in his hands and was stretching them as far as they would go towards me. He had been sitting in that seat for probably three minutes wrestling with the belt and clip. As it turns out (in conversation with Joe and his parents who were sitting elsewhere on the plane) Joe is autistic. Because he’d never used this kind of belt before, he was confused as to where to begin. I showed him how to clip the belt and tighten it. At which point, he undid the belt and repeated the steps I’d shown him several times, each with increasing interest and a larger smile.

As I leaned back against the window (having done my humanitarian duty for the day), Joe energetically turned to me and asked… “Who’s your favorite baseball team?” “Um.. Well, I’m an Oakland A’s fan.” I told him.

He booed. And not just that comical “just kidding” boo. It was the kind of boo that says, “Your team has traded away more good talent in the last seven years than it could wisely afford to lose, has blown two-game playoff leads to the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers and will probably never get out of the first round of the playoffs.” Or, maybe that’s just the way I heard it.

“I take it you don’t like the A’s, huh?” I asked him. “No, I like the Cubs.” (We can all appreciate the irony of Cubs fans booing anyone. I mean, really)?

We went on talking for most of the flight about baseball, comics and a smattering of other topics. At one point, the SWA flight attendant handed out those beloved peanuts. I tore a pair of bags open with my patented McRoberts Double-Peanut-Bag Tearing Method. Joe, on the other hand couldn’t quite get the bag open. Without asking, he handed both bags of peanuts to me and waited for me to open them. Now, in many instances this might be considered inappropriate or even rude. But Joe doesn’t see the world the way most folks do. In fact, Joe sees the world a bit more clearly than most folks do.

To Joe, our proximity comes along with responsibility/opportunity. In fact, that proximity (the simple fact that I was sitting next him) meant to Joe that when he ran into trouble of any kind (seatbelt use, snack access, etc.) I was responsible for providing him help. To Joe, we weren’t just in the same city together (Chicago), we were at the same airport (Chicago-Midway), in the same terminal (B) at the same gate (14) and on the same plane headed to the same destination (Oakland)… In Joe’s mind, these things don’t just happen. These things are not just chance. In Joe’s mind, these things at least add up to responsibility and opportunity.

Now, you may not buy this whole “we’re all connected” stuff; but, then again, you may not buy soap. In my own journey, the more I learn about the “root causes” of injustice the more I see that these things are not so much the product of evil deeds by evil men as they are products of the absence of action/love. Certainly, there are bad people doing bad things in dark corners of the world, but they don’t actively keep clean water out of the reach of the nearly billion who live without access to it.

The lives of privileged folks like me are often characterized by an almost endless list of options as to how we will live, what airlines we fly, what beverages we drink, etc… Odd as it is, solidarity ends up being among those options. I can choose it… or choose against it. I can decide to let/allow/make the plight of sisters and brothers in Zambia part of my own experience of life… or I can keep my eyes focused on the road ahead of me and just “live my life” as it were. I’m growing to believe that, as the world grows smaller (and boy is it growing smaller), choosing solidarity is not just one option on the table and not even just the best.. it’s the only human option there is.

Skip a beverage today and then again tomorrow. Do that for the rest of the Lenten season. Do so in solidarity with our neighbors (our Sisters and Brothers) in Zambia who don’t have anything like that option.

It’s not too late to join Blood:Water’s Save a Drink, Save a Life campaign. Head to www.saveadrink.org to sign up or donate now.

Save a drink. Save a life.

Justin McRoberts Singer-Songwriter, Author and Pastor at Shelter Covenant Church