This piece was written by Jaimie Dingus, one of the 2016-2017 Boston Bridge Fellows.
When I was eight years old my family took a vacation to France over Christmas to visit my mom’s brother, a Foreign Service officer, and his family. I was too young to remember many of the details of that trip. It’s bits and pieces now. I remember walking around in Mont Saint-Michel, a French castle that looked so much like Hogwarts to my eight year old brain that I believed around every corner I might catch a glimpse of a house elf or a dementor. I remember that my cousin taught me how to order chocolate mouse in French, and that I made a point of trying out this new skill at every restaurant we went to. And I remember the brilliant lights of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure my parents would cringe to know that out of this whole extravagant trip we took together, one of the things I remember most was a conversation I had with my mother in the airport.
We were coming home from France, and I asked her why people who spoke French didn’t understand me? She had explained to me that in French the word “oui” meant “yes”. And so in my eight year old mind, if “oui” just meant “yes,” why didn’t they understand me when I said “yes”? It’s so much easier, you don’t even have to remember the “oui” part. She looked at me and smiled, and tried to explain to me that, it wasn’t really that “oui” meant “yes” as much as “oui” meant “oui” for them, and “yes” means “yes” for me. I don’t remember finding this answer particularly satisfying. But I’ve thought a lot about this conversation over the years. Now I see the unfairness in my expectation that my language was the most true. Perhaps that colonial impulse is a product of my whiteness, my U.S citizenship, and my systemic privilege. While I believe those pieces play a role, what mattered most in this conversation at the time was the realization I had about otherness. Sitting in this Newark airport terminal I understood for the first time that something that for me was so simple and objective, so obvious and common like the word “yes” could have no meaning at all for someone else. My truth, my perspective, the words that triggered synapses in my brain to fire and connect to memories and ideas, could have no effect on someone else. We could stand across from each other and look one another in the eye as perfectly imperfect human beings, with absolute love and curiosity in our hearts and still between us there could exist such fundamental disconnect. So then what happens when there is that disconnect and on both sides of that chasm lay pain and distrust?
This particular human disconnect exists not only around language, race and culture, but also religion. When we show up as religious people to participate in interfaith dialogue or to serve in social justice movements, we walk in to spaces where the disconnect is palpable. From my theology as a Unitarian Universalist I can talk about God, and even when I use the same English word as my Jewish or Christian or Muslim conversation partners the disconnect remains. The specificity of my meaning, the weight of my theological claim, the real emotional experience of that which I hold most holy, does not translate. And here’s a secret, if we operate, as I did, with disappointment that others are unable to understand our language, if we center the conversation on the ways we like to hear truth, we lose. We lose out on the richness that exists in the difference. We lose out on the chance to learn something new. We lose out on the chance that maybe being right is less important than being together or being committed to a cause.
I believe that it takes a lot of humility and a lot of faith to show up for interfaith conversations. You have to be willing to do the translations in your head. You have to be willing to accept that the chasm of disconnect doesn’t go away, even when bridges of relationship and common purpose cross it. You have to trust that sometimes even when people around the table attempt to translate their truth for you, it still may not trigger the synapses and bring out the meaning of your own truth. “Oui” means “yes” but “oui” really means “oui” and “yes” really means “yes.” Great mystery of life that works and weaves through the chasms of disconnect between us all, bring us humility. Bring us strength to know that the deepest untranslatable truths of our neighbors do not threaten our own. Bring us courage to be curious, to learn from all those that we meet. And bring us joy as we build the bridges even despite the painful craggy edges of the chasms that divide us. In all the words and ways that we pray, let us say Amen.