By Tom Ehrich
CUBA, NM -- Just across the Continental Divide and past the Jicarilla Apache Nation, at 7,000 feet of elevation and temperature below 40, I stopped for a tasty lunch of enchiladas with green chiles and frybread.
Unlike the dark-skinned Christus Rex hanging in a Navajo church outside Farmington, NM, the Mary on the gate here had white skin.
Traveling south on US 550 past reservations for the Jicrilla Apache Nation and Jemez Pueblo, I detoured into the Zia Pueblo, a small 600-person community of modest brown adobe houses. Signs posted throughout the village said, "No pictures. No sound recording. No sketches. No cell phones." In other words, "Leave us alone. We aren't here for your entertainment."
I admired their assertiveness, respected their wishes, and left without touring.
Conferring with my new best friend, a Michelin Road Atlas, I decided to press on to Moriarty, 30 miles to the east of Albuquerque.
Moriarty turned out to be a 1,700-person widening of Route 66, presenting a strip of motels and fast-food restaurants. Bleak sort of place. But I wanted a down-home experience, and that is what I am getting. Catfish for dinner at Lisa's Truck Center.
Week One of this 30-day pilgrimage found me 1,000 driving miles from San Mateo, CA, 3,000 miles from home, and thinking deeply about being white in America. Those thoughts weren't what I expected, but they flowed inexorably from experiencing Native American reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.
My racial ancestors seized land from native tribes, awarded the best of it to white settlers, and "gave" the barren portion to the Navajo, Apache, Ute, Pueblo and others. They had already decimated those tribes through gunfire and disease and had decided their centuries of civilization and spirituality counted for nothing.
Experiencing this story is sobering. It makes me want to know more about others who stood in the way of whites, as well as the impact a growing non-white population is having now. (By 2060, whites will make up only 43% of the US population, down from 85% in 1960.)
I am trying to avoid firm conclusions. This driving time is a time for glimpses and ideas. What I saw in Farmington, NM -- where oil-field prosperity and a tolerant attitude enable whites and non-whites to live together peacefully -- might or might not be what I experience in Amarillo, TX, or Enid, OK. We are a large and complex nation.
But I always remember that we Christians are descended from a people who saw the enormity of their God and humanity's existence through the telling of travel stories. The ancient Greeks did philosophy; the Hebrews told stories about their journey. Christians have tried to straddle the two -- the meta- and the grounded, the macro- and the micro-. That's one reason our theology and religion are so confusing and often contradictory.
I am thinking our future lies in stories. Especially our stories, for this is where we can see God at work now. This will be challenging to those who have mastered Bible stories and turned them into teachings and doctrines. It will be challenging to churches that rehearse ancient rituals as a way of remembering.
Nevertheless, we should be seeing the new, and seeing the old through new eyes, and imagining where God is now.