I turned around to see a young woman with a blue hijab trying to stop a girl squealing loudly and running. It’s a Saturday night in Lancaster County, Pa. The Route 30 Chick-Fil-A is filled with those of us needing our chicken fix before Sunday.
Many people are wearing something on their head. There’s a woman with a black lace prayer covering. There are white dudes in cowboy hats and baseball caps. There’s a light-skinned guy with an Eagles hat. There’s a group of young people, all of them white, with red Trump 2020 hats.
I wonder if the woman in the hijab, who later joins a man with a thick dark beard, feels any outlandishness in this context. I can understand only a few of their words in Arabic. The young girl, possibly their daughter, continues to spin and squeal in the snaking line. No one seems to really notice her.
Here we are together in this county, carved out by William Penn from native people’s land, settled 300 years ago by Mennonites who didn’t know much about the place they were promised but sought a place of peace. Now it’s a flurry of tourists on the Christmas season’s last weekend. I’ve just come from the outlet mall myself.
This county hosts lots of refugees and immigrants these days. The faith of many of us who settled here compels us to remember that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ. I wonder if my Arabic-speaking friends feel that hospitality still.
Last month, President Trump had a rally in Hershey, just across the county line. I wonder if the young people with the red hats were there. He’s been here before. Pennsylvania is a battleground state in presidential election years. Lancaster leans historically Republican. None of the hats in Chick-Fil-A are really a surprise.
The restaurant crowd is a small representation of what it means to be in Pennsylvania. A mix of people and experience, possibilities and dreams. I wonder what it means to follow Jesus into this mix and mess. How do I see the humanity beyond the hijab and “Make America Great Again” hats? What does the good news mean to the woman in the prayer covering or the man in the Eagles hat?
This space — I think of it as a sacred space — is also volatile. But we’re all here for the chicken. We don’t speak to each other. The dinner-hour hustle crowds out the praise-and-worship Muzak. Our shared space has little shared meaning.
I think about speaking in fumbling Arabic, but it’s too awkward. I think about the sign on my yard, “No matter who you are or where you are from, I’m glad that you’re my neighbor.” It’s in Arabic. And Spanish. And English.
A new year lies ahead, full of promise. It’ll be fraught with election-year complexity. We will be invited to categorize each other — left, right, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, wrong, right — instead of beloved, sibling, neighbor, friend.
The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said his second conversion occurred in the midst of shoppers in Louisville, Ky. I wish I could say everything and everyone was illuminated suddenly for me on Epiphany weekend at Chick-Fil-A.
It was not. Instead, I was aware of the hard and awkward path ahead. I was left with questions on how to be and speak the way of Christ’s peace in the midst of who we are and who we are becoming.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.