Jie and I returned home from New Orleans in the wee hours of Friday morning, along with the three Chinese scholars who went with us. The trip had its weird moments:
- bar hopping on Bourbon Street with two vegetarian Buddhists
- accidental intimacy with about 60 strangers on New Year's Eve
- a speeding ticket from an African-American police officer while enroute to visit an old slave plantation
- being forced to wear my huge Russian faux-fur hat all week
- and a drunken voice on the GPS
These Christmas break trips started for us in 2012, when Jie and I started organizing small groups of Chinese scholars to travel with us somewhere balmy. If it's January, it just seems more gracious to invite someone to Florida instead of North Dakota.
We've make three of those trips to southern Florida, but since Jie has a thing about not going the same place twice, we've also taken groups to Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona and Pasadena to see the Rose Bowl parade. Unfortunately, there isn't that big a selection of interesting toasty places in the U.S. in January, unless you want to fork out the really big bucks and go to Hawaii.
Before organizing our own trips, Jie went on a Christmas break venture with another church in 2011. This other "ministry" advertised a "bargain trip to Florida" over the holidays-and targeted the Chinese. For just over $200 a person, they were promised a six-day trip to Florida, including admission to two amusement parks. About 40 people spent all night on a coach/bus, with boards set up so they could sleep 4 layers of people stacked on top of each other. When they got there, they were surprised to be herded into seminars for two days where speakers informed them that they were headed straight for hell if they didn't convert to Christianity. The last two days they did get to go to Disney World and SeaWorld. Then they slept on the bus on the way back. The organizers told us that it was the best way to "hook" the Chinese into getting baptized.
I thought that the Chinese would be better served (and Christ also would be better served) if someone from the church would just spend a little quality time with them and try to act somewhat Christ-like. And so, in January of 2012, Hongmin, Qingyu, and Kang decided to split the cost with us and spend five days in Florida. We flew down there and rented a car. I did the driving and we visited Ft. Myers, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys. We rode bicycles in the sun, counted alligators, and tried different kinds of American foods. And we talked about life...and love...and religion...and differences in our culture. And we developed a deep and lasting bond of love.
The night we all tried Greek food, the waiter was amazed to see an old guy like me dining with all those beautiful Chinese women. He positioned himself about 15 feet away, where only I could see him. And when he caught my eye, he winked, nodded toward the women, gave me the thumbs up sign, and raised his eyebrows in admiration for my 'situation.' Without being seen by my dinner companions, I pursed my lips, nodded, and returned the thumbs up. It was the finest moment I've ever had in a restaurant.
These trips are good for Jie's Chinese ministry at the Wesley Foundation. We have a good reputation among the Chinese at the University, and the trips build relationships, give us a chance to share our faith, and provide me a great opportunity to offer American hospitality.
This year Jie insisted that I come up with a new place where she'd never been. And so I suggested New Orleans, thinking the temperatures would be favorable there. I actually wasn't all that keen about New Orleans. My only other trip there had been in August 1998. The city seemed uncomfortably humid, grimy, and sleazy. I'm told that if you have lots of money to dine at their wonderful restaurants, and go in the spring or the fall, and stay in their finest hotels, that New Orleans can be quite lovely. But we were headed there on a budget, on New Year's Eve, during their worst cold spell in a decade.
Jie was especially intrigued by the advertisements promising
fun, fireworks, and frivolity in the French Quarter. I pointed out that the guidebook said it would be overcrowded. But "overcrowded" doesn't scare people from China. Neither did the words "inebriated" and "unruly" seem to register with her. She was growing more and more adamant about being about New Orleans for New Year's Eve. I was growing more and more unenthusiastic. But since we have agreed in our marriage that she would make all the little decisions, and I would make all the big ones...and since there is yet to be a big decision to be made...we flew down there on the 31
st, rented a car, and rushed downtown just in time to join the drunks in the French Quarter for the countdown to 2018. This is when we got caught up in such a tight and raucous crowd that we literally could not move our arms. People were pushing and shoving and we were being carried along...or squished. I reckon I had accidental intimacy with about 60 people in less than 15 minutes.
New Orleans is different from Time's Square in New York (where the ball drops down at midnight.) In New Orleans, it is a fleur-de-lis that drops down, then explodes at the stroke of midnight. (The fleur-de-lis is French for "Lily," a beloved symbol of the French people, reflecting the French heritage of New Orleans.) After midnight we enjoyed a lovely fireworks display over the Mississippi River.
In the days that followed, we took in the French Quarter, the Garden District, art galleries, the city park, Preservation Hall, the National Jazz Historical Museum, an above ground cemetery, the remarkable World War II museum, and a plantation. The trip to the plantation resulted in a speeding ticket. But I don't want to talk about it.
And it was cold...really cold there. I had packed my fake-fur Russian hat for when I returned to Chicago. But it turns out I needed it all week in New Orleans. The group wanted to hear live music each night in the French Quarter...especially along Bourbon Street. So I donned my big hat and trooped around with them. You are supposed to buy drinks whenever you go into a bar to listen to live music. So I drank lots of 7-Up. I don't drink soft-drinks in bars because I'm self-righteous. I used to be self-righteous when I was younger. Now I'm just boring. (By the way, bathrooms are really hard to find in the French Quarter.) On the third night, it struck me that I'm probably the only pastor in town who has gone bar-hopping on Bourbon Street with vegetarian Buddhists, as was the case with two of our fellow pilgrims.
Oh, and about that GPS. You know: the woman who gives you driving directions. I'm pretty sure she was pickled by 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve because nothing she told us was accurate. It took us two hours of driving in circles before we could find our motel that night. I spent the rest of the week navigating New Orleans the old-fashioned way: with my paper maps and my memory.
I always go on these trips determined to act like Jesus, as much as I can: he who ate and drank with sinners, listened, laughed, shared, and offered tender grace. But every time I try to be Christ to others, it turns out I see Christ in
them: in Wenchi and Betty, my young Buddhist friends, in Yan, who was thrilled to see the Mississippi River for the first time, in Jie who takes endless joy in new people and places, in the weathered face of the ancient saxophone player in Preservation Hall, in the waiter who brought me my 7-Up from the bar... Thanks be to God.
And next year...Lord have mercy...it's a
big decision...and we're going somewhere warm! --Mike