Strangers make the best of friends

by Karen Phillips

“You headed home?” he asks as he takes his seat next to me on the flight from Charlotte to Greensboro. “Yep, back to work in the morning. What about you?” I ask. His name is Victor. He is coming in from Tampa, Fla. for business and flying back the next day. We chat for a while about where we’re from, where we went to school and what we do. “I coach gymnastics and intern at a local paper,” I said. “My daughter loved gymnastics when she was a kid. Did you enjoy the Olympics?” “Yes, they were amazing, and the girls [I coach] loved them as well. This year has been really great for us because the economy is doing a little better and it was an Olympic year, so our enrollment has gone up quite a bit compared to this time last year.” “That’s great,” Victor says. “Don’t let a Republican hear you say that.” We laugh. *** I used to frequent a nearby drug store on my lunch breaks next to my old job. I would go there often enough over the span of three years for the sales associate to know me by name. We talked about work, vacations, what our plans were for the upcoming weekend. She congratulated me when I got engaged. “What’s your religious background?” she asked me as the big day approached. “I was raised Catholic,” I replied, kind of shocked to see our relationship had reached a new conversation comfort level. “Okay, and what about your fiancé?” “He’s Jewish,” I stated boldly, realizing where this was heading. “Jewish? What religion will the two of you raise your children?” Her head tilted sideways as she rang up my purchases. “I don’t know; we’re still just planning the wedding right now. We’re taking things one step at a time,” I said, trying to restrain the frustration in my tone. “Well, alright,” she conceded. “But be sure to think about it. You know what they say: A family that prays together stays together.” I smiled politely, got my snack and cut my lunch break short. *** My husband Jason and I went to dinner at PF Chang’s a few years back, and our waitress asked us what drinks we wanted. I asked to try the agave margarita, and she said that was her favorite on the menu. “Perfect,” I said, happy I’d made a good selection. “We’re all sisters in Christ, right?” she replied as she went to go put in our order. *** I had a conversation with a friend who said President Obama really didn’t have anything to do with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That same friend’s father once told me that the reason I argue or fight with my husband is because I don’t have God in my life. Someone else told me the Bible is very clear of the emergence of an antichrist, and he’s already here, running this country. And most recently, two different people told me humans are innately bad, and they can’t develop the quality of “goodness” without believing in God and having Him present in their lives. *** Last Thursday, Jason and I went to dinner with some of his friends who were in town for Furniture Market. Callie asked the table if anyone had seen the presidential debate the week before. I looked down as my stomach knotted. This is one of scenarios where I normally bite my tongue, rarely make eye contact and reluctantly listen while the majority of the discussion revolves around how bad our economy is, how our primary goal should be getting the president out of the white house, how stupid Obamacare is, how no one has a job and how Obama is the antichrist. I was planning my move to the restroom when Callie said, “The thing I learned from the debate is that Mitt isn’t as bad as I thought he was.” I looked up. “At least he’s a smart guy,” Erin responded. I can agree with that. “Yeah, Obama just has to get his sh*t together for the next debate, so we can get back in the game,” Danny added. “I hope they save social issues for the next presidential debate, because that’s what really separates the two parties, and that’s what will win this election,” Seth said. I didn’t have much to add because I was so shocked that I was sitting with a group of like-minded people actually having a conversation about something I could participate in. No hatred. No anger. I was reveling in the moment, smiling inside and out. *** As we get closer and closer to election night, this weekend was just what I needed. I got to go back to my liberal home, watch the Wolverines crush the Fighting Illini in a 45-0 shutout at the Big House, see a “National Coming Out Week” banner hanging outside the Michigan Union encouraging people not to be afraid to stand up for themselves and praising those who do, and pass by the Rock to read the message “You are loved. Don’t ever forget” painted on the sidewalk. Driving back to the airport, we saw a double rainbow arched over the road. It reminded us what we experienced as well as the possibilities of a hopeful future. As much as I love my job, my friends and family, and my home here in NC, I miss this type of open-minded, welcoming community. *** Victor and I talk about everything from politics to religion to marriage; it’s refreshing to know I can say what I feel without being ostracized. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this.