Sunday, April 27, 2014

Outpost of an Ancient Empire

I freely admit that I'm a sloppy sentimentalist with a weakness for history--which is why I found myself close to tears at the Khmer New Year street fair yesterday. It was the faces of old people that did me in, as they watched little girls with plastic jasmine blossoms in their hair raise their bare feet in the same traditional Cambodian dance movements that are frozen in stone at Angkhorean temples. These were the faces of survivors, standing in the chilliness of a Seattle spring afternoon, listening to their language, eating their food.

There were a couple of taco trucks in evidence but they were being ignored, while the line was long at the booth that served a Khmer plate lunch. Boys stood at barbecues made from half a 50-gallon drum, grilling chicken that were served with noodles from the Cambodian deli down the block. People put their paper plates of food on the hoods of their cars and ate together, while nearby young men played takraw with a badminton shuttlecock. Onstage a Khmer ballad brought enthusiastic applause from the old people who sat on metal folding chairs to make an audience and a few of the elderly ladies began to dance. Later a young hip hop artist sent words in English and Khmer into a crowd of several hundred people, almost all Cambodian with a smattering of white people in the mix.

The King County bookmobile was there, and the usual social services booths, along with a couple who sold tee shirts and krama, and another stall with giant economy packs of false eyelashes, as well as wallhangings embellished generously with elephants. They were all ignored in favor of the plate lunch booth, where the line was too long for me.

I found rose and mango ice cream at a beer and pinball joint on the next block (viva Full Tilt!) and ate it while watching the hip hop guy. Ice cream wasn't an inspired choice on a cloudy day with a stiff breeze coming in off the Sound and even my ankles grew cold.

As I walked toward my bus stop, I passed a knot of middle-aged black ladies standing in front of a table, so many of them that I couldn't see what they might be selling. One of the oldest ones smiled at me. "What do you need? You need some water? You need food?"

She pulled a bottle of water from the table where I could vaguely see plates of food. "Here, have some," she said.

"I don't need anything, thank you, but will you take my donation?" and I handed her five dollars.

"Thank you," she said, "when people give us donations we give something back to them. You tell me what you need in your life, or maybe what somebody you know needs."

I thought for a moment and realized I had everything and so did my family. But there was a little girl I knew and I gave the lady that name. She called two other women to her side and they formed a small circle on the sidewalk with me. The lady grabbed my hand; her friend put her arm around my shoulders and the youngest of the three began to speak. To God.

I'm not religious but these women, praying in their own words, one with the message and the others backing it up in response, on a city sidewalk while embracing a stranger, got to my sloppy sentimental side. If this was what Christianity truly was, I'd be on that bandwagon.

They all hugged me when the prayer ended, I began to leave, and the older lady touched my arm. "Here," she said, "Take this. I have the feeling that you believe in the same thing we do."

"I believe in the goodness of people," I replied and she said, "That's right. That's it. What's your name?"

When I gave her my first name, she said "That's what we want," and she put a business card in my hand.

I kept it. Although I will never go there, it makes me feel good to know that in Burien, Pastor Delores Scott leads worship every Sunday at three at the Temple of Praise Apostolic Church. And at other times she's on the street, giving people what they need.

No comments: