Whenever I watch a display of fireworks on July 4th, I get a lump in my throat. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people gathered to watch dazzling pyrotechnics shoot breathtaking designs of light and color into the night sky, I sense the equality and freedom which our country aspires to realize for all its citizens, and which, for me, have a spiritual basis.
On a Monday at noon not long ago, I’m standing at the intersection of Harrison and 12th Street. Signs are printed in both English and Chinese. Oakland’s Chinatown, a hive of commerce and community, is a short walk from the Alameda County Courthouse, where I’ve been summoned for jury duty. I’m mulling over one of the foundation stones for the equality and freedom we enjoy—a system of justice based on the rule of law, a system developed to honor and protect the dignity and worth of every individual.
Until the morning’s jury selection process, I was actually looking forward to serving. Lawyers for the plaintiff and defendant questioned each of us in the jury pool exhaustively about our backgrounds, occupations, and viewpoints. So contentious was the tone, however—adversaries setting up individuals against each other!—that I wondered how a jury could remain impartial. Trial by a jury of peers and the back and forth of prosecution and defense are essential to our system of jurisprudence, but the level of hostility expressed by these lawyers left me feeling agitated and distressed.
Then I was selected to be one of the twelve jurors!
Thankfully it was lunchtime so I could escape the adversarial environment of the courtroom. I headed to Chinatown, figuring it would offer a welcome distraction and I could relax.
Chinatown is a world teeming with activity! En masse, people crisscross the intersection in six directions at once. Along the crowded sidewalk, women wheel shopping carts, pause at open-air markets to pick over fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, bargain vigorously with shop owners in their native language. Men sit at tables, over tea animatedly discussing…what?
A group of giggling girls gathers in front of a bakery. I join them, approach the counter and ask if they sell almond cookies. The clerk, who has only spoken Cantonese to her customers, eyes me, an anomaly, and points to a plastic bag.
With each step into this tight-knit community, differences of language and culture become more apparent…and disconcerting. The contention and agitation of the morning has not dissipated. In fact, hostility overshadows my perspective!
Jostled by a sea of people on the sidewalk, I step aside to let the shoppers pass. Seems to me I have a choice: dwell on the sense of opposition and disconnection and feel more anxious, or focus on a deeper spiritual dimension to gain some peace—the inherent relationship and connectedness of all humankind.
A verse from Scriptures comes to mind, “Don’t we all come from one Father? Aren’t we all created by the same God?” And a phrase that I’m familiar with echoes this sentiment: “With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren.” It’s from Mary Baker Eddy’s book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
While not everyone who holds others in respect may have a religious or spiritual basis for doing so, for me, such respect grows out of a sense of our inherent unity. I stand still on the sidewalk, opening my heart to the Father-Mother, who I understand to be universal Love. I pray to feel the presence of this divine source and essence, which tenderly binds all of us together.
And then something catches my eye: a rosy-cheeked infant swaddled in a flowered cotton wrap and strapped to the back of an elderly Chinese woman. The baby’s head falls from side to side and bobs backward, her young neck not strong enough to hold her head upright.
I glance with concern at her petite caretaker—her grandmother, I assume. The woman struggles to adjust the child, twisting, visibly frustrated, in an attempt to reach the baby’s head. At that moment, our eyes meet. She beckons with a pleading glance. I move toward her. She waits. My hand—instinctively, without hesitation—reaches into the folds of the colorful cotton wrap. I feel a swath of crumpled cloth, slide it upward and tuck it around the baby’s head. Aah…a perfect fit. The child, firmly cradled against the woman’s back, now rests safely and coos happily.
Grandma’s eyes meet mine again, and we break into smiles. She, relieved that her tiny charge is comfortable and safe, me because in that instant I feel a connection, a realization that we are joined in a tender moment of support and friendship. Words are not important—a mutual concern for the child’s well being is all that matters. Shared caring is what connects us.
I head back to the courtroom with a warm heart and renewed confidence in the inherent connection of humanity. With this quality of relationship with each other, nurtured by divine Love, confrontation doesn’t have to have the upper hand! Rather than being swept up in hostility, I vow to bring an attitude of respect to the trial. The jury assembles and the judge instructs us to be seated. He thanks us for our willingness to serve. “However,” he says, “the parties have settled, and you will not be needed.”
Interesting…was each party willing to give and take until they found common ground for reconciliation? Connection, not confrontation. It’s what I experienced in Chinatown, it could be what emerged in the courtroom, and it’s what I’ll think about more as I watch the fireworks this Independence Day.