Play Catch


    I was on assignment as a Navy Reserve Chaplain. I was on a US Marine Corps base somewhere hot and dusty. Coming out of the shower one day, I stopped and stared. I didn’t mean to, it’s just that I was surprised. There in front of me was an African American man drying off. He was a little creeped out by my staring and let me know about it.

    “What are you looking at?” he demanded. “Something wrong?”

    “It’s just that I’ve never seen an African American with a farmer’s tan,” I stammered, somewhat embarrassed by our exchange.

    “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “You have a famer’s tan.”

    It’s true. I had a famer’s tan. I have had have one for as long as I could remember, having grown up in a small farming community in the upper Midwest. Every person I knew had a famer’s tan. Even the girls. We all worked outside, played outside, spent almost every day in the summer outside. Our tee-shirts covered most of our upper bodies most of that time. Thus, our arms got tan while our bodies remained mostly white. A lot of the boys even had white foreheads, owing to the caps that covered our heads. We saw Blacks on TV or if we ever traveled to the Twin  Cities. But the first time I ever touched a Black person was at an “Early Bird” track meet at the University of Minnesota my sophomore year in high school. I shook hands with the guy in the next lane. I did not have a lot of contact with African Americans. So, I was surprised to see my fellow Navy Reserve Chaplain with a farmer’s tan that day.

    Having shared this story with him, he laughed. “Well, now you know,” he said. “We get famer’s tans too….We even get sunburned.”

   “How would you know?” I asked innocently enough.

    “It hurts.”

    My experience is an example of cultural or contextual bias (thanks to Brian McLaren at the Center for Action and Contemplation and his work on biases). I grew up in a very white community. I could tell the difference between German Lutherans (mostly farmers) and Swedish Lutherans (well-dressed professionals). Names, hair color, freckles helped to distinguish Irish Catholics from French Catholics. As an Episcopalian, I was an “other” along with Presbyterians and Baptists, the dominant culture being so heavily weighted toward Lutherans and Catholics. (This is, of course, an over-simplification, but you get the point about contextual bias). Serving in the military, as well as traveling across the country and around the world, experiencing different cultures, working alongside all sorts and conditions of people, has broadened my perspective and deepened my appreciation for the rich variety of the human race. African Americans can get farmer’s tans. Even more profoundly, their blood is the same color red as mine.

    What happens when people do not go outside of their cultural or contextual situations? Part of what happens is that it becomes very difficult to see the world in any other way than that which we have always seen it. We develop a confirmation bias. We are pre-disposed to seeing something,  hearing something, or agreeing with something that already aligns with what we believe. You’ve heard of that old expression, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” The more entrenched we become in our own beliefs, our own set of “facts,” the harder it is to have a civil dialogue with another person. No more is this evident than in the realm of politics. Especially now in the year 2021.

    We witness a great deal of polarization within our nation. We see it in our communities; even within our own families. Wearing a mask during the COVID pandemic puts you on one side of the political spectrum while not wearing a mask puts you on the other side of the spectrum. Likewise, eschewing large indoor gatherings or freely attending (often without wearing a mask) is another way of categorizing one “side” or the other.  Thus, having a discussion about the best course of action to take to overcome the devastating effects of the pandemic’s toll on the economy, public health, education, and so on often devolves into shouting matches. Nothing, it seems, can bring people together in a way that allows for respectful, civil dialogue.

    Play catch! That’s right. Simply grab a baseball, a couple of gloves, and go outside. Toss the ball back and forth. Don’t talk about anything controversial. For example, adults could talk about their favorite teacher growing up and what made that person so special. Talk about one’s favorite pet and something funny that that pet did. Have you ever dammed up a gutter or a creek after a rain storm and then jumped in the puddle? Tell me about the first time you ever used a (phone, computer, microwave). What was it like for you to drive for the first time – all by yourself?  Repeat as often as necessary until you feel comfortable about asking a more personal question like: what was it like for you to lose that favorite pet? Tell me about the time your grandmother died. What was her funeral like? Just keep tossing the ball. You may discover no other words are necessary. I bet that in time, you will be able to ask: what, in your opinion, is one way to fix our crumbling roads and bridges? No one has to be “right” or try to convince the other person of any course of action. Just talk. And toss the baseball. If things start to get heated up, back off. Just toss the ball.

    The one constant most adults have in our culture is a connection to Little League baseball. Even if someone has not played the game, they know people who have. They have walked past parks in the summer where games were underway, perhaps even several at one place. We have all heard the chatter: Atta boy! Atta girl! You’ve got this! Good hustle! Those affirming words have sprinkled down upon us, touching us, without even being consciously aware of its blessing in our life. Like the Vitamin D that generates within us just by being in the sun.

    I bet if we asked people to play catch with someone very different from them, from a very different context, we could go a long way toward building up the Commons, recognizing a broader community. Without even getting close to “hot” topics, we could grow toward a better understanding of each other as we gently toss a baseball back and forth. We would probably come to appreciate the fact that we can all get a farmer’s tan. We all generate Vitamin D from the sun. We all care about our families. We all want the best for our country. Let’s step back for a while. Play catch. Then, in time, get on with vexing situations that we can overcome, while working together.  First, we have to know that we can play together.

    Play catch!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *