Oh, To Build a Mosque

John Doane (from whom I received my unusual middle name) arrived in the Plymouth Colony in 1630, having just fled Hingham, England.  He was a Puritan, of course, and like the several thousand other Puritans who came to New England during the “Great Migration,” he was fleeing persecution.

England was experiencing a lot of turmoil in those days, as the State Religion was changing as frequently as the short reigns of its monarchs.  Each new regime would send the pendulum swinging back and forth between Roman Catholicism and Calvanism, with a number of different shades of what would become Anglicanism in between.  If the Catholics weren’t burning Calvanist clergy, it was only because the Anglicans were beheading the Catholics.  Good luck organizing a church pot luck in that environment.  Differences in beliefs regarding such topics as priest’s attire and communion wine could easily result in death – because to differ on matters of religion from the State was, in effect, a rebuke of the monarch himself.

So Doane and his fellow Puritans arrived in New England, relieved to be free of the oppression of stained-glass windows and transubstantiation.  We are told in school that this migration is the origin of our “freedom of religion,” that these humble immigrants, fleeing persecution, passed down a tradition of religious tolerance that we now have enshrined in our Constitution.  But Doane and his neighbors were far from tolerant.  In fact, they refused to tolerate any ideology that differed from their own at all.  So when Quaker and Baptist meeting houses began popping up, the magistrates would quickly initiate banishment proceedings.  And God help a Roman Catholic who would set foot in Connecticut, let alone try to celebrate a “popish mass.”  That heresy would bring death.  Catholics were public enemy number one.  Their very existence conjured up reminders of Bloody Mary’s relentless persecutions and the destruction of their government and all of the things most dear to them.

Surely the authors of the Bill of Rights had the madness John Doane experienced in mind when they penned the first amendment.  The government would never support any specific faith, nor prohibit any person from practicing their own faith.  It’s probably fair to say that these authors would never have imagined the arrival of Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, but the concept they established has endured, and has allowed immigrants to flourish in our country, worshipping (or not worshipping) however they please.

Islam is unfortunate enough to share the same perception among Americans as Catholicism did 400 years ago.  Whether a Muslim person is a patriot or a terrorist in hiding (a category that is undoubtably quite tiny),  he will have to bear the punishment for the crimes committed by the most vile members of his faith.  Indeed, the very existence of his house of worship can be linked to the global advance of murder and oppression by a population caught up in a frenzy of fear.  Religious toleration is suddenly reduced to those faiths that don’t have the unfortunate disadvantage of having adherents who are also psychopaths.

The authors of the First Amendment remembered the lessons of brutality and distrust that their grandparents passed down.  They knew how easily the public could become an angry mob.  They remembered how easily entire congregations could be dispatched by the dominant faith: “Not in this town – go elsewhere.”  So they removed the ability of the government to influence faith at all.  The freedom they established has endured to become one of our most hallowed (a word that gets a lot of use these days).

How sad then, it is to see public officials forgetting their obligations to defend the freedoms in our Constitution.  How strange to see a political party with such an “originalist” view of the Constitution add an addendum to the First Amendment.  And how unfortunate it is to see a public, so fearful and angry, that it would discard a core value in favor of exacting misguided revenge.


Press One For English, Two For Irony

Maybe you’ve seen this one floating around the interwebs, it involves what I suppose is a phone call between a person coming to America and America’s customer service hotline: “Good Morning, welcome to the United States, press ‘1’ for English, press ‘2’ to disconnect until you learn English.  And remember, only two defining forces have ever died for you, Jesus Christ, and the American soldier.  One died for you soul, the other for your freedom.  If you agree, keep it going.”  As puzzling as the construction of this scenario is (is this immigrant trying to make his way to our country through the receiver of his telephone?) it’s the unfortunate marriage between bigotry and grace that is most difficult to understand.  This post is for Christians who seem to have gotten it wrong.  We’re also going to ignore the soldier part, because unlike the person who wrote that bon mot, we believe in literary focus.

Our country has a long and proud reputation as an asylum for the wretched refuse of the world, a reputation that has always been in conflict with the reality that each generation of immigrants has always been met with prejudice and disdain from the generations that immigrated previously.  And yet, despite those obstacles, the inevitable conclusion of every immigration story is one of assimilation.  While one generation struggles to let go of language and culture from the homeland, succeeding generations always speak English and adopt American habits.  This is true for all of us, as we are all children of immigrants.  If you think your great-great grandmother was taking community college ESL courses between harvests or after shifts at the mill, you’re fooling yourself.

Our proud heritage of welcoming asylum seekers, refugees, and people in search of a better life parallels our understanding of grace.  Christ’s words throughout the gospels are full of either comfort and assurance for “the least of these” or condemnation and reprobation for the powerful who ignore them.  Whether we choose to see immigrants who do not speak English as the “least of these” may be debatable — but the fact that the majority of immigrants in California live below the poverty line, have limited access to good education, work at jobs that involve intense labor, are treated as cultural outsiders and yet somehow prefer this place to their homelands might tip the scales in that direction.

Whether we choose to welcome immigrants depends on whether we have experienced their journey.  Though an immigrant by virtue of his poverty and lack of education may be a burden on our system of social services and cultural institutions, we know through the experience of our own families that his family will eventually be transformed by the process of living in America — they will become Americans.  And the same is true for the church.  We are welcomed into relationship with God as immigrants from the most impoverished land imaginable and as an immense burden, our brokenness requiring an infinitely powerful God to humble himself with the pain of humanity and death.  By acknowledging our own immigrant journey, we can be transformed into people who extend grace to our fellow immigrants.

Mee Heng Low

Mee Heng Low

Chinatown in San Luis Obispo is an almost invisible relic.  While the district (mostly confined to Palm Street, near the intersection at Chorro) was once home to probably hundreds of migrant Chinese laborers and several more permanent Chinese families, their presence is mostly gone these days.  Among the holdouts from yesteryear, relatives of Ah Louis still own his landmark store, and the Gin family still own the building housing the legendary Mee Heng Low (go ahead and titter if you haven’t heard that name before, we all still do) Chop Suey Shop.  But after generations of running the place, Kim, the establishment’s sole waitress, hostess and busser, and her invisible husband who was equally busy and alone in the kitchen, decided it was time to retire.  All of the regulars knew the end was near — so each trip for egg rolls and cashew chicken was like a trip to the grandparents once they had gotten up in age.  Every little cup of tea and fortune cookie joyfully relished as if it might be the last; Kim’s sing-songy voice recorded in memory lest it be forgotten:  “Yes?  Anything ELSE? Thank YOU.”  The last words of each sentence lingered over before she darted to the next table.  

The restaurant was somewhat of a relic itself.  Vinyl booths and formica tables covered in glass lined the walls, chrome coat hangers neatly aligned at the end of each booth.  Place mats with the Chinese zodiac and curious looking chinese baby nudes informed patrons that they might be “strong willed and independent” or “artistic and poetic.”  No attempts at modernization had been made since the shop opened in 1957.  The china was probably original.  The menu evolved very little too.  Fusion food never made its way too Mee Heng Low.  Kim served the staples of Chinese-American cuisine:  Kung-Pow Chicken, Moo-Shu Pork, battered and deep fried egg rolls that looked like footballs, and of course, glorious Chop Suey.  

Mee Heng Low was a wonderful place that had to be discovered.  Two blocks from Higuera Street and the bulk of the city’s pedestrian traffic, the place relied on loving regulars for business.  With each trip one could overhear families in booths adjacent:  “the first time I came here, I sat in a high chair,” “My mom used to order take-out from this place when we were kids.”  Loving Mee Heng Low required some humility.  Kim wasn’t going to take your credit card, wasn’t going to allow substitutions and wasn’t going to take special orders.  If she was busy with a full house, she certainly wasn’t going to meet all the expectations of most modern restaurant patrons.  She certainly didn’t pander for tips.     

When they closed shop, the building sat sad and empty for months.  The massive faux-gilt mirrors reflecting empty, dust covered chrome and formica.  Today, the shop is open again, taken over by a new family (not Chinese) with a very different vision for the place.  The furniture in the familiar little dining room is all gone, but plans for resurrecting the upstairs dining room (unused since the 70’s) are in the works.  The Low Mein with pork is wonderful.  It’s not the Mee Heng Low I once knew, but it’s still only a block away, so I’ll look forward to getting acquainted again.

Mee Heng Low 2

Glorious Summer

So much to do, so little time to spend in front of a computer.  My apologies for neglecting you, but have you been outside?  It’s beautiful out there!

B of A, Buh-bye

Credit Cards

I became a “valued customer” of Bank of America in 1994, when I got my first job.  Fifteen years, hundreds of calls to “customer service” call centers, and thousands of dollars in account fees, late fees, service fees and exorbitant credit interest later, I am no longer a valued customer of B of A (incidentally “B of A” stood for something completely different when I was in the Marines).  

The tipping point should have come long ago in my relationship with America’s largest financial institution.  Like, perhaps when my credit card interest rate jumped to 19% because I had a payment post one day late.  Or maybe when I was charged fees for making transactions inside the bank, as opposed to online (I thought it would be nice to have eye contact with a bank teller, maybe get a piece of candy).  While those offenses angered me, they didn’t motivate me to change banks.  The tipping point came when my debit card began to be used for online purchases that I did not authorize.  My checking account balance dropped into the dreaded “NSF” zone.  I visited my local branch, which is only three blocks away, to try to resolve the errors.  I figured talking to a person would be preferable to the telephone dial-a-maze that is the customer service line.  But the teller simply wrote down a 1-800 number for me on the back of my receipt showing “NSF” and sent me on my way.  

I’ve since joined a local bank — San Luis Trust Bank.  I am greeted by Eileen, who remembers my name, every time I go in (I have the same birthday as her daughter, how much more personal can you get at a bank?).  She gave me a phone number to her desk, so I can call whenever I have a problem.  A teller actually called me to alert me to a problem with my automatic deposit, and assured me that they would fix my mistake and help me avoid “NSF.”  And they have a beautiful building.   

So, if immoral banking practices like usury, theft and taking advantage of America’s poor aren’t motivation factors for you to chose a local bank, at least treat yourself to a financial institution that has some good architecture and a charming staff.  If you can get some free doughnuts on Fridays, all the better.

Horatio Warden Resurrected.

Warden Block

Following the 2004 San Simeon Earthquake, the City of San Luis Obispo enacted legislation requiring all unreinforced masonry buildings to undergo seismic retrofitting.  Over the course of the last five years, this has resulted in some pretty major construction work downtown, as much of the city’s oldest building stock was quite unsafe.  Thankfully, we can all worry less about having bricks rain down on our heads the next time an earthquake strikes this area.

In addition to improving public safety, many building owners have taken advantage of construction retrofits to give their older buildings some much needed repair and restoration work.  Beginning in the 1950’s, many building owners saw their cornice clad, ornamented and polychromed storefronts as anachronistic signs of days gone by.  Modernism was in, and so brick and stone were covered over in gleaming white planes of stucco.  Large plate glass windows and expansive storefronts were removed in favor of smaller aluminum frame windows and mechanical systems for lighting and cooling.  Like most attempts at building modernization, the results would be judged by the public as feeble.  

Warden Cornice

The Warden Block is one such example.  Built by a prominent local businessman more than a century ago, it was ruined in the 1950’s in an attempt to transform it from its late 19th century elegance into a bizarre attempt at the International Style. For nearly half of its life, the facade was wrapped in a formless layer of white stucco, with small holes punched for the windows.  The locally quarried granite was invisible.  The cast iron cornice removed.  

The building’s current owner, Rob Rossi, has spared little expense in his extensive retrofit and restoration of the building.  And while Rossi has had some difficulty finishing his work at other historic sites (Motor Inn, old French Hospital, the Fremont, etc), the Warden Block has been fully revived.  I’ve never met Rob Rossi, but I can appreciate his vision for this building.  It certainly could have been easy for him to ignore the restoration work that could be done while making the necessary seismic improvements to this building.  Likewise, it could have been easy for him to give the building a partially historic appearance using inexpensive modern means of construction. Instead, Rossi chose to make what I can only imagine was a huge investment in the careful restoration of this place using building materials that contribute to the age and history of Downtown.  The Warden Block serves as the standard by which other restored buildings should be judged.

Architects lack vision


Corbu had a pair with thick black frames.  Kahn’s were horn rimmed.  Pei wears circular wire frames.  My coworkers all wear stylish looking specs as well.  It seems as if the wearing of nifty looking glasses is an engrained part of architecture culture, so much so that I’ve begun looking forward to the deterioration of my own vision to the extent that I too will one day be able to sport a pair of designer glasses.  Until then, you can see me wearing fake ones when I feel the need to be architectural.

Feed the Birds?


Sandra is my neighbor.  She sleeps at the Regional Transit Terminus one block from the Berk.  During the day she can be found all over town, usually sitting on a bench, covered from head to toe in layers of clothing.  Her wrists and fingers are covered in jewelry, most of which she has made herself.  She wears an enormous rosary around her neck, that she has also made, though she does not attend the Mission Church.  “I don’t agree with all of their teachings,” she says.  “They say Jesus loves sinners.  He doesn’t.  You have to stop sinning for him to love you.” 

Sandra has a lot to say, and the more she talks, the greater her suffering is revealed.  Paranoia, visions, voices…  I may specialize in drawing pictures of buildings, but I think I can see some very clear glimpses of schizophrenia.  Sandra is a woman who suffers from a severe mental illness that remains uncared for.  She is also a woman of great depth, whose enthusiasm for truth and beauty are heavily clouded. 

Sandra is one of dozens of homeless people who make their homes throughout town.  But she is part of a smaller group of homeless residents who are permanent.  Unlike many of the other homeless, most of whom are transient, Sandra does not panhandle.  She does accept help graciously, but never asks for it.  This is a contrast from the dozens of other homeless folks who make the city home.  Sandra does not treat people like ATM machines.  She knows my name.  She says “hello” and smiles. 

I met Sandra because I was challeneged by my brother, a former InterVarsity worker.  He passed the same homeless man on his way to work most mornings and decided he “wasn’t going to be the guy who just passed by everyday.”  I agreed.  I think in InterVarsity speak they call that “being intentional.”  I call it being a good neighbor.  I don’t have to solve all of Sandra’s problems.  But I can greet her warmly, and treat her like a friend.

Where the billows bound, and the winds sport free


It’s another windy day on the Central Coast.  While getting a cup of coffee and a snack at the Honeymoon Café (they’re the new place in the Government Center – they’re gonna make the secretaries feel better), I overheard some other folks telling stories about how severely the wind had blown at their homes.  I joined them and began to tell a story about how Erick and I had gone to Montana de Oro yesterday to watch the storm waves.  Halfway through the story I realized that my personal narrative style had undergone a profound shift.  “We were standing on the edge of the cliff,” “We were stumbling against the force of the wind,” “We were amazed at the size of the waves.”  I have begun to refer to myself in first person plural – which I usually only reserve for mocking the Queen.  As I caught myself saying “we” to people I had never met before, and who had probably never met Erick either for that matter, I was filled with an almost overwhelming wave of emotion.

I hadn’t initially been too enthusiastic about seeing the waves.  There is always so much to do after work, from grocery shopping, to laundry, to making it to the gym, it seems the need to maintain domestic order can easily rule the majority of my free time.  But, since Erick is from Arizona and is less jaded by the presence of the Pacific than I am, I agreed to go with him.  I unenthusiastically accompanied him to one of the most beautiful ocean vistas in the world.  I snapped some obligatory photos of the windswept coast, not even bothering to take my camera off the “auto” setting.  I thought about how cold my hands were, and tried to ignore the throbbing in my ears as the wind violently swept past.  I impatiently waited for him to stop being amazed.  My mind was apparently still attached to my to do list. 

It was not until today that I realized what a profound and beautiful experience it had been.  Or rather, how profound and beautiful the telling of the experience was.  Having someone to share life with – to experience the strange power of nature while standing at the earth’s edge, or to sit together for a mind-numbing hour while trying to interpret tax deduction requirements – is a beautiful thing.  To be transformed from an “I”into a “we” is a blessing that I had not expected.

The Road to Phoenix


Vicky has been working at the Courtesy Coffee Shop since she was a teenager.  Her mom worked there when the place opened in 1964, and as a girl, Vicky would spend her summer days swimming in the hotel pool next door and hanging out in the Courtesy.  She and her husband are both retired now, but they spend their winters in Blythe, so Vicky picks up her old apron for a few months out of the year.  “What’s good for dinner?” I asked her on our second stop at the Courtesey in as many days.  “Pretty much everything,” she replied, pointing to a menu that included all of the staples of twentieth century road-side cuisine.  “We cut our own steaks, roast our own beef and turkey, make our own dressings — the cook, he’s pretty good with the steaks.”  

The Courtesy is a step back in time.  The Googie styled building was once one of the only businesses situated along the desolate I-10.  Before the freeway route skirted the town, the route ran right through Blythe and past the Courtesy.  A pair of palm trees grow through the lobby floor and out the roof.  Inside, the furnishings look about the same as a patron in the 60’s might have experienced them.  Coffee comes in a cup with a saucer, not in a mug.  Eight ounce steaks look more like twelve.  And the “farmer’s breakfast” could keep a farmer, or an architect and an engineer stuffed until dinner.  

The Courtesy is one of those places that people just stumble upon.  There are no brightly lit billboards along the freeway, or signs at the off ramp.  And yet the place is packed somehow.  “People just find this place and remember us.”  Vicky told us.  It’s a long way to the next place in either direction, so this is a  good place to rest and eat.”  And she’s right.  So, if you’re ever headed to Arizona, be sure to grab a bite to eat before you cross the border.