Pushing Buttons

by ABBY MOHAUPT

This summer has tested the general sense of American justice, in ways that have addressed what it means, on a national level, to be an American. The historic decisions of the Supreme Court that will have lasting repercussions for the shape of our collective future, the high-profile deaths of people of color that may very well trigger a new consciousness of the deep-seated racism undergirding our country’s structure—these are national events that touch people all over the country. If you haven’t noticed broad brush strokes of the evidence of systemic oppression, you haven’t been paying attention. 

I cried over what I hope will be seismic shifts in the American landscape. I cried over the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage for all and over the shootings at the AME church in Charleston. I cried, and then I went back to work with Puente, in a very local community, on the rural South Coast of Northern California where I’m the volunteer coordinator and liaison to area faith communities. 

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, I met 24 Latino teenagers at Puente’s office in the tiny ranching and farming community of Pescadero. Together we boarded a bus to ride more than an hour into San Francisco, which would be crowded, we knew, with celebrations of the Supreme Court decision that happened to coincide with the usually robust Pride weekend. But our destination was not the legendary Pride parade. After ninety minutes on a city bus we found ourselves at the historic Flood Building in downtown San Francisco, just in time to meet with a woman of color who ran a financial planning firm in a century-old landmark building that now boasts retail headquarters, consulates, non-profit organizations, and other tenants from all over the Earth.

On the bus, my co-facilitator and I tried to explained appropriate city behavior to the Pescadero teens: watch your stuff, don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t be afraid of people who live on the streets. We emphasized the importance of that particular day and the jubilation that might surprise them. Don’t stare too much at the naked men who will be in the streets, we said. Avoid words that are hateful. Ask questions. Celebrate.

I imagined that the ninety-minute ride carried us from one side of the planet to another. We arrived early and had to wait in a hallway made out of marble that magnified even the softest whisper. A well-dressed white woman came out of her office to tell us to be quiet. The group had clearly pushed her buttons. I wondered when the last time was this woman had seen a group of latino teenagers in one place without thinking they were a gang—and I wondered if she could dream that these youth are very rarely out of their little town just a few miles from the ocean.  I felt her reprimands under my arm hairs and at the base of my neck. My white skin wouldn’t protect the Pescadero youth from this woman’s harsh words. 

My co-facilitator and I gathered the two-dozen youth together and told them they must be silent, more rigid than necessary because--like any group of teenagers--they were antsy, and “silent” would inevitably be translated to “quiet.” 

After our group met with the financial planner, who shared her story with the Pescadero teenagers, one fifteen-year-old boy taught the rest of the group what stock is, and one sixteen-year-old girls asked detailed questions about the benefits of investing in a Roth IRA or a regular IRA.

Later, as we left the offices and headed to the elevators, one of the boys asked if he could take the stairs. Irritated at the prospect of splitting up our group, I said no. His pace slowed as we got to the elevators. 

As soon as we boarded our elevator, a different teenaged boy pressed several floor buttons: 10, 8, 6, 5, 2, 1. 

 “We have to stop at all those floors now,” I said.

He looked at me as we started our descent, but he said nothing.

“When was the last time you were on an elevator?” I asked. Still, he said nothing .

An unsuspecting passenger got on at the tenth floor. The doors slid open again at floor eight, then six.

The people from other floors shifted and grumbled, their trips down to the parking lot and street and Pride parade longer than they’d anticipated.

It dawned on me, finally, that the teenager who’d pushed all the buttons did not know what I was talking about—that he might not know what pressing all the buttons might mean. 

There are no elevators on the South Coast.

As the doors slid open at the fifth floor I nonchalantly said to the boys in my elevator that this was the longest elevator ride I’d taken in a while.

When we disembarked on the first floor, the boy who’d asked to walk down twelve flights of stairs said he felt closed in when riding an elevator. He said he hadn’t been on an elevator in two years. I can’t remember the last time I was in an elevator because it’s so ordinary.

Later that afternoon, as we explored Fisherman’s Wharf, all of our students were polite and engaged, taking the “big city” and all its complications in stride, getting ice cream at the wharf and patiently waiting for the crosswalk signs to change instead of scurrying across the street without a glance at the cars. 

As we caught the bus home, I realized that I’d made so many assumptions about what our youth knew and what they didn’t know about San Francisco and its inhabitants, what they knew about the way the world works. My assumptions about these incredible youth pegged them as small-town kids and were just as limiting as the woman who had shushed them in the marble halls of the Flood Building.

Over the last few of weeks, life has changed on a global scale. My world has changed, too, in a little way that widens the whole world.

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Puente is the only resource center for the rural South Coast of Northern California, a 160 square mile area that about 5,000 people call home. Puente empowers children, individuals, and families, primarily farmworkers and their families, to build healthy, sustainable, inclusive lives. You can follow them on Twitter @PuentePescadero

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Abby Mohaupt is a runner, artist, and Presbyterian pastor who works at Puente, the only resource center for the rural South Coast in Northern California. She loves handstands and crayons and coffee, and she regularly blogs at www.featheology.org.