This is a kind of a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" type of report, because there's good, there's bad, and there's even a coming-of-age moment for yours truly. This is about my recent visit to Bay View, Michigan, where I was honored and absolutely dee-lited that the literary powers-that-be chose Songs of Willow Frost for their Third Annual Bay View Reads selection.
I'd been to this part of Lake Michigan, namely last year, to Booktopia, and the thought of a few relaxing days away from the kids seemed like a slice of Heaven. Or heaven (lower-case), if you don't believe in Heaven (upper-case). More on that in a moment.
When we arrived in Bay View we were blown away by its charm, its coziness, its Americana, and best of all, of the 440 cottages that comprise this community (Victorian vacation homes, really) we were billeted in the cottage formerly owned by Irma Rombauer who wrote The Joy of Cooking. The only bad part is that we'd feel guilty ordering pizza or mircowaving a Hot Pocket on such hallowed ground.
Then came the surprising, non-ironic, actual bad part.
We quickly learned that Jews are not allowed in Bay View. WHAT! ARE YOU FREAKIN' KIDDING ME?! IN THIS DAY AND AGE? Okay, calm down. It's not that bad, or that simple to understand. Don't fall for the sound bite. It's actually quite nuanced. Jewish people can rent (or as one Bay Viewer joked, "Hey, we don't mind their money,") but they can't become a member of the official resort community known as the Bay View Association.
Why? Because the Bay View Association was founded by Methodists and while the association is a non-profit organization, the vacation homes are on land leased from the association, and to purchase a home you must be approved by the association. And while fewer than half of the association members actually go to any church these days, that Christian requirement is used to keep people of other faiths, namely Jewish people, from joining. (Even though I was told that the Methodist Church itself is in favor of letting anyone join). And you thought the Hobby Lobby thing was complicated.
But...but...this is a religious institution founded 100+ years ago, they can't change! Actually, from what I can tell, this is a homeowner's association. I've given talks at churches and on the campuses of faith-based colleges and universities. They look and feel like churches. This looks and feels like a resort community. And it's lovely. And they did change their by-laws in 1959 when they removed the language forbidding non-white races from joining. So, change is possible. The members just need to vote that way. Last year's vote was split right down the middle.
So, knowing that I was about to give my big talk the next evening, I did what anyone with WiFi would have done, I Googled the heck out of this controversy. And most telling was a fifty-two page document by current and former Bay View members urging change. In it were statements like this:
No matter how tightly you wrap yourselves in the idea of freedom of religion, there is the foul odor of prejudice and racism in this position. During my interview, I was asked, “But what if more Jews wanted to join Bay View?” Implicit in this statement was the country club mentality of “we don’t want their kind among us.”
That's when I realized that by showing up, I'd accidentally stepped on flaming bag of dog-poop while wearing new shoes. I couldn't do my song and dance here because by doing so might imply tacit approval. So I talked to my publicist, my agent, and most importantly my wife who recommended that I do my thing, but use the spotlight as a teaching moment. (Um...yeah, that sounded like going into the lion's den and preaching veganism. But, hey, like with most things, she was right).
So my choices were:
1) Take my ball and go home. I could have cancelled. Packed my bags and left, which makes a certain kind of statement and would have been easy to do.
2) Dance, monkey, dance. I could have gone through with my normal event. Get check. Cash check. This actually would have been the hardest thing to do. I'm just not built that way. Some days, I wish I was. Life would be easier without a conscience.
3) Speak from the heart. And that's what I did. I turned down my speaking fee and gave a different kind of talk, one where I shared how my great-grandfather changed his last name from Chung to Ford so he could own property in Nevada. How my grandparents lived on Beacon Hill in Seattle because that was the only neighborhood in the city where a Chinese person could buy a house at the time. I talked about how it was illegal for my parents to get married in my mom's home state of Arkansas (they got married in California). And I talked about how the magic of this place vanished as soon as I realized the magic was only reserved for certain people. I expressed how Bay View was a wonderful community with a rich heritage and that I hoped they'd invite me back, and that if they did, I hoped I'd want to come back. It was a knee-trembling, voice-wavering, emotional speech and when I was done there was a round of thunderous applause, much to my relief.
Half of the community was thrilled that I spoke up. One woman from Louisville even gave me a "battlefield commission to Kentucky Colonel." The other half, not so much. But even a few of the angry ones still wanted me to sign their books.
I wrote "True love abides all."