Most of the time I take my neighborhood for granted. Walking home from the subway last Saturday, though, the neighborhood was looking positively Biblical.Specifically, it reminded me of the eleventh chapter in Genesis (Old Testament again, for those of you keeping track), in which the citizens of Babel decide to build a tower that will reach the sky. Technological advances created an opportunity: the Babelites had figured out how to use bricks and mortar in construction, so they decided that building something monumental was a good way to hold their society together and make their mark on the world.God wasn’t happy. As my trusty New Standard Revised Version puts it, God said,
“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”And God did, and the people were scattered, and the tower wasn’t finished.There’s a lot about that story that disturbs me. First, there’s the idea that diversity is a punishment – the world’s different cultures and languages are part of a divine plan to keep us divided and confused. I’ve certainly felt that way at various times: trying for example to cross what was still the Turkish-Soviet frontier by the Black Sea years ago, I wandered through the vast and formidably fortified and policed border station on the Turkish side looking for somebody who spoke some kind of Indo-European language with the hope that we might have a few word roots and grammatical constructions in common. That would be a start, anyway, and I might be able to get a few hints about how to fill in the long and incomprehensible Turkish and Georgian language customs forms I’d been given. (In that remote part of Turkey, where cows in beaded headdresses wander tiny winding roads between the hazelnut forests and upland meadows filled with giant purple crocus blossoms, it’s said that ‘every mountain has its own language’; in places people have developed a special whistling language so they can communicate across the deep and narrow valleys. Stunning, but it’s hard to get good directions.)Or there was the time in Kosovo, then governed under Serb martial law, when I stared for fifteen minutes at a bilingual restaurant menu (Serbian and Albanian) before I figured out that (Cyrillic letters here) PIVA meant ‘piva’—or ‘beer’—and realized I’d been looking at the drinks page. Ultimately I gave up on deciphering the menu and ordered by flapping my arms and making chicken noises – much to the delight of my fourteen year-old goddaughter.But be all that as it may, you wouldn’t get far in America today by saying diversity is a curse from God and serves to reduce human potential. My neighborhood is one where American diversity is hard to miss. Last Saturday was Halloween; they left the Ramadan lights up on 74th Street this year for the Hindu festival of lights (Diwali) and as you walked by the sari shops, the jewelry stores, the South Asian candy stores, supermarkets and restaurants, Bollywood music blared out from video stores and Ganesha statues gazed out benignly from the store windows on the masked twenty-somethings in Halloween costumes dodging the shoppers and the sidewalk stalls offering everything from Islamic religious articles to halal meat. Five minutes later the scene changed; flocks of Colombian and Dominican kids in Halloween costumes carrying bags of candy stood in line outside the Italian bakery that was handing out Halloween cookies as we all celebrated this ancient Anglo-Saxon rite of fall. The Argentine, Nepalese, Afghan, and Peruvian restaurants on the way home were doing a brisk business; in the produce stands people from all over the world were picking over the papayas, mangoes, fuyus, Asian pears, prickly pears, and Korean sweet potatoes that nestled next to the New York state apples as if they’d been there for generations. The Bible talks about people being ‘scattered abroad over the face of all the earth’ but in Jackson Heights, at least, the people and the produce seem to be clumping back together.We get along pretty well in Jackson Heights, most of the time. In the weeks after 9/11 there were fewer women in hijab and fewer men in the various forms of Islamic dress than usual; the Afghan restaurant closed for a week. When it re-opened, it was full of people stopping by to tell the proprietors not to worry; we were glad to have them around and nobody blamed them for anything going on. Once I saw some kids handing out Islamic pamphlets arguing with a couple of elderly Hindus about religion; in church sometimes you’ll hear both the Anglos and the Spanish speakers grumbling that they hate the bilingual services that the clergy insists we celebrate together every couple of months. That’s pretty much it for overt religious and ethnic conflict here in Babel, Queens.So where does that leave the biblical story?Well, the first thing I’d note is that people in Jackson Heights aren’t all that confused, linguistically. We either speak English, or are learning to do so. You will see signs in other languages and other alphabets here and there, but the stores and the restaurants want everybody to know what’s inside so English wins out where the signs are concerned. Here, as in American history generally, it’s the very diversity of immigrants that helps hold the country together. Because immigrants to the United States come from so many different countries and speak so many languages among themselves (over one hundred languages are spoken in Queens), immigrants have always thought that English was the only way to go. Research shows that Spanish-speaking immigrants today in the U.S. are learning English about as fast as past waves of newcomers.Countries like Germany, Britain and France may be having more trouble with immigrants because their immigrant flows come from fewer different sources. In France, immigrants from North Africa speak Arabic and share religious and cultural traits that tend to pull them together; many (though not all) of the Turkish immigrants in Germany and the Pakistani immigrants in Britain tend to form self-sufficient communities cut off from the wider society around them. That option doesn’t work as well in Jackson Heights; the different immigrant communities are small enough, and the surrounding society is open enough, that most of the new immigrants and their kids want to do what other American immigrants have done in the past: find a way to harmonize their old identities and cultures with American life.But let’s not get too smug. As uncomfortable as parts of it may be, the biblical story does have some lessons for us; one reason I keep coming back to the Bible is that so many of its stories challenge me to think a little deeper and look a little harder than I might otherwise.The Babel story is no exception. In America today we continue to face challenges to our ability to understand and work together on common projects. Though both stations broadcast in American English, the anchors on Fox News and MSNBC see different worlds and speak in very different political tongues. Gay rights advocates and conservative Southern Baptists mean very different things when they use words like freedom and human rights. Sometimes it feels as though America is splitting up into different peoples and tribes, each with its own language and worldview, and that it’s getting harder and harder to communicate and cooperate across these lines.(This is not, I think, the end of the world. Readers of Special Providence and God and Gold know that I believe the political diversity of American life is a strength, not a weakness.)Which brings us back to the two testaments. The story in the New Testament that mirrors the Babel story in the Old is the story of Pentecost, which describes how tongues of fire fell on the disciples allowing them to preach the message of Jesus to crowds gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world. The people in those crowds spoke dozens of languages from all over the Mediterranean, but according to the Book of Acts, everyone there heard the disciples speaking in his or her own native tongue.The idea is one of a universal message that reaches each of us in a unique and individual way. Maybe that each of us in Jackson Heights is able to hear and accept that message, in however partial and distorted form we get it, is why we are able to live together and create this wonderful neighborhood brick by brick.