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Being the token 'WASP'

This week thanks to Facebook, I’ve been fortunate to connect with a number of fraternity brothers I haven’t been in touch with in years. It’s been really special as I always enjoyed what fraternity life brought me -- a sense of community and camaraderie at a big college like my alma matter, PennState.


As I was falling asleep tonight, I realized I loved that time of my life because it was such an innocent era for me.  I’m from a big Irish Catholic family in a tiny western Pennsylvania town. Although I was raised Catholic I have discovered that most of my roots are White Anglo Saxon Protestant. Anyway, what my specific religious background, I was naïve. I’d never been anywhere other than on vacation with my family. There were some disadvantages to having been such a “hick,” but there were some real benefits in being naïve as well. I had never learned prejudice.  That was one of the real blessings of growing up in my family.


It must be some sort of inherent character trait in me (or maybe something from a past life), but I have always been curious and most comfortable with people and cultures different from my own. If I had grown up with Barack Obama he would have been my best friend.  Face it, WASPS are generally boring. As a child, my best friend was from Burma. I remember the nuns at school telling us we needed to pray for his family because they were “pagan” and were going to hell.  Then the priest threw some “holy water” on them and suddenly they weren’t. That still doesn’t make sense to me.  My friend’s mother continued to be a Buddhist. I remember being afraid of her altar, because the nuns taught us to fear any religion that was not Catholic.  It was the only thing I was uncomfortable with; I always felt at home with his family and I soon became a regular fixture there.


The same thing happened to me when I joined my fraternity.  I’d had several friends join and it seemed like fun. Everybody was bright, friendly and motivated. They had good parties too and that meant a chance to meet a lot of girls.  So I was in.  When I’d tell people I was pledging Beta Sigma Beta, they’d look at me and ask me if I was Jewish.  I’d say no and wonder what the big deal was. Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Lutheran… weren’t they all the same?  I’d been taught Catholicism was “the only way to God” so what was the big deal?  They were all equally wrong in the eyes of my Church. We were never taught anything other than to just pray and obey. I hadn’t paid much attention in religion class anyway. It was boring. I became an altar boy just so I could get out of class. I literally knew nothing about any religion and its beliefs — including Catholicism!


This became the source of many comedic moments as I became a brother.  What do you mean you don’t have a Christmas tree?  Doesn’t “kosher” mean a type of hot dog?  The only thing I knew was that Jewish people worshiped on Saturday rather than Sunday and their church didn't have a steeple with a cross on it.  It was wonderful being exposed to new experiences:  lox and bagels, matzo ball soup, deli food, a sense of pride and community, humor, brotherhood, intelligent conversation, an interest in learning and bettering oneself. Everybody enjoyed teaching me the traditions of Judaism and I loved learning them. I grew as a person just from getting to know my friends better. My naiveté actually was a blessing. 


I’ve since had a similar experience when I have been around friends who are Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. Los Angeles is a melting pot offering a person the opportunity to learn so much about those who are “different” from oneself. What is surprising is that after a while you learn underneath it all, we are pretty much the same. I came to discover we were similar because our hearts and minds were open.


Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all looked at each other with those eyes of a child or a young person?  Back then, all I wanted was to have a friend.  It didn’t matter if they were “different” than me. If we all could just see each other with that innocence… without pre-judgment… wouldn’t that solve many of the conflicts we are having on a global scale? If we stopped fighting and learned to just share and play nicely again,,, that might be the answer. I know it sounds so simple, but I’d rather approach life with an open heart than a closed mind any day.