Each Other's Backyard

  • Each Other's Backyard

In 1998 my business partner and I opened Emerald City Laundry, a busy neighborhood laundromat in Arcata, California. Our mission statement said and remains “to be a clean, safe and dignified place for people to work do their laundry.” On the back of the interior door that separates the laundromat from the supply room is a black bumper sticker that reads “Do No Harm” in big white block letters. I sometimes wonder if our employees actually see it and think about its intention, or if it’s one of those signs that they see so often it becomes invisible. I hope not.  

Some years ago I got stuck in a conversation with a man sitting next to me on a long flight; I was in the middle seat, of course. Not long into the flight I caught his sideways glance as he noticed I was reading a book about Buddhist practice. I couldn’t help but glance back and noticed him reading a book about Christianity.  I didn’t give it much thought until he said “So you’re a Buddhist.” Looking up I said “I don’t know, I’m just reading this book.” I tried to leave it at that, but he wanted to talk. “Well, if you’re not a Buddhist, and you’re reading a Buddhist book, what are you?” I wish I’d been quick, clever and polite enough to say something that would have ended the conversation, but instead I took the bait. “I’m Jewish and interested in Buddhist practice.”  

This began his very long exhortation that as a devout Christian white man he understands the plight of the Jews around the world along with all of the other oppressed people from Africa. I don’t think my jaw was visibly on the floor, but given that I was stuck in the middle seat for two more hours, I decided to listen and see if I could understand his way of thinking.  

At some point he began talking about God and compassion. That intentionally harming another person under the guise of teaching a lesson, as in “an eye for an eye” is true compassion.  And that is when I suggested that we have very different views, and offered to change the subject. No dice. As he continued, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I calmly interrupted him and said “Sir, this conversation is over.” He looked at me as if I’d hurt his feelings. I thanked him and went back to reading my book.  

When I was in 8th grade in 1973, I played the part of a nurse in the musical production of South Pacific. I can still remember most of the words to most of the songs. The story explores issues of racial prejudice as romances develop between an American nurse and a middle-aged French expatriate plantation owner and father of mixed-race children, as well as a U.S. lieutenant and a young Asian woman.  The still incomprehensible massacre in Orlando, the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin reminded me of the song “You’ve Got to be Taught.” I vividly remember learning this song for the show and not knowing how to respond. Here are the lyrics.  

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.  

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.  

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!  

We are still taught to fear, to demean, to judge and to hate even though we know that hatred begets hatred, that ignorance begets ignorance, and violence certainly begets violence. It’s frightening to acknowledge the ways we reject one another, the ways we cause harm both intentionally and unintentionally.  

Let’s wake up and look into the painful, complex and deeply ingrained culture of racism, fear and intolerance in ourselves, our communities and the wider culture. Let’s study the meaning of “Do No Harm,” so we can courageously say “The violence stops with me,” and admit that we all live in each other’s backyard.  


May all beings be cared for and loved,
Be listened to, understood and acknowledged despite different views,
Be accepted for who they are in this moment,
Be afforded patience,
Be allowed to live without fear of having their lives taken away or
their bodies violated.
May all beings,
Be well in its broadest sense,
Be fed,
Be clothed,
Be treated as if their life is precious,
Be held in the eyes of each other as family.
May all beings,
Be appreciated,
Feel welcomed anywhere on the planet,
Be freed from acts of hatred and desperation including war, poverty,
slavery, and street crimes,
Live on the planet, housed and protected from harm,
Be given what is needed to live fully, without scarcity,
Enjoy life, living without fear of one another,
Be able to speak freely in a voice and mind of undeniable love.
May all beings,
Receive and share the gifts of life,
Be given time to rest, be still, and experience silence.
May all beings,
Be awake.  
~ Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Marselean Pierre-Manuel

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