by: Chris Stedman
Note: This piece was originally published on Thought Catalog and was reposted with permission from the author. You can find the original here.
“What if we just, you know, stopped by?”
The stretch of highway that connects Minneapolis to Chicago is monstrously monotonous. The road is flat, the plains expand in all directions, and the Wisconsin state police are eagle-eyed and everywhere. Anti-abortion billboards – so convicted of the imperativeness of their cause that pausing to consider proper punctuation would be unthinkable – scream at passersby: “WHAT. EMBRYOS ARE BABIES!”
My boyfriend and I were headed back to Illinois, where we both lived, after a week in the woods of northern Minnesota. Doused in dirt, clad in plaid, heads haloed by handkerchiefs, we bid farewell to my family in Minneapolis and hit the highway on a sunny Sunday morning.
Interstate 94 extended before us into the gaping open sky, pavement and horizon meeting as delicately as the fingertips in “The Creation of Adam.” We passed through the tourist-trap of Wisconsin Dells but didn’t stop, deciding we were short on money and time – though later we did stop long enough to make out behind a gas station while cicadas chirped a swelling soundtrack like the waves crashing on Lake Superior’s rocky shore the week before.
After a full day of driving the sun was in decline, and so was our patience. We loved the road, but we’d just spent a week driving around Minnesota and claustrophobia was starting to set in, my black Ford Focus beginning to feel a bit more coffin than car.
As we neared our boredom breaking point, “Vow” – the first song off Garbage’s 1995 self-titled debut – came on. When Matt and I first met, we had bonded over our mutual childhood love for Garbage – and how much we (without even a shred of irony) continued to enjoy them. We sang along, loudly, until Matt slammed the volume button and turned to look squarely at me, his face lit up with one of the biggest grins I’d ever seen.
“You know that Smart Studios is in Madison, right?” he said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
I burst into laughter. “Stop trying to act like you were any more obsessed with Garbage than I was in middle school,” I said, a bit more defensively than I meant to. “And high school. And, erm, college. ‘Do I know that Smart Studios – a.k.a. Garbage’s home base – is in Madison?’ C’mon!”
Matt couldn’t be bothered to humor my puffed chest; he was on a mission. “Okay, whatever, ego; we should go see it!” he cheered. “Oh my god, what if the band is there?!” His seatbelt could barely contain him at this point, his squirms threatening to rocket him out the open window.
Again, I laughed. “That’s something a stalker would say. ‘Oh, hey, you don’t know me. No, my being here right now isn’t weird… I was just driving through Madison and thought I’d, you know, drop in on your recording studio.’”
Matt was more spontaneous than me; in general, I was too cautious, too concerned. But that was part of why we worked so well as a unit – he freed me up to indulge my impulses. He broke me out of my casing, making me more open to new people, new experiences, and new ideas. It wasn’t hard for him to free me – he had a way of arching his eyebrows when he was being mischievous that I couldn’t deny. I might find myself in trouble, but I’d have fun getting there.
Though I didn’t admit it, I was immediately wedded to the idea. It was as much the impulsiveness of it as it was the thought of showing up at a recording studio owned by one of my favorite bands. The lunacy of it was exhilarating and intoxicating.
Before I could even say so, we were in Madison. Pulling off the highway, I shifted back into a lower gear and pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot. We looked up directions to the studio and jumped back into the car, laughing and asking one another, “are we really going to do this?”
Moments later, we stood before a big red door. Neither of us willing to ring the bell, we volleyed “You do it. No, you do it!” back and forth, an increasingly manic tone to our voices, the crimson face of the door looming over us and daring us to move. Finally, Matt put his finger on the bell and gently pressed it. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it so tight that I thought my fingers might pop off.
The music that had been playing inside stopped and several muffled voices stirred, getting closer and louder. Would Shirley Manson herself materialize? My heart skipped several beats at the thought.
“We’re totally going to get arrested,” I said. Matt laughed, but it wasn’t the fearless kind he had offered just minutes ago.
A bearded man in a loose-fitting button-up appeared at the door. Without prompting, he said that Mike wasn’t there, but that we could wait inside if we wanted. We stood motionless in a kind of haze, neither of us saying a word.
“You are here to see Mike, right?” he inquired.
Matt and I looked at each other with blank stares. We might’ve tried to play along, but neither of us were very good at that kind of thing.
“Uh, we don’t, you know, know Mike,” Matt said. “So, um, no.”
Another man came up behind him, hair sweeping across his forehead.
“So, who are you guys?”
“I’m Chris,” I said, “and he’s Matt.”
They both laughed, and Matt and I cracked a weak smile. “Okay…” the second man said, trailing off. “What’s up?”
“Um, we were driving through and, erm, you know, we wanted to see the, uh, studio, you know, because we’re, um, big Garbage fans and, uh, yeah, that’s it,” I stammered, purple from embarrassment and a lack of oxygen.
The guys turned to one another, shrugged their shoulders, and emitted a quiet chuckle. Then they turned back to us.
“You guys seem legit enough,” said the second man, a lanky guy in a well-worn band tee. I soon learned that his name was Beau, and to this day we’re still in touch – we exchange tweets and emails at least once a week, I quoted from one of our exchanges in a Washington Post On Faith column, and I even crashed on the floor of his home studio recently while passing through Portland, OR on a speaking tour.
They proceeded to show Matt and I around and tell us about Shirley, Duke, Steve, and Butch, providing anecdotes and taking our picture with some of Garbage’s ARIA certifications. We were in music nerd heaven, stealing glances at one another to confirm that this was actually happening.
Like the innkeeper who gave Mary and Joseph a place to stay when no one else would, these strangers took it upon themselves to boldly welcome us into their world. We could’ve been anyone – they probably should have shut the door in our faces, if not called the police – but they took a risk and let us in.
Years later, Beau and I discussed the fact that the people on both sides of the door were vulnerable and a little afraid – “we had lots of sketchy people ring that doorbell,” he told me – and that it took guts for them to let two strangers into the really nice, expensive “manger” they’d been left in charge of. That it was risky, and that they thought they had little to gain by inviting us inside. But that, for some unknown reason, they did anyway.
After the tour, they invited us out to karaoke, and though we still had a long drive ahead of us, we couldn’t say no. As someone did their best interpretation of “I Will Always Love You,” we swapped stories. Our rich conversation was full of potentiality, all of us broken open to discovering the other, our walls momentarily decimated by the shock of unexpected welcome. After a while our eyes began to droop, and we bid our new friends a good evening.
As we continued on our way, racing down the interstate, delirious with exhaustion while “Temptation Waits” echoed out the open windows and into the dark, I couldn’t help but think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I was working on a Master of Arts in Religion and had enrolled in a preaching class at a Presbyterian seminary out of curiosity, and sure enough that week’s assignment had been to preach on Luke 10:25-37.
Though I no longer considered myself a Christian – I did not believe in God, the resurrection or, even in my most optimistic moments, the possibility that a man could transform water into wine – much of the Christian message still resonated with me, and it continues to. How could it not? Though I am an atheist, Christianity has thoroughly informed my ethos; the radical nature of Christ appeals to me in much the same way that Matt’s spontaneous spirit did. It knocks me out of my comfort zone.
There are too many people who are comfortably unengaged these days, and I think that is a significant hindrance to social progress. Because of my experiences as both a Christian and an atheist, I’m quite interested in engendering reconciliation between the Christian community and those who are no longer Christians. I suspect we have much to learn from one another, if only we’d welcome one another into honest and compassionate dialogue.
I’m sure it’s my own bias, but I continue to see music as a particularly effective vehicle for this kind of reconciliation. For example: even my most jaded atheist hipster friends well up when hearing the (overtly Christian) message of Sufjan Stevens. I was lucky enough to meet the man at the back of the 400 Bar in Minneapolis once while his opening act played; I wished him luck. Now, I wish I had said “thank you.”
Recently, I forged a friendship with Christian singer Derek Webb. It began over twitter, and then I conducted an interview with him. Since then, we’ve continued our dialogue about pluralism and religious identity. Both of us remain solid in our seemingly disparate convictions, but we intersect at our mutual desire to see love and reconciliation in the world. Through his music, Derek communicates an ideal of radical welcoming – and because of that, he’s engaging important conversations with non-Christians.
Why is it that some choose to take the risk of welcoming the stranger in cases where there is no obvious self-interested benefit? What would the world look like if we were all a bit more radical in who we let in the door; if we were willing to take the risk of opening up to strangers, to take them time to listen to the stories of how people come into our lives, to show them the benefit of the doubt in spite of our differences? If atheists and Christians started seeing one another as human beings wrestling with the same questions of meaning and justice instead of as polar opposites? What might we come to understand about the other, and what might we come to better understand about ourselves?
The next time Matt and I made the drive from Minneapolis to Chicago by way of Madison, we decided to stop in Wisconsin Dells instead, to ride Wisconsin’s fastest roller coaster. But as obsessed as we both were with rollercoasters, Matt and I agreed that nothing would ever top the thrill of being let in the door of Smart Studios; of being radically welcomed by Good Sa-mart-Stud-ians.
May their boldness be an example for us all.
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago and is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. He is a panelist for The Washington Post On Faith, and his writing has also appeared in venues such as The Journal of College and Character,Tikkun Daily, The New Humanism, and more.