I have trouble deciding what to do on Thursday evening. I’m registered for the MennoNight Fun Run and for days I’ve looked forward to this escape, 6.2 beautiful miles of running on the trail by the Allegheny River through downtown Pittsburgh. Running river trails is one of my passions; I put in miles every week on the wooded trails by the Kaw River back home in Lawrence, Kansas.
But then I read my schedule again and see that the Conversation Room on Sexual Orientation was scheduled for the same time. At first I think that is it for my running plans, but by the end of the Conversation Room on Teaching Positions (oh, how weary I am of that phrase) I am mentally spent and physically restless. Eventually I decide that I need the run more than I need another Conversation Room experience. I put on a Pink Menno t-shirt, tie my cell phone and hotel key onto my arm with a pink bandanna, and add another pink bracelet. I tell myself that doing the race in all that pink is a field experiment, but mostly, I admit, I just want to run. Being a pink witness is a bonus. Plus I can run at least part of the way with my friend Ruth, a pastor, one of the few people here from my “real life” outside of this convention and my running partner whenever I go back to North Newton to visit my parents.
In the beginning of the race it is hard to pace myself, surrounded by fast teenagers–I’m a 35-year-old woman and much better at endurance than at speed (there’s a metaphor for social change in there somewhere). After the 5K turnaround, though, the crowds thin. I say goodbye to Ruth and continue on for the 10K, running alone, my mind quieting to simple observations: water, trees, moon. It grows dark.
After a while, the first 10K runners start passing me, having already reached the turnaround. It is custom, in small races like this, to encourage one another, friend or stranger; even at large marathons many runners will go back to the finish line to cheer other finishers once they’ve crossed it. Running is sometimes described as a solitary sport, but at races people tend to look out for each other.
And the longer the race, the more interdependent the runners become. It helps that longer races strip away some layers of basic dignity. At a 10K race in high humidity, obviously you’re going to be covered with sweat. But in a longer race, you may count yourself lucky not to be covered in anything worse than that. Vomit, blood from horrible chafing, even excrement…I’ve seen them all. When you’re weary, it shows. Distance runners know the truth: sometimes it is Community or Bust. Sometimes, when you think your body’s going to give out, you have to put it on autopilot and concentrate on your spirit. Other people help with this.
“Good job!” the fast runners call to me. “All right!” Runners embrace corny encouragements. I forget I am wearing pink until one young guy calls out to me, “Go team!” At the turnaround the volunteers pass out water. “Just keep praising the Lord, and you’ll make it back!”, one of them cheers.
“That’s the idea,” I say, basically just for something to say. I don’t mind his encouragement–I even find I appreciate it, but it throws me momentarily. It has been a long time since I’ve spent much time around people who talk unironically about praising the Lord, and hearing the phrase jolts me fully back into the context of my presence here: I am at an MCUSA convention. I am here to study people, people I care about and don’t want to hurt. I am a Mennonite–except not really, unless you let me define it for myself, which many people wouldn’t. I am a Mennonite who has a lot of problems with Christianity and can still sing hymns, who can barely say the Lord’s Prayer because it sounds so patriarchal but said it anyway at the gravesides of four grandparents. The idea of a “world” as separate from “the church” is theologically nonsensical to me. I swear whenever I read The Mennonite, which lately has been a lot.
Among my friends one of the most devout Christians I know is a transgendered man. He was my suitemate in college and left the Mennonite Church for the United Church of Christ, the same denomination that provides Pink Mennos the space in Pittsburgh that MCUSA denies them. I have considered following his example, but I haven’t because it’s so nice to be free of the ambivalence and emotional weirdness that comes up whenever I step into a sanctuary. I tend to go running on Sunday mornings.
In the world of ethnographic and social science research, there exists a bizarre notion known as “objectivity.” At a very basic level, objectivity is the idea that if the researcher follows the right protocols, she will gain access to the truth about the situation that she is investigating, free of any particular perspective. It is a belief that erases the personhood and presence of the researcher and instead pretends to be what some ethnographers refer to as the “view from nowhere.” Scholars who believe in the possibility of pure objectivity have a faith in the “view from nowhere” that is oddly parallel to the belief of many conservative Christians that the Bible can be accessed in a pure form, transcending the lenses of interpretation.
I don’t have a view from nowhere, or even anywhere clean. I wear pink here in Pittsburgh because it feels right to wear pink and because I know my family when I see it, and these people are my people, just like my academic friends are my people and my running partners are my people.
Just like Ruth is my people. She meets me a mile from the finish line and pulls me through the last leg, the long, miserable, uphill stretch across the bridge, by which point I’m so tired from running through that heavy humid air, I’m just about ready to puke. She pulls me through the way runners pull each other through. It’s also the way family works, at its best, something I’ve learned again and again, often from queer friends who learned it through necessity. Some of us may be good at endurance, but we don’t endure alone.