By Joe Lapp
For much of my life, my father was the pastor of an Amish-Mennonite church on Douglas Street, in the neighborhood just outside the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Feeling called to spread the love of the Christian god, my parents and other white volunteers from Pennsylvania and the Midwest moved to this Black community in the mid-1960s and settled in.
“The lily ponds,” as we called the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, offered a connection to the rural life that church volunteers had left behind. For me, the park – just across the street! – was a playground where I learned to appreciate and protect the natural world. My parents taught me that, since God was the creator of our Earth, we should take care of and respect it.
As a white kid growing up in what was mostly a Black community, I thought of race in binary terms: black and white. But, at the summer lotus festivals, the lily ponds offered a glimpse into yet another culture. Because, at each festival, DC’s southeast Asian community would come to see the magical lotus blossoms, put on traditional dances, and lay out a buffet of home-cooked dishes.
At the time I didn’t really understand the Asian community’s connection to the park, and the food was so different from my usual European meat-and-potatoes fare that I didn’t dare try it. But, by adulthood, experiences at the lily ponds and elsewhere had opened my cultural and religious perceptions enough to write a poem about Buddha and the lotus.
Years later, I had the privilege of living in Hanoi, a booming city of around 10 million people – and just as many motorbikes. Yet, amidst the bustle, the edge of the city’s West Lake was home to a trove of lotus ponds. Beauty even in the city, just like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
I could see a lotus pond from my apartment window, in fact, bursting with amazing pink blooms each summer. A few doors down, a family of urban farmers harvested, processed, and sold every imaginable part of the plant. During peak bloom, my street was jammed with traffic as Hanoians pulled over to get selfies with the iconic flowers.’
Seeing how integral the lotus and its promise – beauty rising from the muck and mud of life – was to people in Vietnam brought me full circle back to my childhood in the lily ponds. I understood, now, that this park I thought of as belonging to the Kenilworth neighborhood, actually belonged to a much larger community of people.
And, on my journey to openness, I began to see that appreciating and protecting nature isn’t just the province of my own religious heritage. It’s up to all of us, no matter the deity (or none) that we thank for earth’s beauty.