One day in early 1994, I realized I had no idea what was south of Fort Lewis.
I had been assigned to the Army post in November 1993, way back before it was reconfigured as part of JBLM, but I’d not had much opportunity to explore the area.
I was aware that Olympia was somewhere nearby but also had heard that it was full of people called “Greeners.” Apparently, these were long-haired, free-love radical students from the Evergreen State College still trying to live in the 1960s.
As a clean-cut young soldier from a very conservative suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, I found that lifestyle mysterious, even somewhat threatening.
But I was also curious and decided to go looking for them.
One day I found myself with a 90-minute window for lunch. I decided to drive for 30 minutes south as far as I could get and hopefully find something to eat that didn’t contain marijuana, patchouli or tofu before returning to base.
Traffic was bad, even back then, and I only made it to Hawks Prairie. I ate at a McDonald’s.
I found people who were just looking for something to eat, a moment to rest, enjoy the company of others and use the restrooms.
A few weeks later I pushed farther south and discovered downtown Olympia. Yes, there were people with different clothes and longer hair, but I largely found the same thing: people looking for food, companionship or a cup of coffee.
That wasn’t the only time I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone.
About a year later I was assigned to join the Army chaplain I worked with and visit the African Gospel congregation that worshipped on post.
He and I were both Caucasians – he, a Lutheran farm boy from Minnesota, and me, the product of a quiet, conservative Methodist church -- and I doubted we would fit in well.
The people of that congregation looked so different than the two of us, and they had such long, energetic worship services.
Boy, was I wrong! They welcomed us as brothers, and I felt nothing but love and acceptance. We ate, prayed and served together for two glorious years.
I found that they were basically the same as me: They longed for company, had similar concerns about jobs and families, and watched the same television shows.
In the 20 years since my military service ended, I’ve had the great fortune to be involved with construction projects in new communities throughout the South Sound. My coworkers and I would often have some apprehension as a project started.
There are doubts that tug at all of us when we reach out further. Will this group of people be different? Will this community welcome us? Will we get along? Can we trust them?
Every time, the fears turn out unfounded; we’ve found people doing the same sorts of things: eating, laughing, exercising, worrying, striving, dreaming and all the other activities that fill our days.
I’ve made it a point the last few years to keep pushing further out into territories I’m unfamiliar with, both geographically and culturally. I want to explore and learn about any gathering of people I can find.
I’ve reached out to LGBTQ communities and found people who eat, laugh, pray and watch Marvel movies. I’ve attended Black Lives Matter meetings and found people who eat, pay bills, do homework and fly airplanes.
I’ve visited more synagogues, mosques, temples, churches and community centers than I can count and found them all full of people who eat, pray, sing, seek inspiration and share both joys and sorrows.
Every time I’ve reached out, I’ve felt welcomed and appreciated for making the effort to understand.
Every time I go looking for “them,” I just find more of us.
Every time I go looking for “them,” I just find more of me.
Andrew Homan of University Place is a network administrator at the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties. He's one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at NoelNHoman@gmail.com and read some of his other work at www.andrewhoman.com