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Bad tidings at the VA: Saga of the white angel

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001


Oh, phony Christmas tree.

Oh, phony Christmas tree.

If they had been wise at Bay Pines VA hospital, they wouldn't have taken you out of your box and put you up in the lobby last week.

For as soon as the tree went up, some black employees objected to the white angel topping the tree.

They wanted a more neutral image of Christmas, like a star or a bow.

This stone of a story started rolling downhill, picking up steam.

What began as a racial issue morphed into a religious issue. For the tree went up as the handful of Muslim employees at the hospital were getting a new prayer room, and some people objected. This is not a particularly easy time to be a Muslim, but the principal beef was that the new prayer room would displace an employees' break room.

You can guess what happened next. The spirit of the holidays sprouted angels' wings and flew out the window. Noses got seriously out of joint. Employees began calling their union, their congressman.

The black employees were mad, so the white angel came down.

A gold-colored angel went up, and the white employees got mad.

The only people who did not appear to complain were the Muslims.

This could not go on forever. The orderly functioning of the hospital was under threat by people's perceptions of angels and Muslims.

So a deal was brokered between the head of the hospital and the head of its employees union.

The white angel would return to the tree, and the break room that the Muslims were supposed to get as a new prayer room will stay a break room. The Muslims will get space for their prayer room elsewhere, and a diversity committee will be formed to handle things like the angel issue.

This was a deal any politician would admire, for it walked the tightrope of political correctness, while acknowledging the importance of the more practical matter that there is no place more significant in a hospital or company than a break room. The break room is where we put our feet up, drink bad coffee, eat junk food and gossip.

And at Bay Pines, they sure did gossip about this one.

Whites suspected Joan Harris, the hospital's equal employment manager, of being responsible for taking down the white angel because she is black and a Muslim, and Muslims don't believe in angels.

Let the record be corrected: Muslims do believe in angels, just like Christians. Even Gabriel is in the Islamic angelic pantheon. And it was Harris' job to field the complaints, all of them, no matter the color or faith of the complainer.

Harris said at week's end she was still hearing nasty comments in hospital corridors. She was holding her head high, trying to believe this too shall pass.

It will.

But let's not forget that we are talking about ephemeral, gauzy creatures that appear in the Bible and children's stories and rich-looking paintings by Renaissance artists.

If we'll turn a mere decoration into a matter of high politics and even higher sensitivity, then not much hope exists that we'll ever get ourselves out of the hole we dug ourselves into over political correctness. If we'll do so even during this season of gifts, lights and prayer, what hope exists on more ordinary days?

Happy holidays. But please, no matter where you stand on this matter, shut up about angels. We've had quite enough.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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