I had made the comment to TruDee the other day after my first walk in the park near our new home. Perhaps no big thing but an experience worth pondering I thought as I shared that along the walking path I met many people. Primarily those of whom I would assume were my race, Caucasian and many along the path looked to be of Asian descent. The curious thing to me was the amount of eye contact and the level of interaction. I tend to always make eye contact and offer a greeting when I meet someone on my walks.
I found it interesting on this first occasion in the park that the Caucasian, white, persons I met along the way rarely made eye contact and none of them acknowledged my smile or my greeting. On the other had every person I met that was not of my Caucasian race made eye contact immediately, greeting my smile with a smile, and either acknowledged my “Good Morning” with a verbal response or at minimum a head nod. One man of Asian heritage smiled and waved at me from a good eight to ten feet away as if I were a long lost friend. Interesting I thought, but maybe I just got some folks on a bad day and others on a good one.
This morning Simeon and I left the house for our every other day walk in the park and along the route I encountered many of the same people I had last Friday and a handful of faces I did not recognize. The experience this morning was the same. I suppose there are a host of ponderings, explanations, analysis, etc., or maybe there aren’t any particular underlying reasons for the difference in engagement with others. This morning as I walked and pondered my own upcoming sermon about immigration, about the Trayvon Martin travesty, about the next sermon in this series around marriage and civil rights, two past experiences came to me.
Both experiences came in my seminary years at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. The first was a discussion group I was a part of around the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday that year and we had a special speaker at the school. We were in a large room and I remember the speaker inviting us to create a human timeline to indicate where we thought racism was in the United States. He said those of you who believe racism is no more, it is not a problem, we have resolved it stand nearest me and those of you who believe we have made no progress at all stand at the other end of the line, and so on along the line at whatever point you believe expresses the progress we have made with the problem of racism. I sat in my chair for a long time pondering where I might stand. Finally, after much thought, I decided to stay in my seat and not stand in the line.
My friend sat down beside me after the exercise was done and looked at me with a puzzled look and asked, “What’s up with that? How come you didn’t participate?” I told him, “Well Mark, you know as I sat here and thought it occurred to me, who am I to say where we are on this issue? Who am I as a white male to say how far we’ve come? I’ve never been spat at, refused service, been called ‘those people’ or ‘your kind,’ I’ve never had someone cross on the other side of the street rather than pass me on a sidewalk, I’ve never had people look at me suspiciously just because of the color of my skin. Do I think we have made progress? Yes,” I said. “Do I think it is resolved and nonexistent? Not by a long shot. That’s why I didn’t stand Mark, because I have never been black or brown like you, I can only acknowledge my own racism that is probably deep within me and do my best to work on obliterating from my genes.” With that my friend leaned back in his chair and put his arm around my shoulder and we finished listening to the speaker.
The other experience was on a ride along with the Kansas City Missouri Police Department as part of an immersion experience for a class. I do not remember the exact time frame we rode just that it began early evening and went late into the night, perhaps 11:00pm or midnight. The officer I rode with was informative and conversant. We went on several domestic dispute calls and made several traffic stops. We sat in an alley outside a known drug house to monitor activity of which there was none.
Toward the end of the ride along we parked in the entrance of an alley and just sat and visited and observed traffic, both vehicle and the few who were walking past. There had been no one by for an extended period of time when a lone man in a jacket across the street walked slowly along the sidewalk. In the glow of the night you could see his long hair under a cap, his white face, and holey jeans. The officer made no comment about the man though we both watched as he walked along and continued our conversation. Another ten or twenty minutes passed by and another man, by himself appeared walking down the same sidewalk, same side of the street as the previous man. I could see he too had a hat on and a jacket, ragged jeans. The officer reached up and turned on his spot light and shined it in the man’s face across the street. The man paused and raised his hand to shield his eyes from the bright light and looked in our direction then continued on his way. I asked the officer why he had shined the light on this man and his only response was, “Just letting him know we are here watching.” The only difference between these two men was the second one was black. There wasn’t any more conversation between myself and the officer after that and I was glad when the ride along was over.
What is it that prompts an officer to shine a bright light into the eyes of one man and not another obviously just because of his skin color? What prompts an armed man to decide an African American teenager in a hoodie is suspicious enough to pursue even when a 911 dispatcher instructs him to stay in his car? What prompts two men to torture and beat a young man to death simply because he is gay? What prompts one to vandalize, burn, and taunt a temple or mosque simply because they do not agree with what they believe? What prompts a man to walk into a church or a Sikh temple and shot other human beings just because they are different? What prompts a country that was begun, fed, and nurtured by immigrants to decide immigration is now somehow a bad thing?
What is so deeply ingrained in us that causes us to fear the other, the diverse, and the unique? I suspect there would be those who say this has been going on since Cain first knocked Abel in the head with a rock, which it is part of who we are, inherent, it is in our genes. Perhaps there is even a little truth in the idea that this is perhaps instinctive and part of our survival mechanisms from an earlier time in our evolutionary process. But, I tend to believe it is little truth.
One learns to be suspicious, one learns to hate, one learns to exclude, and one learns to be a bigot. We are all guilty, me included. I do not embrace change easily. Difference is uncomfortable. Getting to know someone who is different, who believes differently, thinks differently, looks differently is hard work, and to fear and exclude them, even hate them and deny them freedoms and rights is the broad path that is easier and more convenient. Acknowledging our fear and “going toward the roar” as a friend of mine says, in order to learn, and know, and better understand is the better way, the narrow way, and the way that will lead to life. But it takes vulnerability and we don’t do vulnerable well.
We continue to have a huge problem in our country with racism, sexism, bigotry, hate, and violence, to deny that we all participate in it in some way is not only to be disingenuous but it is to be a huge part of the problem. The first step to a cure is to admit the problem, not deny it. Stand Your Ground Laws are not a solution, Stand Your Ground Laws only feeds the problem! To remain silent about it is to perpetuate the hate and violence that takes the lives of our best and our brightest. And it’s time to speak!
Martin Luther King Jr. stated we fear others because we do not know them. Mother Teresa said we do not have peace in the world because we have forgotten we belong to one another. For all the Trayvon Martin’s, Sikh Temples, Muslim Mosque’s, Christian Church’s, George Tiller’s, Matthew Shepard’s, the unknown who are simply walking down a dark sidewalk, and the innumerable who are beaten, bullied, excluded, hated, simply because of the way the look, believe, or who they love, when are we going to acknowledge our fear of the other and lay down our arms?
When are we going to remember our common humanity and finally beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, or turn our bombs into planters? When are we going to admit our fear and addiction to violence and hatred toward the other and earnestly and honestly work on understanding, welcome, and grace? When will we finally let go of our fear and let love be the rule rather than the exception?
I liked the quote, though I do not recall who said it, I saw earlier this week that said something along the line of “I long for the day when the George Zimmerman offers Trayvon Martin a ride home in the rain.” I long for the day when compassion is our first response rather than an afterthought. I long for the day when we all see within each one we meet the light of the Divine, the light of grace, and the light of love. For Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring just as true today as they did when he originally spoke them, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”