Recently, I was listening to Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing, talk about some of his experiences of growing up as a white male in 1950/60’s Mississippi. One of the stories he told that stood out to me the most was when he described an instance when a “well-meaning” older white woman explained to him the difference between him as a white male and an older black gentleman who Odell had “erroneously” called “Mister”. She explained to him that a black male would never be a “Mr.” In her worldview black men would always be boys or a label even more derogatory. However, she instructed, someday that same black male—though much older than Jonathan—would call him “Mr. Jonathan”. Odell explained how in that one conversation his whole world began to make sense. She had given him the context out of which to frame the previously confusing society that had been taking place around him.
As I listened to Odell, I thought back on some of my own experiences in Mississippi and other places when I encountered people who needed me to be in a certain frame in order to make sense of the world they chose to see. I thought of the woman who told me I was the “nicest little colored boy” even though I was 20 years old and the teacher who told me that I was a credit to my race. These two examples were light compared to some of the things that people said to me, but they were indicative of people who held a worldview that did not hold a certain group of people in the same regard as their own. Being conscious of this, I often had to rely on my faith in order to communicate back to the individuals in a way that was mutually edifying.
One of the teachers of the Christian tradition, Peter, said in a letter, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.” Even though following that precept isn’t always easy, I have truly seen the gift in making the attempt. This teaching is one of the many ways of saying, we reap what we sow, but with the added dimension that the blessing of the offender is a calling. I know that runs counter-cultural, but when you see something in the prevailing culture that you think needs to change, what else can you be? This isn’t to say that I think that the people who made these comments were trying to be abusive or evil. I don’t. I just think that they were misinformed. So I tried to bless them with more accurate information. The way I see it, if I don’t take the opportunity to use my encounters to break through some of the illusory walls of division then I’m part of whatever problem I see.
I had another such opportunity less than a week from the date of this article. Just as I had finished listening to Jonathan Odell, I pulled into a local Boulder, CO car wash. I was about to get change to wash my vehicle, when I thought to myself that $10 in quarters might be overkill. As I was approaching the change machine, a white woman was as well. As she got closer to the machine, I considered asking her if she had change for a $10, but I hesitated, because I had the thought, “I’m not going to ask this woman for change because I do not want to make her uncomfortable.” After thinking that thought, I examined it. Why did I think that I would make her uncomfortable? I knew why. It was because we were the only two people at the car wash and I assumed that she would feel awkward about a black man coming up to her and asking her for change.
Whenever I catch myself having such a thought, I often challenge my assumptions and force myself to engage, so I decided that I would cross the psychological chasm and just ask her for change. When I did, I could tell by the look on her face that my original assumption was accurate. She ended up telling me that she did not have change for a $10 and that she only had $4 on her. Awkwardness was in the air, but I ended up suggesting that perhaps rather than getting change for her $4, I could break my $10 and just give her $4 in quarters. That sounded reasonable enough to me, but she said, “No. I don’t want to do that. I just want to stick my dollars in the machine and get my own quarters.” I could tell that she was feeling pretty uncomfortable so I decided to let her off the hook and thanked her and got my $10 in quarters.
Just as I completed my transaction, I began talking to God as I often do when I witness us humans being silly. I then prayed over the situation in my mind and turned to go put some quarters in the vacuum when I heard the distinct sound of a dollar being rejected by the change machine. I turned to see that the machine was not giving the woman any quarters. She tried all four dollars and each one was spit back out at her. All I will say is that God is funny. She just stood in front of the machine in a state of incredulity. I knew what I had to do. I went up to her and asked if I could give her $4 in quarters since the machine didn’t seem to be taking her money. Would you believe that she said no again? In that moment I felt sorry for her. What invisible wall was there between us that she could not see the logic of my offer? How was this barrier affecting her in her daily life and relationships?
For a second I felt tempted to get frustrated and just leave her there flipping her dollars in different directions. She clearly needed the quarters, but for no earthly reason, she refused to take them from me. It reminded of the time I felt compassion for a homeless woman and decided to give her $20, but when I turned toward her to give it to her she looked at me and ran. I even yelled and said, “I just wanted to give you some money for food,” but she didn’t even turn around to see. Likewise, this woman was in a clear need but could not receive. I did a quick internal check asking for guidance on how to respond. It hit me to just be direct with her, so I said very pointedly, “I do not need $10 in quarters. You need $4 in quarters and the machine won’t give it to you. It only makes sense for you to allow me to give you $4 in quarters. It helps both of us.” With that a little window opened up in the invisible wall. She said okay. However, before making the exchange she backed up and put the $4 on a concrete block and then asked me to put the $4 in quarters down and then she would pick them up. I complied so she would be at ease. As I was doing so, it came to me that I should count out $4.25 in quarters as somewhat of a service charge for what was an unnecessarily difficult transaction. When I did so, I could see that the window opened a little higher as she said to me, “You don’t have to do that.” I took the extra quarter back and with that I went to my car and she went to hers.
As I cleaned my car I felt gratitude for that awkward exchange. I felt that perhaps like the other encounters I mentioned, there was a mutual learning taking place between the woman and me. Even though she seemed to be the one with the walls up, I cannot neglect the fact that I came to the encounter with my own assumptions. Nor can I deny the temptation within me to withdraw my compassion from her when she seemed to be living into that assumption. At the end of the day, I have chosen to try to live by these teachings and when I can, I would like to foster the dissolution of some of the walls that we often needlessly put up between each other. The fact is that it’s only encounters like this one and the aforementioned others that present these opportunities.
For a while as I was cleaning the car, I wondered if the woman had gotten as much out of the encounter as I had. I almost wanted to ask her. I was also curious as to whether she explored within to ask herself why she had so much resistance to the exchange. I am aware that my race might not have been the actual factor. Perhaps it was that I am a male or perhaps she just doesn’t like people. I don’t really know in this case. What I am pretty sure about was that whatever wall she put up or whatever assumption she was making, it was designed to make her world make sense. And that’s pretty much what we all are doing when we make assumptions or rely on our prejudices when we encounter others. As I see it, the only way that we can grow pass this is to watch our thoughts, challenge our assumptions, and intentionally engage with those who might make us a little uncomfortable. That’s precisely why I engaged with that woman and as a result, I was deeply affected by the encounter and I imagine she was too.
About 10 minutes after our exchange, I saw her walk up to the dispenser for the Armor All wipes. She stared at the machine for about 10 seconds before making her decision. I was wondering what she was going to do since she told me she only had $4 on her. She had clearly used the 16 quarters in the vacuum and according to what she told me that was all she had. I had two packs of wipes with me and considered offering some to her, but I hesitated. That’s when—to my surprise—she pulled $6 more out of her wallet. She stood there for a few more seconds. I imagine she felt a little embarrassed about our earlier exchange. Again I thought about offering her some of my wipes or giving her some extra change so she wouldn’t have to break the $5. But I decided that she and I didn’t need another awkward encounter. From over the window ledge of my car I watched to see what she would do. A moment later, quarters were falling as if she hit a minor win on a slot machine. She had put in the $5, got her overabundance of quarters, and went back to her car. Oh the irony! Now she was in the position she had originally been willing to leave me in, walking around with a jingling pocket of extra quarters.
Ever since that encounter, I have thought about these invisible walls we put up. What good do they do us? Any protection they seem to offer is illusory. And yet, I can understand why we create them. As a minister, I feel like my role is to first tear down my walls and then help others to tear down theirs in a responsible fashion. The best way that I can imagine doing that is in small encounters like this one. So that is my invitation to you readers. Are you willing to tear down these invisible walls for a change?
Sometimes the walls we can’t see separate us more than the walls we can.–Pedro Silva