“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)
I wrote this as an open letter to a man I encountered on a city street recently…
I wonder if you’ve thought about it since. You were so mad at me because you thought I was laughing at you. That day my husband and I passed you in front of Alex’s Shoe Store. You, a black man, were packing up when you and I, by chance, caught a glance. What are you laughing at? You piece of white . . . shit! My knee-jerk reaction got stuck on the first line. I wanted to say, No! I’m not laughing at you! I’m sure I’ve hurt many people in many ways in my life but laughing at someone is not one of them. If you knew me, you’d know why. Still, I want to say I’m truly sorry you took it that way. But it was the second part that caught my breath—said with that rage–hot, volcanic look you gave me. It’s why we kept walking.
I’ve thought a lot about that look. You see, I recognized it, in part, because I’ve seen it in my own children. It’s all too familiar—most often caused by the malicious, debilitating, festering of addiction. A festering that can eventually, tragically, lead straight into the abyss of suicide. Yes, I’m a mother who knows the unspeakable heartbreak of the malignant suffering hidden just behind that look.
Still, I am not excusing what you did. It’s clearly not okay to verbally attack someone walking down the street, someone you just happened to make eye contact with. No, not okay. And, just in case you think I’m one of those white, hippy, granola, Kumbaya types, writing with some assumption that it could all be made better if we could just sit together, you’d be wrong. That would be a whitewash (forgive the expression) over that moment in time, wouldn’t it? No, I realize the bridge across racial and economic divides is narrow and frail and won’t hold anyone not ready or unable to take full responsibility for everyone’s safe passage. It’s hard work. It requires uncomfortable listening and true hearing. No, sitting here in my comfortable surroundings, I would not presume to know what your life has been. What brought you to that sidewalk that day. What your deep struggles are. What you have seen, experienced. I would not presume to know . . . but wish I could.
I suppose at this point I should tell you I’m a minister but not the kind who would dictate to you the answer from heaven. No, my life’s ministry has been about the practice of seeing the face of God in everyone—most especially behind the kind of look you gave me—the look, variations of which are there for different reasons on different faces at different times—but are always born of unspeakable pain and suffering.
As a woman of God, I can’t say for sure why you were put on my path that day. But I can say and want you to know that I know it was not you who taunted me but, rather, addiction’s unabating rage and desperation spewing out. And, I want you to know that, behind that look, I can fully recognize you as a fellow human being and, yes, as my brother.
I pray that God’s grace will somehow deliver this note to you. I pray that one day you’ll find your way out from behind that look and out of that abyss of suffering. Maybe then, you’ll be able to remember that day when an elderly white woman, just passing by, glanced at you kindly.
And, perhaps, just perhaps, then . . . we could meet on that narrow bridge.