Diversity, ‘of course everyone’s welcome’ – confessions of a caring, yet clueless, white guy.
As I walked through Love’s Convenience Store and Truck Stop, looking for the restroom, (too much diet coke on the return trip from St. Louis) it dawned on me that the internal joy, often with me and for which I am grateful, was manifesting in smiles and hellos to a very physically diverse group of people. There was the white middle aged lady behind the counter, the rather darked skinned man walking toward the exit, the black lady who was a bit heavy set and whole variety of people all mingling in the ‘Love’s UN’ of Bloomington, IL.
What came into my thoughts was; in almost every place I go, I can say hello to someone, almost anyone, and expect that they will reciprocate in kind. Sometimes I don’t feel like being overly friendly but often I take it on, as part of my role in the world, to say hi and to smile at people, hopefully encouraging them to know they are loved and that I recognize them as beloved people. Saturday was different.
It suddenly dawned on me that it is a privilege for me to say ‘hi’, ‘hello’, or to smile, one that I have taken for granted… for almost 52 years. I have the chance to be friendly to anyone and not worry that they might not like me because of who I am. If I reach out with a smile or a hello and don’t received a response in kind, I never think it’s because of my race, gender or dress. As a white male, there may be the occasional person who doesn’t reciprocate but it’s always easy for me to ‘chalk it up to’ – ‘they’re having a bad day’ or perhaps a ‘bad life’ or perhaps ‘they’re just not that friendly’? It hit me yesterday that for people of color, for women, for others who have lived their lives feeling as outsiders, their “hi” or smile is often taking a risk. And not just a risk of the fact that someone will not like being talked to but rather the risk that they will be rejected or objectified because of who they are. Ouch!
In St. Louis I attended the Spiritual Directors International Conference and was assigned to a breakout group led by, Rev. April and Rev. Alan. They were willing to lead an important discussion about diversity. Throughout the session the Revs shared stories from their own experiences and others, trying to help us see the pain that so many people carry with them. As a caring person who has tried to support ALL people, and has tried to allow my love to pour out to all people no matter their background, I thought I had “checked that box”.
As my Rev. mentors shared, I tried to take in their pain, as well as the pain of others they told about, thinking we were all on the same page…
But then, Rev. Alan asked us two questions that will forever change my thinking. He asked us to raise our hands if we had ever had a close family member or friend die? I raised my hand dutifully. He then asked if anyone ever said that we should “just get over it”; “just move on”; or any other well intended yet not helpful attempt at helping us through deep pain and suffering.
I recalled that when my father passed away, I had wonderful support of family and friends that helped me grieve. I could not recall a moment of feeling like someone was trying to tell me to get over it but then, I thought of my dear daughter, who’s first love took his own life in December of 2016. She was completely devastated. They were (and still are) kindred spirits and although had broken up more than a year before, the depth of connection they shared was something many wish for in their own lives.
Rev. Alan’s questions brought me to the reality of the pain that that so many people feel who have been marginalized for who they are. As I attempted to be support for my grieving daughter, I could only sit by her side to travel with her in her pain. It was one of the hardest and (I’m guessing) most important things I’ve ever done.
‘Only’ is enough as it turns out. In fact, it may be all we can do. In the case of people who have experienced marginalization, abuse, trauma or bias based on who they are, we can’t relate, understand, fix, or help them get past this sort of deep pain. The ONLY thing we can do is sit with our friends in their pain. We must be willing to embrace them as they wish to be embraced in their pain and not ‘run away’ from the depth of the pain and suffering they feel. It is real, it is scary, and it is deep.
Potential and actual daily rejection and objectification of people causes deep pain and suffering. The sort of pain and suffering as if a dear loved one died and someone is constantly saying, “just get over it.” It is time for us to stop saying “get over it” and start saying, “I am here for you and I will be with you in your pain and suffering.”
Loving God, give us the strength and courage to sit with our friends in their pain and suffering. Amen.