Once Americans were anonymous to elites and transparent to their neighbors, now corporations know everything about them—and their neighbors know next to nothing.
This statement, taken from a recent article by Joshua Foust struck me as profoundly relevant today. I know the names of my literal neighbors, but only a little about who they are as people. They know equally little about me.
I have not given much thought about what I might give up for Lent or what new discipline I might take on. (I rarely keep those intentions, anyway.) But last night (on Ash Wednesday), I had the opportunity to let 15 people get to know me a little bit. Even though I am in the habit of speaking publicly, it felt vulnerable. I was nervous. Reading this article, however, I felt convicted. Perhaps it was no accident that my “story of self” was delivered on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps it would be a worthwhile discipline in these 40 days to get to know my neighbors a little better and to let them know me. To that end, here is the story I shared last night:
I am sitting in my office at the J.L. Zwane Church and Community Center in Guguletu, South Africa. (That’s a township outside of Cape Town.) The secretary knocks on my door and introduces me quickly to three people: a black woman, a white woman, and a white man. She asks if I will give these guests a tour. We walk through the worship space, and I tell the couple about how this church is supporting women in ministry: unique among the township churches. We walk through the brightly painted youth area, and I tell them how the youth choir not only sings about faith but travels to schools and sings about safe sex. In the offices, I tell them about the hospice nurse on the church staff and how this congregation welcomes people affected by HIV and AIDS. As we catch a whiff of curry and fry bread coming from the kitchen, I tell them about the children we feed in the afterschool program. This church is doing something that matters. I may be just the seminary intern, but I believe in the work. I want this couple to believe in our work, too. And I want them to support us and to spread the word.
We are wrapping up our conversation in the breezeway off the courtyard when the rain begins to fall. I look at the white couple and thank them for coming. I am just about to tell them how they can be involved. My sales pitch is going great. Suddenly, the man interrupts me. “Oh, actually,” he says, “this is my wife,” pointing to the black woman.
In a split second, I replay the entirety of our conversation. My stomach drops. A knot forms in my throat. I realize that I have subtly and unintentionally been excluding the black woman from any meaningful participation in the conversation because I assumed she had less to offer than the other two.
I am mortified and ashamed. I was raised better than this. As a child, my mother would not let me play in the home of a classmate whose family flew the Confederate flag. When I was middle school, my dad and Shateka’s dad co-coached our softball team. In college, I wrote my senior thesis in college on racism, identity, and reconciliation. How could I make such a mistake?
With the rain falling being us, I shift my weight nervously from one foot to the other. I swallow the knot in my throat and stumble through an apology. It must seem half-baked or like salt rubbed in an old wound. I do not stumble because my apology is false or half-hearted. I stumble because this encounter has held up a mirror to my soul, and I do not like what I see. I walk away resolved that something must change, not only in me but also in the culture that helped shape me.