A week or two after 9/11, I was coming out of Aldi, trying (predictably) to carry too much to the car. The bag split, and groceries went everywhere, including a gallon jug of skim milk, which cracked open and splattered all over the asphalt. I was pretty emotional already, and I was on the verge of breaking down when someone appeared by my side, offering to help.
It was a man of Middle Eastern descent. Head covering and all. He helped me gather up the groceries and take them to my car and load them in the trunk. And now, instead of wanting to cry for embarrassment and hormones, I felt myself tearing up for joy. You remember the ugly things people were saying at that time: the suspicion that anyone of a certain skin color and style of dress must be a terrorist. This brief encounter seemed like a divine whisper reminding me that I was surrounded by goodness.
That was not the first time I experienced this.
I’ve lived my entire life in and out of the St. Louis area; my grandmother lives there, two of my aunts live there, now my sister lives there. I grew up with a certain knowledge: East St. Louis is Bad News. You just don’t go there, because you’re probably going to get mugged.
One day when I was in college, I went to St. Louis for a family gathering. Having never driven the route myself, I made a wrong turn and ended up in the heart of East St. Louis, lost and terrified, stuck in a construction zone, and remembering everything I’d ever heard about the place.
I don’t know how this African American construction worker knew I needed help. Maybe I screwed up the courage to roll down my window a crack and ask. I don’t remember. But he was so nice. So very, very nice. He helped me get turned around, and he gave me very specific, easy to follow directions. And as I got back on the highway headed toward my grandmother’s house, I had this moment of deep gratitude that I didn’t fully understand. I only knew there was more to East St. Louis than the crime-ridden hellhole I’d been led to expect.
In these days of noisy rhetoric about building a wall and of angry judgments about the intentions of those who protest peacefully, I keep returning to those two memories. Building walls—literal ones, along the southern border; those written into rules about refugees; or the far more damaging ones in our hearts—is easier than prying our hearts open.
I, and most of the people I know, spend too much of our lives within the safe confines of our own, insular little worlds, where we rarely have to interact with people whose life experiences are 180 degrees from ours. That makes the world seem deceptively black and white. And as long as a problem doesn’t cross the borders of our safe zone—my home, my neighborhood, my town–we act like it’s enough to pray from a distance and call it done. Their problem. Their responsibility.
But it’s not. It’s our responsibility, too. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and our children’s children, and most especially we owe it to the person of Christ in others, to undertake the hard work, person to person, that can bridge the gaps and break down the walls, and teach us to see goodness in others, instead of a threat.