Jonathan drove up to the street corner near the access road where Stan and Dan hold up signs every Sunday morning. He asked them to go to church with us that morning; they said they wanted to wait a week till they could be more cleaned up.
When we saw them all last week, we’d yell through the open window to each other, “Good morning! See you Sunday! 8:45? 8:45!”
When the time came, the girls were giggling with excitement. It was as if celebrities were stepping off the TV into the living room: Fresh from the windows of the car, Stan and Dan were walking live into my children’s world.
Our cars are pretty small, so Jonathan picked them up in one car and I followed with the girls in the other. They were wearing well-pressed button-up shirts. They stored their back packs in the trunk. When the girls and I climbed out, Dan greeted me with a great big hug.
It’s the first time in five years of friendship that we’ve done more than smile and wave. It felt good, the slow act of walking in together. Stan kept smoothing his hair down.
We moved at the pace of his cane.
I knew this was hard and that what we were asking of them might possibly be ludicrous. I was not prepared to see my church again with the fresh eyes they brought.
There were some lovely moments: the line of people waiting to meet them during the “meet-and-greet” time, the firm handshakes and effusive welcomes that were exactly what I expected from my exuberant congregation.
But it was hard, too. I was painfully aware of what Stan called later the “slicked-up people.” Of our privilege, our side glances, our constant awareness of what we wore and how we looked. The new sound system sounded great, but I could see from their wide stares how much of a shock it must be, the air filled with songs they didn’t know sung in ringing harmony by a congregation full of people who had grown up singing acappella music with this intricate merging of countermelodies and resonances.
When we walked out of the service, Dan asked how we remembered all the music to all those songs. I shrugged, wondering how to explain a lifetime of growing up with those melodies every week.
Stan especially seemed overwhelmed by the people. He stood close to the wall, watched surreptitiously as people came over to talk to us. He kept asking how many people were in there. He told us every few minutes that it was strange, to be around such a large crowd, when he was used to being by himself in the woods.
We went to class, thinking a smaller room might be better. And they tried so hard. It broke my heart with pride to see them with their chins up, shaking hands, answering questions, looking people in the eye.
Stan kept clearing his throat, adjusting his shirt, running his hand through his hair.
I caught his eye in the middle of class and he widened them a bit, trying to poke fun of the fact that he was obviously anxious.
It’s hard to describe what I felt in that moment—the fierce protective love that welled up in me.
I write about it a lot here on this blog, the feeling that Richard Wilbur describes: “Love calls us to the things of this world.” And I feel that call so strongly with some people. It happened with a little boy in Brazil once. It happened when the Burmese group the first time I met them. And it happened with Stan and Dan on Sunday.
For some reason, we belong together. We are part of the same tribe. These are my people.
And like the little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I desperately want to defend them, to say with ferocity, “I gotta take care of mine.”
But the problem is, with Stan and Dan, that’s just an empty phrase. I have no idea what that really means.
The class itself was great, but that day each sentence seemed loaded, weighted. I heard with fresh ears how our words must sound to them: “We don’t really struggle.” Or, “God calls us to be with those who are persecuted. Who among us can really say we truly understand persecution?” Or, “I don’t know anyone who is really that different from me. We should be getting out there. We should do more.”
They squirmed in their seats a little and I realized we were making them feel even more marginalized. What I saw as an earnest desire among people I love to move into the world suddenly sounded like the grand markers of privilege—why were we talking about this at all?
Why do we talk and not do? Why do we theorize and analyze? If we don’t know anyone who has been persecuted, then why in God’s name are we not running to meet them where they are?
We huddled at a small table over hamburgers at lunch. I loved the way we tucked our legs under the table like old friends. The girls sucked earnestly at strawberry milkshakes.
Stan said he’d try to go back, he really would, but he didn’t know if he could handle being around so many people.
Dan shook his head when he talked about the class. “If you want, I could tell you some things about persecution. The way people look at you on the street…” He didn’t need to finish the thought.
We invited them again, but today it’s two days later and I’m not sure we should take them back. It’s not fair of us to push them like that; I wouldn’t feel comfortable either if I were them.
We will do something. They are in our lives. They are part of our tribe now. There is no going back from that.
I just have no idea yet what it’s going to look like.
And while I adore my church completely, I think it is an indictment of us that people who look the most like the man we worship feel so desperately uncomfortable in our space.
I just keep thinking, my friends, this should not be.
Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.