It was a few years ago that I scurried down a set of stairs in a conference center in Atlanta. I was there for a gathering with other leaders of the church, and, in between scheduled events, I was catching up with a friend. As is all too easy to happen once you get invested in a conversation, I lost track of time. Looking at my watch, I hastily realized that I was running late for an upcoming meeting. Hurriedly climbing down the stairs to get back to the main lobby, I almost didn’t notice that I had brushed right past a woman to my left.
For a moment, I thought about just keeping on going. I mean, I had places to be, people to see, and things to do! However, something stopped me a few steps below her. Maybe it was the Spirit. Whatever it was, I stopped, turned around, and began to apologize. “I’m sorry, ma’am, that I just skirted around you,” I said. On the tip of my tongue was another sentence, trying to justify what I did, saying that I was in a hurry, that I simply didn’t see her, or that I was in my own little world. But all those responses would’ve been an excuse. So, I stuck to what really needed to be said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, that I just skirted around you. That was rude.”
By now, I was face-to-face with this person, and I found myself looking into the eyes of an African American woman. She looked back at me, gently smiled, and said, “Thank you. Most people wouldn’t have even stopped.” Seeing that she had my attention, she went on to explain that, having talked with other African American leaders at this conference, she’d learned that she wasn’t the only one left unnoticed as people slipped around her as if she didn’t exist. “It’s like we’re invisible,” she told me.
Not too much later, our conversation came to a close. In all, it hadn’t taken that long; just long enough for me to apologize and listen, and long enough for her to tell me even a portion of her story. Ever since that encounter, that woman has never left me, because here was a woman who admitted that she’d felt silenced by those around her, and because here was a woman bold enough to unashamedly look me in the eye, and tell me her story.
So Muscatine, I have to ask you, as I’ve been asking myself in these past weeks and months: who have we been brushing past? Whose story have we not stopped and listened to? As someone who has lived in the Muscatine community for a little over four years, I am keenly aware that I still don’t know the stories that originate in different parts of our community. I might know the stories of those I typically surround myself with, but what about the stories of those I brush past or the stories of those I intentionally, or unintentionally, isolate myself from? I can’t know those stories unless I stop, turn around, admit that I have not seen them, and then listen.
Right now, throughout our nation, there are calls for racial justice on many levels. This is work that we must pay attention to for the wholeness of humanity. These issues are not just “out there;” they are in our own backyard. It’s time that we all took the initiative to stop, turn around, admit that we’ve been closed off from one another – for whatever the reason – and then, listen.
So my challenge for you in the coming weeks is this: consider those places, those people, which are all too easy to just “brush past.” Then, challenge yourself to stop, turn around, and really, deeply, listen. Listening might not change everything, but it may very well be the first step to seeing each other, and the whole of humanity, with a greater understanding.