My soul hurts when I think about the incident at a local church. Apparently, the minister provoked a member of his congregation with a sermon about racism. The individual was so offended, he actually left in the middle of the service. As he walked out, he loudly muttered, “George Floyd was a criminal.”
This happened in a Christian church.
I may not be a Biblical scholar, but the last time I checked, the Christian church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know, that guy who taught about mercy, forgiveness and taking care of each other? I’m fairly certain that Jesus wanted us to interact kindly with all human beings – not just the people we like or respect or who make us feel comfortable.
I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel as though it’s almost impossible. But labeling someone a criminal and then using that label to rationalize their mistreatment hurts all of us. That’s because we are all connected.
No one lives and shares that message more loudly and bravely than Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle is a Catholic Priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, and his words resonated. Like him, I am incredibly fortunate to have a job in which I can learn from people who others might dismiss.
There is the woman experiencing homelessness who once proudly told me she was featured in a documentary about women in prison. She was, and I’ve since watched it. I’ve had her bags of medication for various mental illnesses in my office. I unintentionally taught her to beg in Spanish when she asked me how to say “I’m hungry” and “I need money” in Spanish. She recently stopped by the office to tell my coworkers and me that she had a place to live. When I opened the door, I had to firmly tell her she couldn’t hug me because of COVID 19. I don’t call her a criminal. I call her a fellow human being.
There is the man who showed up in our office lobby loudly declaring “I just got out of prison and I don’t know where to go for help.” He had grown up in foster care and is functionally illiterate. He is demanding and difficult, but he was also sweet and helpful. He’d give staff cards and help clean our offices. After he went back to jail for rape, he still called the office on a regular basis. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human being.
There is the young man with no place to live because his family kicked him out. Before COVID-19, he would stop by the office almost every day to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would use the shower and do his laundry. He was always polite and followed the rules. When my co-workers and I hadn’t seen him for several days, one of us would look on the jail site. His mugshot would be there, and his charges ranged from battery to robbery. He stopped by the office last week to ask for a tent. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human.
These individuals, like thousands of others, have stories to tell about what they have endured and survived. These individuals, like thousands of others, don’t have the support, resources, and connections that many of us do. And these individuals, like thousand of others, are so much more than a label or a criminal record.
Do I believe they should be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But I also believe that I should still care about them.
As Father Greg Boyle says, “There is no us and them, only us.”
I care about us.
I was a bit irritated when I walked into the retail establishment and saw both clerks were already helping other people. I had specifically planned to be at the store when it opened so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. A couple of uncooperative traffic lights had disrupted my plans, and now I was stuck waiting.
The assistance I needed was simple and could have been quickly addressed, but the guy ahead of me was in no hurry. Instead, he seemed oblivious to anything but the long list of complaints he was making known to everyone in the store.
Being forced to listen to him was making me even more irritated,
And so while I waited, I judged him.
I judged him to be an uneducated, racist, redneck. I also guessed that he was about my age, which is why his anti-technology rant was so intolerable.
He was in the store to pay a bill and was complaining about the late fee. His bill had been due on Christmas, and he told the clerk that he couldn’t pay it because the store was closed. The woman politely told him that didn’t have to pay the bill on the day it’s due but could pay it in advance. He ignored her statement and told her that his previously bill was due on a Sunday, and he couldn’t pay it because the store was also closed. The salesperson politely told him the store IS open on Sundays. She also noted that he could pay his bill online.
And that’s when the anti-technology rant began. The man used his limited vocabulary to explain that the one time he tried to pay a bill online, the bank had taken the same amount of money out of his account every month. When he called to complain, he had to talk to someone who couldn’t speak English very well.
“I’m an American, he said. “I speak American. If people are going to work in this country, they need to speak American too.
That’s when the clerk surprised me. “My husband is from another country. He’s working to learn English, but it’s been hard.”
She said it nicely without any note of condemnation or disagreement with the customer. She was just stating a fact, and, surprisingly the man said little else. He didn’t apologize, but his rant stopped. He paid his bill with cash and left mumbling to himself.
“Wow,” I told the clerk, “that was amazing. You have so much patience.”
“I have to. I work retail,” she said. “I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.”
“I’m still impressed,” I said. “Especially since he was so angry about people from other countries. Where is your husband from?”
“Honduras. He’s been here nine years, and he still struggles with the language.”
“Honduras,” I repeated. “Wow, I bet he came here for a good reason.”
“The cartel took over his family farm,” she said. “We are still trying to get the rest of his family up here but we aren’t having much luck.”
I chose not to engage her in a conversation about the current immigration system or political environment. Instead, she asked me what I needed, and, as expected, I was soon out the door.
But the encounter stayed with me for much of the day. I was angry at the man but impressed with the clerk. I envied her ability to remain unruffled and almost kind to such an ignorant fool.
Only that night, when thoughts about the day raced through my mind as I was trying to fall asleep, did I recognize what a hypocrite I was.
My job is to advocate for people who struggle.
My job is educate the public about how stress, and adverse experiences, and lack of early childhood education can have a lifelong impact.
My job is to work with people who have few resources and little exposure to other cultures or countries.
My job is to help people just like that man.
For all I knew, the man was illiterate or have a learning disability. He might have grown up in an abusive, hate-filled environment. He might live where there is no access to technology because of geography or finances. He might have emptied his bank account to pay that bill.
Standing in that store wearing my middle-class, well-educated, self-righteous attitude, I had judged him based on nothing but how he was behaving in what was probably a very stressful situation for him.
I did exactly what I am always complaining other people do: I made judgments based solely on my personal perspective and experiences.
I could have spent a sleepless night worrying about my hypocrisy, but I didn’t.
Instead, I took to heart the words the clerk had uttered that day: I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.
She was right. What she didn’t say was that sometimes the person we have to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s exactly what I did.