A couple of months ago I attended a fundraising luncheon here in town. My friend Jess and I found three open spots at a table in the middle of the packed room (we saved a seat for our friend, Meg, who was arriving late), and as we sat down, I said hello to our tablemates. The three young women, all of whom were wearing hijab, the head covering typically worn by traditional Muslim women, politely returned my greeting. I then turned my attention to the menu and to my friend, and the three women resumed their conversation.
A few minutes later Meg arrived, and after Jess and I had chatted with her for a bit, I noticed that she then turned to the three Muslim women on her left. She greeted them, introduced herself, and engaged them in conversation. She learned their names. She asked what they did for a living and where they worked. The four of them chatted about Meg’s earrings.
It was a simple conversation, pretty basic as far as conversations go. But it was a conversation.
Two months later I’m still thinking about the marked difference between how Meg and I interacted with the three Muslim women and why that difference is important.
I had been polite, but guarded; Meg was warm and engaged.
I’d kept my distance; Meg made a genuine effort to connect.
After a cursory greeting, I had retreated to my comfortable, familiar place and talked with the person in my own circle; Meg stepped out to connect with three strangers, three people different from her and outside of her immediate comfort zone.
In short, I was content to let the three women remain “the other” – separate, distant, different. Meg made an effort to get to know the three women as real people.
We are living in a time of great racial unrest in America, and often, I find it’s easy for me to assume that these issues have nothing to do with me. I tell myself the rampant racial problems we are experiencing right now originate with and are perpetuated by “bad people,” racists, people other than me. I tell myself I’m not responsible for these problems, and therefore do not have a critical role in helping to remedy them. But in that I am wrong. I am responsible. I do have a role.
Chances are, we have more in common with those we deem different than we might assume, but in order to discover and embrace those commonalities, we first have to recognize and acknowledge where and how we define people as “other,” and then take a conscious step toward bridging that gap.
That’s exactly what Jesus did. He wasn’t content to stay within his inner circle and associate only with his disciples and the religious elite. Instead, Jesus consistently reached out to those on the margins, the “others” of his time – the tax collector, the prostitute, the leper, the spiritually lost – and invited them into conversation and connection.
Jesus made an effort to know the person behind the label, to narrow the gap between “other” and “Someone.”
That afternoon at the fundraising luncheon I defined those three Muslim women as “other” and chose, because it was easier and more comfortable, to stay with that. My friend Meg made the opposite decision. In spite of her discomfort, she stepped across the divide, and in doing so, demonstrated that trying to get to know someone as a real person, even when it feels a little awkward or forced, is better than not trying at all.
This post originally ran on July 25, 2015 in the Lincoln Journal Star.