August 22, 2014

Just Listen

I've been following what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri with great interest, trying, without being there in person, to understand it all. There is a feeling in me and it seems in many of us to figure out what we can "do" about it all, hoping that some words or some actions we can take might erase death, bitterness, and unrest. The fallout of division and hatred among people grieves me greatly, but what can I do to change things?

I opened the Washington Post this morning and read about Keith Griffin, a black man and a Ferguson native who is leader in a nearby community. The article says, "[Some of his white friends] probably don't understand the little things that define his day-to-day life. The hurdles he faces renting downtown business property, something he attributes to race. The way he was pulled over last week in another part of town, questioned about whether his car belongs to him. The way he's had to talk with his 8-year-old son about how to deal with cops ("Yes, sir. No, sir.")."

But it was Keith Griffin's words that I connected and resonated with most: "There's a difference in psyche between black and white culture. I guess there has always been a divide. But there's never been a good platform where you could say it. Blacks are too often considered to be at fault."

I immediately thought back to a post I wrote in February that has honestly haunted me. The topic? What it's like to a pastor's wife. I wrote it with a little fear of what might happen if it went viral and was read by people who don't normally read my blog and who don't know where I'm coming from. And what I feared actually happened: lots of people read it and the response I saw from some corners confirmed why I'd thought twice about putting it out there in the first place. I've thought many times about taking it down, but the whole point of the post was to give voice to a group of people who often can't share much of anything about their role without being misunderstood. Do I share that perspective or not? I have since decided to take the post down, primarily because I don't believe it conveyed the truths of what I was saying with as much grace as it needed.

There were others who read my words and responded in a way that said something else: I'm listening and trying to put myself in your shoes. What can you tell me about what it's like in your day-to-day life? 

So as I read about Keith Griffin this morning, I realized that he was attempting what I'd attempted. He was trying to say that he and others who are asking for facts in Ferguson want someone to listen to what it's like to be black in America. He's trying to give voice to a group of people who often can't share about their lives--"There's never been a good platform where you could say it"--without being misunderstood or even vilified. Both the inability to speak freely and the refusal to listen have historically created an unrest that eventually explodes.

I've discovered that when people share with me what it's like to be them, I sometimes feel as if they're somehow making judgments about me personally. I think we all tend to do that. But Keith Griffin is not making judgments, he's just asking for us to listen and try to understand without jumping to old conclusions, just like when I shared about being a pastor's wife. I wanted to bring nuance and reality to a role that most people have made far-gone conclusions about.

That post I wrote taught me things, once I got over my defensiveness and actually listened to the truth in the critical responses. Mostly, it reminded me of the value of every single life. Don't we all have something that makes us different that can make us feel misunderstood? Don't we all desire to be heard? Of course we do. Singleness. Divorce. Illness. Children with special needs. Past choices. Current choices. Race. Nationality. Vocation. A difficult marriage. Grief. We can all name something that we'd like others to understand, so we can all relate to where Keith Griffin is coming from. If, instead of getting defensive and jumping to conclusions about something we think we know but don't, we will only choose to listen!

I am not in Ferguson, so I can learn from afar. But there is actually something I can "do" here. I can take the posture of listening and trying to understand with the people in my life and community, and not just on matters of race. I can, as Trillia Newbell said to me, invite people into my home. I can ask good questions. I can refuse to put up dividers between myself and others because I feel they couldn't possibly relate to my life and I couldn't possibly relate to theirs.

This takes courage and, yes, pushing through the risk of being misunderstood. And we'll likely stumble and bumble our way through, as I feel I did in my blog post. But in the end, it helps us to love one another as Christ loves each person He's created in His image.