The beat-up white sedan rounded the corner of the church and squealed to an abrupt stop next to the volunteer parking attendant. Rolling down his window, the driver spewed bitterness into his face before making his exit. “No help for me today. Too many illegals.”
The fumes from his comment swirled through the late summer air over to where I stood on the sidewalk, leaning on the blue shopping cart full of groceries. While waiting to load them into the trunk of one of our food pantry shoppers, the meaning of this comment hit me. Its sharp odor emerged in unexpected contrast to the welcoming atmosphere of this place. I stood stunned, as if a bully had knocked a grocery sack out of my hands, spilling its contents.
My pulse accelerated in a fight-or-flight response, though he’d already left the scene. My eyes fought back angry tears. As a volunteer, I am getting to know our visitors. I’ve learned their names, heard their stories, and been inspired by their strength and faith. And in one outburst, this man discounted their experiences, declaring them unworthy.
I was tempted to put this angry white man into the category of “enemy,” reducing him to a stereotype. Self-righteousness beckoned. I started down that path in an attempt to distance myself from his ugly worldview.
But then I remembered something I’d read earlier in the week:
“A psychiatrist was once asked how a person learns to love. He responded by saying that people who are in pain tend to focus on their own problems. When we have a toothache it is hard to think of anything else except the pain. The psychiatrist noted, ‘Most human beings are so turned in by their own pains that they cannot get enough out of themselves to love to any great extent.’ This is why it is so crucial that we understand and accept God’s acceptance of us. Only then will we be able to “get out of” ourselves.”
(James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God – referencing John Powell’s Why Am I Afraid to Love?, p.24)
The weight of our own pain is specific and tangible. When the burdens on others’ shoulders are generalized and distant, they appear less significant. This man hadn’t been judged less worthy; he had been turned away because he arrived late. But in his mind, these “others” were taking something from him: help that he deserved more.
Empathy begins with hearing one another’s stories and grows in the context of individual relationships. Prejudice and hatred thrive when we keep our distance. Grace is distasteful and unfair, until someone lavishes it on us. When that happens, we are changed. We no longer have to cling tightly to our “rights.”
Jesus said, “ You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” (Matthew 5: 43-45)
It’s not my job to judge; it’s my job to love. Even the haters, so that maybe one day they’ll be friends.