25 A lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
As I look back, bigotry and prejudice have played active roles throughout my life. I was amazingly blessed to have two parents who never conveyed prejudice to my siblings and I. That's quite a feat since we were growing up in the very early '60s in Georgia. I am ashamed and embarrassed to acknowledge that other family members either seemed to revel in their prejudice, or at the very least were complacent to the prejudice in the culture at the time. Mama and Daddy tried really hard to raise me to be a sweet, Southern young lady accepting of all God's children.
Moving from a small Southern town in 1963 to a Midwest city, I was not prepared for classmates, and sadly some teachers, who not only assumed and insinuated, but flat out said to me that I must be prejudiced since my thick accent spoke loudly of my origins. If that wasn't bad enough, there were those who assumed and remarked that anyone from the South must be ill-mannered, ill-bred, and illiterate. Reckon they thought we were all related to Li'l Abner and his clan, coming from Dogpatch, USA. It's many years and classrooms later, but for some the sentiment remains the same. And you know what? It still hurts.
It still hurts, but I'm thankful for my own little portion of being tormented by the bigots and prejudiced. God's so smart and so unexpected, but I didn't realize how much until He dropped me right in the middle of an urban school district, at the secondary alternative school no less. He loved me enough and knew my heart needed breaking so He could start to plant a burden in it. Shadows of prejudice and fear that personal experiences had fostered began to fade. As I listened to my students's stories, not easily given, and they eventually listened to mine, not easily accepted, I began to look at each face as an individual, not a race or a culture, or anything else. It was Derrick and Rakeem, LeDarius and Janita, my Derrell. Children, forced to react as adults when they were barely in their teens, who had dealt with more in their short years than most of us white folks even know exists. Death, deprivation, lacking love, comfort, and understanding in tender lives. And my heart broke.
As my heart broke, I prayed it would spill over into the lives of our young adult children. I wanted their hearts and eyes to perceive the world without the filters that the world would thrust upon them. Thankfully, echos of hatred and prejudice do not linger after their words and actions. But, sadly, all of us have discovered that evil comes in all shapes, sizes, places and faces. It's permanent address is not the urban core. It can reside just as easily in upright, uptight, upstanding suburbia. We're learning not to judge the person across the aisle at church or the movies by their outward appearances. Demons can infiltrate in what seem to be the most unlikely spaces.
'It's Just a Long Way Home' just finished playing on satellite radio. How appropriate! Just when I think I've come so far in growing a welcoming heart, reality slaps me upside the head. Pulling into a parking space at the mall by a red pickup truck, I immediately made a judgment: all those bumper stickers must mean the person isn't nearly as good of a vehicle steward as Tom (who has NEVER allowed words and adhesives near our cars). Then I read them. Really? I wish I could say I didn't read every single, personally offending, bumper sticker. Well, I sucked my teeth, stuck my chin up, shook my head and thought to myself, "I feel sorry for any woman who has to put up with that man!" And of course he must be a red-neck, lacking couth, tact, and, wait for it....acceptance. And God laughed. If I am not willing to accept someone because of the statements on his truck, how am I any different than he is? Ouch! I guess it really is just a long way home until we can truly see each one as God does. In the meantime, I think I need to keep asking myself who is the neighbor that I need to love as I love myself.
Who's more intolerant? "Them" for not understanding or trying to understand, and accept. Or me for not trying to understand and accept their intolerance?
Acceptance and tolerance and forgiveness, those are life-altering lessons.