A few years ago when I was teaching 7th grade, we would take each section of our students to the Dallas Life Foundation — a long-term shelter for men, women, and children without a home where individuals and families received their basic needs but also were trained in certain practical skills and fed spiritual nourishment.
The role of our students during our 2 hours at the shelter was to serve food, collect trays and dishes, and clean them. Students would rotate around to different work stations, but it was always inevitable that there would be 2-3 students at any given time who wouldn’t have an official role.
Because of this, we would always encourage the students before we left to take time during our service to these men, women, and children to interact meaningfully with the people they were serving that day. In particular, to plop down at a table, introduce themselves, and begin asking questions of this new friend across from them.
Questions as simple as: “What is your name?” or “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been in Dallas?” These basic questions — questions that are rarely asked of them — caused these men and women to free the stories bunkered in their hearts in order to rise to the surface, catch the light of day, and bathe over the eager other waiting lovingly to hear them
One of my students with a friend sat down with a gentleman — probably in his early 40s — eating alone the warm food prepared for him that day. She gently and quietly, somewhat unsure of herself, introduced herself and asked him about his life.
Tears welled up in his eyes, probably shocked by the simple kindness of a 13 year old girl who, unbeknownst to herself, began to pry something open in the man that had been locked shut to most of the world.
He proceeded to tell her that his daughter’s birthday was the following weekend, and because of the choices he had made, he wouldn’t be able to see her on her special day. In fact, he hadn’t seen her in 3 years.
As he began to weep, my student — a white, suburban girl from North Dallas — began to weep.
Not really knowing how to respond to this grown man, the better angels of her nature took over, and the Spirit breathed into her the most humane, Christ-like response:
“I”m really sorry. My mom has breast cancer right now, and she is really sick. It has been hard on me to see her suffer like this.”
As they cried together, as they cried for each other, they begin the graceful, petty dance of saying the other person’s suffering is greater than their own. But really, this back and forth, these shared sorrows between a 13 year old, wealthy girl and a homeless man in his 40s, was a recognition of their shared, common humanity.
My student’s perspective was not so much: “I am the great white Christian from the north coming to downtown Dallas to bestow upon you all of my spiritual and material resources to help you get out of your impoverished state! Listen to me!”
It was: “Here you are. Here I am. You are like me. I am like you. Let me hear your story, for listening is an act of Love.”
I remember growing up going of mission trips to parts of Dallas or regions of our country where the population we were serving were poor minorities — mostly African-Americans and Hispanics.
Our task: convert others to the Christian faith.
I want to be clear about this: I firmly believe the gospel is for everyone. It brings hope to the hopeless, life to the lifeless, and joy to the joyless. In the temporal and in the eternal.
Yet, to seek conversion in this way presupposed two things:
- I have something you don’t have.
- Therefore, you need to listen to me as I tell you about this good news.
Whether intentionally or not, we were trained to speak before we listened. We were trained to give and not receive.
While I don’t think this method is completely void of God’s mercy — he has used it in the lives of many to bring them to himself — it was often undergirded by fear.
As a white, upper middle class evangelical, I was either taught explicitly or implicitly that the good news of Jesus is that He saves us from the pit of hell. And when we are saved from this, we therefore are called to save others from the very fire we escaped. And if we don’t actively seek the salvation of others through the very means we received it, then therefore, we aren’t producing fruit. And when we aren’t producing fruit, maybe that means we aren’t saved ourselves, and the pit of hell is actually still warm against heels.
We were converted and discipled by fear.
It is no wonder, then, that listening was never part of my equation of what it means to follow Jesus. Out of fear of my own eternal damnation, I must speak. I must tell. I must dictate the terms of my relational agreement with others because if not, we will both combust when our last breath leaves us.
Similarly, if I was to listen to others, I may be put on the other side of the slope that is just as slippery. I may fall into heresy. I may change from who I was told to be and not look like the rest. The slope, in the end, is ultimately headed the same place as before. Fire.
In reality, the intentional, faithful act of listening to another — especially the listening to our black brothers and sisters right now — does a few things:
- Builds empathy. By listening, my student shared in the suffering of this man she had never met. Christ is present when humanity is elevated to its rightful imago dei status, and this sacred moment between these two unlikely friends is a representation of that.
- We grow. Our neighborhoods, our social media feeds, our churches are monolithic. We only hear and see what we consciously or subconsciously want to hear and see. We assume our individual experiences are universal which is false. While it is completely natural for us to think this, listening allows our hearts to be re-formed to see the world anew — as it truly is, not just for us but for others.
- Listening transforms our faith from one being predicated on fear to one predicated on hope. Listening doesn’t always mean our minds will be changed. Listening doesn’t always mean the minds of the speaker will be changed. What it does mean is that respect is built between the speaker and the hearer. Through respect, as one listens and as the other speaks and vice versa, there is hope for truth. We don’t have to fear what that truth is — even if we change our point of view. Iron only sharpens iron when one is willing to listen and be sharpened.
I don’t fully understand the complexity of our systemic racial problems in America. But I do understand that as a white, evangelical from a wealthy background, I have been conditioned to speak and not to listen. I have believed that I have the answers for the world — spiritually, politically, and economically — and any affront to these answers is a potential affront to my eternal standing with God.
That is a lie.
May I listen with open ears to the voices of our black brothers and sisters during this time. May I listen keenly for ways to seek the justice of those who are marginalized. May I listen for ways to shirk my own prejudices and live more fully in communion with God and with others. May I listen to the Spirit of God and the truth He reveals to us through this time, even if it means I must discard some deeply held beliefs, and not fearfully clutch the spirit of self formed by ideologies and idolatry.
In Your mercy,
Hear my prayer.