The Ole Asheboro city village has recently partnered with the Ole Asheboro Street Neighborhood Association to revive the neighborhood garden. We had our first community garden work day and cook out a couple weeks ago where we tilled some raised beds, shoveled dirt into a few beds, and planted a few things that we had on hand. A few folks from around our neighborhood showed up to help out and grab a hot dog or two. One middle-aged African-American man sticks out in my memory that day. He approached me first and gave me an uncomfortable hug, squeezing me too hard and even picking me up off the ground a bit. I watched him do the same thing to my friend as he mentioned how pretty we were.
A bit uncomfortable, I felt myself putting walls up toward him. I asked him if he stayed in the neighborhood and found that he actually lives pretty close to us. He was happy and outgoing, but my gut told me that I should be cautious. He made some comments about my kids and asked me if I was married - I pointed to my husband Andrew. I watched him walk over to Andrew - who didn't see the uncomfortable embrace - and saw him shake his hand and begin talking. I wondered what he was saying to my husband. Was he commenting on my appearance? Was he being crude? I was eager to follow up with Andrew once the man left the garden. But first my newborn was ready to eat.
Since it was so hot outside, I brought my son in the car and turned on the AC to nurse. My car was parked along the road in front of the garden and I could see everyone working and eating and hanging out. Still nervous, my first thought when I got ready to nurse was what if this man comes over to my car and tries to talk to me while I'm nursing? That would make me so uncomfortable. So, I called Andrew and told him to keep an eye out. I told him about how the hug made me feel and that I really didn't want him coming to the car while I'm nursing. Andrew agreed and that was that. Then something changed. I watched this man level out a mound of soil in one of the garden beds and suddenly I felt deeply thankful for him. Somehow at the same time I felt guarded because of my personal interaction with him. He eventually left before I was done nursing. The busyness of the day carried on and I never asked Andrew about his conversation with our neighbor.
Several days went by. We were driving down the street that this man lives on. We saw him out on his front porch and Andrew's memory was jogged. Andrew mentioned that he never told me what they talked about that day in the garden. He goes on to tell me that when the man first came up to Andrew, he said "Is that your wife? She's a nice woman, I can see it in her eyes. I can tell what kind of person you are by looking at your eyes."
But what kind of person am I? Here's the truth: I wasn't just uncomfortable with the man’s hug or his comments on my appearance. This wasn't an isolated personal experience that made me fear this man. It was years of social constructs, stereotypes, of learned white supremacy that made me see this man as other. As less than. As someone to be afraid of. The truth in my spirit - God's spirit in me - was the gratitude that I felt toward this man’s hospitality and service that day. It was the joy of him showing my toddler how to spread soil out. I long to more easily resist how I "other" folks. To see all of humanity as neighbor. For this to become second-nature. I am learning.
This week, at our Good Neighbor Reunion, I listened as we engaged in a conversation on Acts 11: 19-30. I learned that the thing that keeps me from moving in compassion, action, justice, empathy, mercy is my physical and relational distance from folks who are oppressed and abused by broken systems. It is in these folks that I am challenged to see the face of Jesus. My liberation as a white woman from a middle-class background is tied to the liberation of my neighbors, folks who have been systemically forced to the margins. And it is from these folks that the healing of the world will come. The least, the overlooked, the poor, the abused, the homeless, the oppressed, will be at the front, leading the march toward our collective liberation!