I want to tell a story that I don’t know how to tell. It’s a story of perceived prejudice and common ground.
I’m a little scared to share the story because I can’t seem to find words to tell what I learned from it. And one of my greatest fears is being misunderstood. But then, that also is part of this story.
I sat in the middle row of the small Sociology class. I had taken several classes from this instructor over the years and I always enjoyed learning from him. He was an older Native American; the students were primarily Native American; the classroom was located on a rural California reservation.
Nestled in a river valley surrounded by green mountains, this place was very remote. The small town had one store, one gas station, and one of a few other things. It was a mere dot on the map, but a beautiful place rich in tradition and family connections.
The class discussion was about the underlying tension that exists between Native Americans and white Americans. In a room full of men and women who had their family names on a tribal roll, I was the only one with blonde hair and blue eyes.
I felt different. I felt out of place and even though there was no reason for me to feel this way, I felt unwelcome. Like I was in someone else’s living room at their family gathering and I just showed up and sat down on the sofa in the middle of everything.
Nobody did anything to make me feel this way. And so I also felt guilty for feeling awkward.
They talked about the terrible things that happened to tribes at the hands of our early American government. They talked about how the hurt is still fresh even though it was generations ago. The wound may not be bleeding, but it’s not healed either.
They talked about how their grandparents were taken away from the reservation and forced into schools where they were punished for speaking their native language. And how now they are working with local schools to teach native students the language before it dies out.
I thought about how my grandma told me about her favorite grandmother who wasn’t allowed to talk about being Native American. The family kept very quiet about that in those days and so a few years ago my grandma died without knowing where she came from. I thought about how sad I was that I came back empty handed after researching Grandma’s genealogy. I still don’t know anything about that part of us.
They talked about being a minority and how it feels to not belong.
I wondered if it would be appropriate to tell them that I felt the same way. Would they be offended that I compared my small experience of being the minority in their group with their lifetime of experience of being minorities? I didn’t want to offend anyone. But I wanted them to know that in a very, very small way, I feel it too.
Them. Me. Do you hear the separation? How could I get over there or how could they get over here?
I wasn’t even sure they wanted to stand on common ground. I was afraid of meeting rejection.
I feared being misunderstood. But I desperately wanted to find out if a blonde hair blue eyed girl was destined to be the villain in the story forever. I wondered if my story had anything to do with theirs. Or maybe my it wasn’t in my head at all and I really was just an outsider.
I raised a shaky hand feeling more awkward than ever. The instructor called on me.
“I feel like I’m stepping on your toes when I go shopping in your store.”
Oh no. That sounded stupid and selfish! The words didn’t come out how I meant them. But what did I mean by them? I didn’t really know. I just knew I wanted them to know that I feel that way sometimes.
Heads swung around to look at me.
“You do?” said one of my classmates. She was clearly shocked. “Why?!”
“I feel like I don’t have any right to buy things that are supposed to be for your families. I’m not scared of anyone when I’m here. But I’m constantly scared of offending someone when I’m here.”
“Why would you feel that way? You’re not taking anything; it’s good for all of us when people spend money in our store.”
Before I could try to explain this thing that I didn’t understand, another voice from the row behind me chimed in, “I feel that way too when I go to the store here. Sometimes. Not as much as I used to when I first moved here though.”
I turned toward the voice grateful that someone understood me. It seemed that pretty much everyone was shocked to see that the voice belonged to a black woman who had lived on the reservation for a few years.
What was this mutual feeling of separation? How could we all feel so alone in our sameness? I still don’t understand it. But I think we all understood each other a little better in that moment.
I’ve been thinking about how distant and unrecognizable prejudice can be to each of us until we feel ourselves underneath the weight of it.
It’s a heavy, ugly thing that’s hard to describe because each of us only sees the side of it nearest to us. We can’t see the other side in our humanity. That’s why we need each other’s eyes. You can help me see from your perspective. I can help you see from mine.
I’m not saying that we solved racism that day or that we all became one big happy family. I wish it were that easy. I’m just saying that we all learned something about one another that resonated with our own hurts and worries.
We felt more alike than different for a split second.
None of us can see the whole thing though. Only God can see what this whole ugly thing looks like on all sides. That’s why we need prayer.
Friends, I believe in prayer. I believe that it does make a difference.
It bothers me when I hear someone discount people who react to tragedy by praying for our country. They think that prayer is a copout for actually doing something tangible to create change. It bothers me because it’s just more of the same thing. People judging the intentions of others harshly while they offer themselves the benefit of the doubt.
Because prayer is just this: honest conversation with God. And honesty with the One who sees all sides of the issue, as well as the insides of our hearts, does create change.
It changes the heart of the one who sighs in weakness, “I don’t know what to do other than to pray.” It changes the heart of the one who says, “Lord, if you find anything ugly in my heart, tell me!” Because that heart is ready for change.
I don’t have answers to the conflicts that seem to be multiplying in our country. All I know is that prayer changes hearts. But usually it changes the heart of the one doing the praying before it changes anything else.
Prayer gives us the courage to put ourselves out there – to attempt to connect even though there’s a good chance we’ll be misunderstood. And then God teaches us about ourselves and our attitudes about others.
It might not be what the world is hoping for. It’s not emotionally charged and political. But it’s the beginnings of change. And in a time where we feel vulnerable and at risk of being misunderstood and yet so desperately want to connect and learn, prayer might be the very best thing we can offer.
I promise to pray, friends. And I hope to understand.
Photo Adapted from: Loving Earth | CC