A few Sundays ago, my parents’ pastor offered me her pulpit. I hadn’t preached for more than a year, and because she said I could teach about “anything,” I leapt at the opportunity.
I invited a friend of mine, Dewayne, to teach with me. In the last several months, Dewayne has become a father, received his high school equivalency diploma, purchased a truck, and launched his own environmental services business. In the fall, he’ll be studying either culinary arts or food science—a passion he discovered through his employment at Bridge Bread. He’s bright and creative and an unbelievably captivating speaker.
That morning we arrived at the church too early, so we sat in the back row and chatted while the band warmed up. Shortly before the service began, this happened:
Jack: Do you guys want to move to the front row?
Dewayne: Nah. I need to stay back here.
Kelley: Why’s that?
Dewayne: Well, I don’t want to surprise anyone.
Kelley: What do you mean?
Dewayne: No one’s expecting to see me here.
Dewayne: Black man? Dreads? Tattoos?
Dewayne: I look like the guys they see on TV or in the newspapers.
Dewayne: I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
Kelley: That’s… But this is a chu…
Dewayne: Kelley. You know churches are the most segregated places, right?
There’s no good way to respond to that. There’s just not.
And despite all that, Dewayne got up and cracked himself wide open for the people in that room. The people whom he knew would judge him. The people whom he knew would be uncomfortable because of him. He was vulnerable anyway.
I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this story, except it happened three weeks ago and I can’t seem to shake it.
I’m certain I’ve written this before, but I’m going to write it again anyway. All of the yuck that’s happening in the world? The sex trafficking? Drug and alcohol dependence? Food insecurity? Illiteracy? Disregard for the elderly? The school to prison pipeline? Teen pregnancy? Political corruption? Gun violence? Domestic violence? Violence against the LGBT community? Depression and suicide? Misogyny? Xenophobia? Corporate greed? Extreme tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve? Overloaded foster care systems? And the rest of it? All of these social ills share this in common: They began and/or are sustained by a fundamental lack of empathy.
Today, empathy feels a lot like, “can’t see to shake it.”
Dewayne got us to feel things we’d never felt before. He was racial injustice, standing before us, challenging us to get real with our kids about the mess the world’s in right now. He was homelessness, in the flesh, talking about the people who’d helped him find a way home. He was poverty, staring us down, explaining how he’s regained his dignity.
And it made us uncomfortable.
Hopefully, enough that we’ll do something.