White guys wear sports hats and goat’s beards, driving trucks.
You know the guy. They are everywhere, especially in the south. They get on my nerves, really. Lately, I’ve come to realize that all disgusting Trumpeters — and probably racist neo-Nazis — get up.
Talk about profiling.
“Earl,” the guy who lives across from me, has the loudest pickup I’ve ever heard. Get me out of my chair in the morning when he picks it up. His older Harley is even louder. He also likes to chase that monster regularly.
Earl is also the kindest and kindest person in the neighborhood. Sitting on his front porch, he smiles and greets everyone who passes by. Many people stop and talk for a while. He constantly invites neighbors, including me, to visit and eat the juicy steaks and chops he cooks on his gas grill. If I don’t cross the street, he delivers me delicious food (food is one of my love languages, by the way). A few weeks ago, Earl insisted on helping me lift the mower into the trunk – although he had recently suffered several injuries in an accident and had to dig across the street.
As for why that loud truck lights up every morning, Earl faithfully visits his elderly father every day, even though his father became depressed in his old age and sometimes verbally abused him. I learned this by talking to Earl – and listening to him – during the visits he initiated.
As for practical, relational Christianity, Earl is the real thing in my street, not me.
Stereotypes are not people
Why do we stereotype people so quickly based on their looks, speech, or clothing? Racism, of course. Also clannishness, small-mindedness, regional and cultural prejudices. My father born in Georgia had to get rid of his accent from the deep south when he worked as a salesman north of the Mason-Dixon line. No one upstairs would buy anything from someone he assumed was a stupid mountaineer.
Educated, sophisticated people can be just as concerned as the rural people. Sometimes more.
“Educated, sophisticated people can be as fanatical as the rural people. Sometimes more. “
Putting people in stereotypical boxes starts early. When I was in high school back in the Paleolithic era, we were divided into jokers, cheerleaders, “brains,” nerds, freaks, and outcasts. I’m not sure what terms kids use today, but I’m sure they have them. Adults are not that different; we have a box of white collars, a box of blue collars, urban elites, technicians, hipsters, seniors, boomers, millennials, conservatives, progressives. These niches are useful in some ways, but people are individuals, not categories.
Travel, technology, and globalization have helped us better experience the true diversity of humanity in different cultures. But they have also created new problems as we struggle with endless waves of information. Our brain has become a “pattern recognition machine,” says journalist Kate Murphy, the author You don’t listen: what you miss and why it matters. Too many words, too many pictures, too much data floods our mind. So we stop listening or we only listen to what we want to hear. It even affects close relationships.
“Sometimes people keep conversation easy with friends and family because they assume they already know what’s going on, but they can also be afraid of what they might learn,” Murphy writes. “But what is love if it is not a willingness to listen and be part of another person’s evolving story? Lack of listening primarily contributes to feelings of loneliness. In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, nearly half said they don’t have significant daily social interactions, like a long conversation with a friend. Roughly the same proportion says they often felt isolated and left out, even when others were nearby. ”
Social isolation and alienation, in addition to the individual suffering they cause, now threaten our existence as a society. We all no longer listen to each other, we don’t talk. Instead, we avoid each other, we are afraid, we hate each other. This trend goes beyond politics. It infects broad social and regional groups that refuse to connect with each other in any meaningful way.
If you think you are not susceptible to this infection, take a long and careful look at your interaction with other human beings and the assumptions you make about them.
I recently thought about it while volunteering in a food pantry / wardrobe / shower at my town church. I’ve only helped a few times so far, but I’ve already caught myself mentally putting people walking through the door into categories – wanderer, drug addict, head case, etc.
“I’ve already caught myself mentally putting people walking through the door into categories – wanderers, drug addicts, head cases, etc.”
However, last week I started a conversation with “Jim”, one of the regular visitors. He is an older man, disheveled, with long, ruffled hair. He wraps an eraser around his gray beard of salt and pepper. He usually stays in the seating area all the time, collects food and takes a shower. It is decorated when someone does not follow the rules of the pantry (including volunteers), so I gave him a wide bed until our conversation. He was in a good mood that day.
It turned out that Jim had ridden his 10-speed bike twice (which he carefully locks on the railing of the stairs outside the church) all the way to Florida and back to Virginia. Of the countries in between, he likes Georgia the most. “The people there are so nice,” he said. He told me that as a kid he tagged along with his father, who drove an 18-wheeled trailer from Chicago south to pick up huge quantities of watermelons. Together, they would sell products to supermarkets along the roads leading to the house.
As a young man, Jim studied theater and stage lighting, and worked at the Barter Theater in Virginia, one of the largest American regional playhouses. Barter productions over the years have included Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty and many other actors who have gained fame and fortune.
I’m not sure how Jim became homeless – or is homeless at all. I didn’t ask. As he unlocked his bike to leave, he gave me advice on attending classes at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. If you are over 60, he said, classes are free if you fill out the paperwork. He attended courses in Shakespeare and film history. Professor Shakespeare was difficult, he warned.
That’s Jim, the guy I assumed the case burned down. I hope we get to know each other better in the coming weeks.
Don’t guess. Listen.
Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as a global correspondent for the Committee on International Missions of the Southern Baptist Convention. He lives in Richmond, Va.
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