My Turn August 30, 2017
Choose Hospitality, not Walls
Recently, a woman stopped me on Elm Street in downtown Manchester and asked, “Do you have a dollar? It’s all I need to make up enough money for a cup of coffee.”
This unnamed woman interrupted our dash to a sandwich shop for a strategy session to prepare for a meeting with our U.S. Senator. We were to plan effective advocacy against a bill to come before the Senate. Our presentation was to be based upon a humanitarian and justice foundation. I was mentally pacing out the steps of our approach to the issue as we walked by the entreating woman. I completely missed the connection between our urgency to advance our humanitarian case to the Senator and the immediacy of the woman’s request for a dollar.
The image of the woman seeking a cup of coffee stayed with me for the next few days. It brought back a memory of my years as a welfare officer in a small New Hampshire town. The people I had assisted taught me that behind every crisis requiring immediate financial aid was the critical need to have someone listen to their story and empathize with their suffering, anger, fear, and frustration with the entanglements and injustices of government regulations and social systems.
That memory morphed into missed possibilities of interaction with the woman who met us on the street. We could have invited her to walk with us to the sandwich shop to buy her a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich or a pastry to go with it. Or, I thought, we could have invited her to sit with our planning group and listen in on our conversation over coffee and breakfast. Perhaps she could even have contributed her understanding of injustice, abuse, and destruction of dignity to the issues that were motivating our advocacy concerning the Senate bill.
Or even more compelling, perhaps her story would have been important for our U.S. Senator to hear. We had been promised an hour. Giving up fifteen minutes of our time to the woman may have affirmed her dignity and ability to advocate for herself. As people of privilege, we have access to our Senator’s office and the ability to speak to the power of our U.S. Senate that may not be easily available to her.
I’m not asking us to condemn ourselves for walking by a person panhandling when we are on the way to work, shopping, or to pick up one of our children from school. (However, for those who are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, as well as many other faith traditions, there is Scriptural precedent for stopping to give help). I use the story only to illustrate our country’s widening communication gaps among people with differing life experiences. Frequently people do not notice or even acknowledge the existence of other people living in different environments, cultures, or economic circumstances. However, when we do notice one another it is often when needs, values, or identities come into conflict. Every day we read in newspapers, tweets, and on Facebook derogatory labels attached to rival individuals and organizations. There is name-calling, suspicion, misunderstanding, and sometimes hate and violence. We hear them on radio and TV news as well as on entertainment venues and talk shows. They come from some of our nations leaders, hate groups, and occasionally from some more moderate advocacy organizations. I’ll not give credence to those labels by using them as examples here. Unfortunately many of them are already imprinted into our consciousness.
This widening communication gap calls forth the worst within us. It revives old prejudices and misunderstandings about classifications of human beings. A recent United States map drawn by the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates geographical divides, some back to the Civil War, that are being actively promoted by separatist groups. The White House is reviving the divide between Americans and all others: insisting on a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and creating barriers to immigration and even tourism. Legislative leadership, state and national, tends to pit economic considerations against human needs.
The pathway toward a more humane society includes advocating for legislation that breaks down the separation barriers of widening disparities in income, education, cultures, religion, ethnic origins, and the differences in accents and traditions of people living in rural and urban settings as well as from different regions of the country. It also involves courage and the risk of hospitality that welcomes together people from all strata of our society. Everyone is invited to the table: those who eat with spoons, or forks, or fingers, or chopsticks – with their left hands or their right hands. Our differences are real. Some people are very conscious of rank and respect, insisting on “sir and ma’am.” Others are more comfortable with informal expressions of equality. Some value avoiding conflict at all cost. While others value a good debate. Some always look for ways to give praise and support. Others are more economical with their compliments. Some are enthusiastic, boisterous, and chaotic while others are more comfortable in a climate of soft-spoken reason. Geography and personal history influence temperament as well as the status and meaning of our lives. Some speak slowly and smoothly. Others speak with clipped staccato consonants. Some values are almost universally accepted. Others are diverse and in conflict.
The pathway toward a more open, just, and peaceful society is not easy, particularly amidst the fabricated divisiveness flaunted all around us. The pathway begins modestly, in our neighborhoods and communities. It begins at the coffee shop or the bookstore, at the ballpark or during intermission at a concert, in the grocery store or the dentist’s waiting room. It begins by listening to each other for understanding, to nurture empathy, to create dignity, and to inspire advocacy for the well being of one another.
For me, the journey down the pathway to increasing awareness and hospitality opened up with the invitation, “Do you have a dollar to complete the cost for a cup of coffee?”
(Published: My Turn, Concord Monitor (NH), September 18, 2017)