Jun 19, 2012

Tough Little White Girl

The alley behind our apartment building that totally freaks me out.

Remember how I said I was learning how to be a missionary here?

I'm also learning how to not be a wuss. 

I've had a few situations in which, as I was walking away from an encounter with someone, I have felt very certain that that was the last time it was going to happen that way.  I've felt confident that the next time something similar occurred, my natural response would be different.  Less careful and polite, more sincere and unafraid.

The first time was as I walked home from the market with a box of granola bars hidden in my stroller.  I was struggling with the times that a homeless person would address me directly and ask for money.  I knew I shouldn't give money, but I hated just lying and walking away, so a friend had suggested I offer them a granola bar instead of money.  Just something.  

So I thought I was feeling brave and prepared to respond the next time someone asked me for money.  And, of course, someone did.  I was foolishly self-satisfied with my first opportunity to really have a conversation with the people that might as well be ghosts in this city.  (Until one of them is drunk and angry and shouting about how eff-ing yellow a taxi cab is.  Then we all take notice... and move to the other side of the street.)  

I offered him the snack, he accepted, and I re-arranged things in the stroller as he started telling me about how he had just recently been kicked out of his apartment and was just waiting for his next paycheck.  I wasn't sure what to say, because it was obvious he had been out of work and on the streets for quite some time.  He said "thanks", I smiled and said "you're welcome" and "goodbye."  

But as I walked away, I started thinking how he might have been lying but he wasn't drunk. At least not so much that I couldn't have talked to him a little bit about Mars Hill and the opportunities they have there.  I could have told him where it was and suggested that he should stop by for free coffee next Sunday morning.  I could have asked his name.  That granola bar could have been more than just a salve for my own discomfort.  It could have been the perfect opportunity to smile and say, "I'm happy to give you this, but hear me out first." 

In just a few blocks, I was just a little bit different inside.

The last time was this morning.  I finally got up the nerve to walk inside a women's shelter and ask if they needed volunteers.  I've been procrastinating for a week, and when I finally laid down the law and told myself I wasn't going home until I did it, of course the sidewalk of the shelter was full of rough-looking, smoking, loud-laughing women.  I smiled and said "excuse me" and pretended to be comfortable.  I stood in line behind some women filling their bags with shampoo samples.  A big, black woman with no front teeth that smelled like cigarettes got really close to me so she could baby-talk Annika and her comfortable presence and attention relaxed me as I laughed with her and waited my turn.  

When I was finally walked back to the office, we walked through a cafeteria full of women.  I tried not to stare.  I probably did.  There were women of all ages with plates of chili and cornbread, young girls with pregnant bellies and towel-wrapped hair from the shower they just had, posters with "rules" like We Speak Truth to One Another.  I swelled with peace; I was so glad I came.  The Volunteer Coordinator was so glad I came.  I walked out feeling so glad about everything.  I passed a pair of young women and one was saying, "Ohhh girl, I love me some Vanilla Ice." I smiled to myself and probably even giggled; I was just feeling so good about the possibilities of getting involved and getting to know women there. 

"Okay. Alright.  Yeah. Hello to you too," one of them hollered, and her words were dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  I looked over my shoulder....and yes, she was talking to me.  I was too far away to respond without hollering back and so shocked out of my good-mood cloud that I just kept walking but slowed down and glanced back. 

 "Yeah, way to teach her the right way," she said, pointing her cigarette at Annika and looking me up and down.  I stood there on the corner, hesitating.  Maybe I should walk over there, I thought. But maybe not.  What would I say?  The crosswalk beeped.  I looked straight ahead and crossed the street towards home.  

I had all my volunteer paperwork in my hand and I'm sure I had a completely dumbfounded expression on my face.  Had I seemed rude? Did I look judgmental? But then I intentionally relaxed myself, straightened my shoulders and felt my resolve build.  

Yes. I should have stopped the moment she addressed me.  She was speaking to me like that because she felt like she could, because she felt like I wouldn't care enough to respond.  (She had, in fact, waited to say anything until I was a good deal past them.)  She wasn't dangerous, she was just bitter and I felt like I proved her "right" that a well-dressed little white girl would hurry away and avoid actual contact.  I should have stopped and turned around, unoffended and sincere, and apologized.  Because it would have been completely genuine; if I offended her by not saying "hello," then I really am sorry about that.  I should have walked up to that pair of young women and apologized and introduced myself and Annika and asked their names.  

I mean, honestly, I feel like meeting the women like that would actually be much less awkward than the way I'd probably have to meet people later if I end up volunteering.  In this case, she did the hard work of starting the conversation, all I had to do was be willing to continue it.  I need to not be timid when there's nothing to be afraid of.

I think that's part of the secret, how Jesus managed to attract such an unlikely crowd.  He wasn't cocky, he wasn't fake, and he wasn't afraid.  He had more to fear in the religious pharisees than he did in the prostitutes and tax-collectors.  His easy nature must have put them at ease; I love how sinners wanted to be around Jesus.  And I love how the pharisees freaked out when they invited him to dinner and he said yes and went. He wasn't a wuss about stuff like that.

When he was sending out the twelve apostles, he told them to be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves, and if he required  that of them then he obviously expected that it was possible to be both shrewd and harmless.  Both wise of the world and also innocent of it.

I wonder if any of you reading this have had similar experiences?  Any situations where your natural response was hesitance and caution, but you wish it had been comfort and confidence?  

Or, any advice for southern small-town girls with culture shock in the big city?

3 comments:

  1. I think this is one of the main differences between us. I came from this neighborhood. You CANT be afraid. You grow up that way. That woman would have been shocked if you turned around to talk with her. That is why she waited until you were far enough away. She was just putting on a show. Thats how things go. You remember her, but honestly she puts on that show for everyone. She wont remember you next week. One thing I struggle with now, and I will try hard to teach my kids because of the background that I come from is I dont appologize to anyone. They dont appologize to anyone for who they are and where they came from. You make your own life. Some people are dealt better hands in the beginning, but after that it's all up to you. And you should never be ashamed of that. Appologizing to someone because you feel bad about their circumstance (that they obviously are too lazy to get out of-and yes, it is laziness...and sometimes bad choices)is not the same as appologizing because of your good fortune. Stand up tall, Brit. Annika deserves a mom that will show her how to hold her own, and you deserve to know yourself well enough that you arent intimidated by anyone. You're tougher than you look Baer!

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    1. Thank you so much, Ang. To me, it's just all so different and I can only analyze it so much. It really helps to see it through your eyes and your perspective! I honestly think of you out here when I'm talking to strangers. I love how you can be genuine and friendly with just about anyone. I think God has been teaching me, through you and lessons like these, to be myself and unafraid. Thank you for the encouragement, friend. :)

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  2. Just remember there is no "us" and "them" in any situation. There are only people who are individuals. Every single person is different and you cannot classify them as anything other than themselves. Just like she is not defined by her race or gender, neither is she defined by her socioeconomic status or even her culture. She is an individual with a story that you haven't heard until you get to know her. I recently watched this video for the first time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bWlTZZN3DY), and while it was meant to be an experiment to teach why racism is wrong, what it taught me was that even if you attempt to treat people "equally", if you segment off any group of people using any characteristic, you immediately make them inferior or superior to others. In order to foster equality and love for all, you absolutely must take each person on their own merit and treat them as the individual they are, regardless of the circumstances surrounding you at the time. (Like you said, in a non-dangerous situation)... If you'd been in your comfort zone like at OBU or in your church and someone had said something like that to you, you would have probably apologized for seeming to ignore them and introduced yourself... so do that. Be who you are and do what you do, but also don't classify people as anything but humans and individuals, and you'll open yourself up to learn so much from so many people.

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