I know nothing of being sold or bought, degraded, all dignity stolen and forced to go along with it all when everything inside says to fight. I know nothing of being told, “Here is your freedom,” but always having a hand over me, controlling me, manipulating. I know nothing of a father’s desperate plea, “Just make it home, whatever you have to do, just get home.”
I’m listening now.
I grew up fenced in with corn and beans and neighbors far down the dusty gravel road. The only people I knew who didn’t resemble my family of five were migrant workers who visited our black soiled farm fields to plant and pick tomatoes. Their children came to school. They nodded, they smiled nervous smiles. And I’m reminded of Ray. He was a big kid and had a learning disability. To be perfectly honest, he was quite comfortable with himself, and this is why I remember him. We all loved him and even protected him. I didn’t know any other of the migrant children. They never talked to me. I never talked to them I can’t recall even trying.
A dozen years later I met Tizzie. She lived in the girl’s home for “troubled youth” close to our high school. She ran lap after lap around the track with me after school, sprinters in training, running the required two-mile warm up. She was loud and had a smile as big as she was tall. I never knew why she was living at the home. I don’t think I ever asked.
My attempts to mix with students at college whom I had no real experience with were disastrous. I never knew what to say. I distinctly remember bursting out of class, cramming around a small tv to hear the verdict of a high-profile case, a former football player, accused of killing his wife and a delivery man. Some students stood silent, completely stunned, internally crying “Injustice!,” while others danced, applauded, even screamed with joy. I couldn’t form one word. Yet something switched in me that day. A small seed of stillness was growing. I didn’t understand it then, but I was learning to listen.
Two decades later, I can be found in my home with my youngest of four. His little brown lips work together with his mind, reading to me, so badly wanting to please and be encouraged. Sometimes I speak a little too soon or anger boils over, and it’s because I haven’t noticed, haven’t stilled to hear him quietly pleading for my help. This sounds so familiar to me today, as the world outside my front door sometimes looks just the world inside it.
And there is the television. Again. It’s happened again. And there are those who wonder why? Why can’t we have peace? We think, “Why can’t people just do what they’re suppose to do and obey the law?” Oh friends, it’s so much more than this, just like the celebrations after, “Not guilty,” ran so much deeper than I could ever imagine.
It’s the reason why so many of our “free” don’t feel free. It’s the reason why anyone who doesn’t fit the social norm is an outcast. It’s the reason why most of us won’t ever consider going to “that side of town.”
We don’t know how to listen. And honestly, we don’t really want to. It’s time-consuming. It’s hard work and we might get uncomfortable.
But I read, “Take note of this… post this at all intersections, dear friends. Lead with your ears.” Oh James, this brother of our saviour. You heard His words, now you are begging us to listen “and humbly accept the word planted in you which can save you.”
As an adult, I’m running to this, fighting my humanity to put it into practice. I still fail miserably. But I’m resolutely training myself and my audience, my place of influence, my children, to listen, to stop before blurting irrational thoughts really not thought out, before they have time to form assumptions and even judgement. We are inclined. We have opinions. We have strong emotions. It’s easier said than done. I get that.
What if our (the church’s) greatest emotion was compassion, raw mercy? What if we still had our opinions, our emotions, our years and years of life experience, or lack thereof, and we chose to just listen. To not say anything for the time. To just listen. To try and go there with someone with a life that on the outside looks so different, and find we have things in common. Like hunger and thirst, desire and need, fear and security. How differently would we see if we chose to listen first? What audience would we have? Would the misunderstood find fresh ears, patiently listening to all their life? Would misconceptions evaporate, instead filled in with love, tears, kindness, compassion, a handshake or an embrace?
What would happen if we became so quiet, we only noticed others – and just listened?