And she passed by on the other side

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded the audiobook of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for a trip to visit my parents. They only live a couple of hours south of me, so this 3.5-hour audiobook was a perfect fit for my round-trip, kid-free drive. I had heard good things about the book – how it was important, how it spoke great rumbling truths. I was excited to finally know what other people were talking about in referencing the book as “essential,” as “paradigm-shifting,” as “profound.”

On the drive down on a Friday afternoon, I could tell that this book was going to change the way I see things.  I kept pausing it to sit and think about the things I was hearing, and trying to understand.  I’m not suggesting that I was magically and immediately transformed… but something shifted inside of me, and I felt like I was beginning to see.

On the way back, I was driving at night. “I’d better stop early for gas,” I thought. I’d better fill up before the stretch of I-75 that doesn’t feel safe to me at night. I don’t want to have to stop between Howell and Birch Run – that’s Flint, a city with one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation. It’s not safe for me – not safe for my white, female body.

I filled up and kept driving, and kept listening. And what shifted for me on Friday afternoon fell heavily upon me on Saturday night. The hypocrisy of my thoughts – of thinking that stopping at a gas station in Flint wasn’t safe for my pale, female body, without understanding how everyday life in Flint wasn’t safe for other brown and black bodies, either. I was coming to understand how it wasn’t just one stretch of I-75 that wasn’t safe, but the whole of the nation where violence against people of color is so normal that it often doesn’t even make the news. I continued driving past the shuttered homes and factories, barely skirting the outside of Flint. I drove the boundary between the west suburbs of Flint – where water is safe to drink – and the east side, where the water could literally kill you.  And as politicians wring their hands over dollar signs and point fingers and proclaim innocence despite proof of guilt, babies and women and men are literally poisoned by the water they drink.

flint water

The next morning, I got up early to put together my Primary lesson. Unable to find something that felt inspired in the lesson plan, I turned to the church’s Bible videos. If the lesson was supposed to be about telling others about Jesus, they would need to know the stories of Jesus first. I scrolled through and looked for videos that would be interesting and useful to 4 year-olds. I stopped at the five-minute video about the story of the Good Samaritan. “Perfect,” I thought. It’s five minutes long (the extent of my class’s attention span) but it talked about how Jesus taught to treat others, and we could talk about how to show others the teachings of Jesus with our actions.

I loaded the video up and I watched, looking for moments that I would use to teach the kids what they were seeing. Instead, what I saw was another ugly insight into the things that had shifted. I saw a priest, seeing the dying man in the street, and instead passing by. I saw a Levite, seeing the dying man in the street, passing by. They passed the dying man the same way I passed the dying city, with little concern in their eyes and no actions in their hands or feet. The guilt swelled up in me, powerful in its meaning and example.

I saw myself in that Levite, in that priest. I saw myself walking past the dying man in the street, driving past the dying city, careful to keep my gaze focused forward rather than look to see the suffering. There was nothing I could do, after all. I don’t have millions of dollars to install a new pipe system so that water can run cleanly through again. I don’t have anything to offer the people of Flint. “Maybe I could buy a case of bottled water and drop it off at one of the water depots,” I thought. Was I doing that to help the people of Flint, or to ease my conscience? Would buying a case of bottled water pick that enormous boulder of guilt, of privilege, of the dream off of my chest?

It might, but that’s not the solution I seek.  Truthfully, I don’t have good answers, but I’m exploring the meaning of the things I now see. I see myself passing by, eyes shuttered and blinded to the suffering. What things can I do to meaningfully combat the enormous rifts I now see around me? The systemic rifts of poverty, of racism, of privileging some bodies over other bodies? It seems like helping a dying person on the side of the road would be so easy, especially in comparison to tackling the complex issues of poverty, violence, racism, and hatred that plague the United States.

I re-listened to “Between the World and Me,” hoping to find the answers. I feel like I have a better understanding of the problem, and how I am complicit in it, but I still don’t have answers.  After all, it’s comparatively easy to see one dying person in the street and help them as the Good Samaritan did, but what if you see whole dying cities?  Dying communities?  Dying peoples?  How do you help people without devolving into paternalism?  How do we combat problems that have their roots deep in our soil, centuries old?

I may not have answers, but I’m going to let this thing that shifted onto me sit there a while.  What I do have is a renewed commitment to be vocal, to raise awareness, to see my brothers and sisters as actual brothers and sisters, to bear witness to their injustices, to vote consciously, to spend ethically, and to check my privilege and biases regularly.  I want to sit in this ugliness, to learn more, and to listen.  I want to hear more stories, and to understand the complexity, breadth, and depth of these issues.  I want to know how my words and actions contribute to the problems, so that I can change.  When I see that Good Samaritan stopping in the bible video, I see a person who is engaged in this work. I want to be like him, not just because he stopped and helped, but because he saw both the person and the problem.  I want to see.

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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12 Responses

  1. EFH says:

    I read the same book in January and it opened my eyes too. Thank you for your insightful thoughts on this subject.

  2. Libby says:

    I don’t have any of those answers, Liz. I wish I did. I agree that we need to sit in the ugliness far more than we do.

  3. Amy Hoyt says:

    Liz! This is so beautiful and powerful. Thank you for reminding me of my duty to help the least of us, no matter if what I have to give seems insufficient to me. This really resonated with me.

  4. Heather says:

    Wow what a powerful comparison. This was a great–albeit painful–read. I know I am way too comfortable and need to be willing to “sit in the ugliness” more.

  5. Emily G. says:

    One privilege of being white is that you might be safer in a “dangerous” area, because a white woman getting hurt brings in TV camera crews and police scrutiny and zealous prosecutors. Black and brown victims don’t always get that, and “bad guys” know it.

    My wakeup moment was the time a black friend from church told me he was hoping to bring his niece to some activities, but had to get her comfortable with the idea of being around so many white people. Wait, what? It had literally never occurred to me that someone could be uncomfortable around me and people who look like me. But it makes perfect sense: what kinds of awful experiences had this inner-city young woman had with white salespeople, teachers, taxi drivers, social workers? My experiences with people who looked like her were uniformly neutral to positive, yet I was the one who was allowed to be uncomfortable in large groups of people of her race.

    I am so glad you wrote this — great timing!

    • Liz says:

      I had never thought of this, either! I’m so glad that you mentioned it. I felt like the book I mentioned was full of these moments – where something makes perfect sense, but I had never thought about it before.

  6. Jenny says:

    Thank you for this. I love your conclusion because I always just want all the answers to solve the world’s problems. I love your idea of sitting with it. And I love this: “to be vocal, to raise awareness, to see my brothers and sisters as actual brothers and sisters, to bear witness to their injustices, to vote consciously, to spend ethically, and to check my privilege and biases regularly. I want to sit in this ugliness, to learn more, and to listen. I want to hear more stories, and to understand the complexity, breadth, and depth of these issues. I want to know how my words and actions contribute to the problems, so that I can change. When I see that Good Samaritan stopping in the bible video, I see a person who is engaged in this work. I want to be like him, not just because he stopped and helped, but because he saw both the person and the problem. I want to see.” I love the book recommendation too. It sounds like something I need to read.

  7. Quimby says:

    I’m currently 3/4 of the way through a Master in International and Community Development, where every single course grapples with exactly these questions. And the truth is, there are no answers. I want to say that real, meaningful change can only come from below; but I can’t believe that, because real change, significant change, only comes when those who are in positions of power allows it to come. But there is also no point in becoming powerful, because there are too many compromises that come with power, and so by the time power is achieved, you are not in a position to change anything, anyway. So what do you do? You rage against the world, you yell at God, you let your heart break into a million tiny pieces. And then you pick up those shattered pieces of your heart and you look down and you realise, as St Theresa of old: My hands are God’s hands. My voice is His voice. My heart is His heart. I do not have His infinite power or His matchless love, but I do have a portion of His Divinity, and I must use my body here on earth, because He cannot use His. And you go, and you do, and you know, even as you are going and doing, that you are falling short – that the case of water for Flint is a mere token, that sponsoring a child in Uganda is not likely to change a thing – but it is, at least, something. And through the accumulation of these somethings, these empty, tokenistic, meaningless gestures – even if you are motivated by guilt, even if you are acting to soothe your own troubled soul – you are saying: I cannot do much, Lord, but I can do something. I cannot stop a war. I cannot house 10,000 refugees. I cannot replace a system of rotting, toxic pipes. But I can give clean water to this family. I can give a pair of shoes to that refugee. I can challenge intolerance, in myself and in others.

    When Christ came to earth, He ministered only to a select few. Perhaps a couple thousand heard His voice. He did not think, It is pointless, there are so many – entire continents! – that I cannot serve. Instead, He served those he could serve. The children He blessed did not grow up to change the world. Lazarus eventually died, and his passing was not marked by any but his closest friends. The thousands who were fed with a few loaves and fishes soon hungered again. But that did not stop Christ from doing what He could, while He was on earth, even though those small acts of service did not change a thing. We are Christ’s body. We pledge that with our baptism and renew that covenant with every drop of sacramental bread. We are His hands, His feet, His heart. We cannot save the world entire, as He did – but we can serve who we can serve, we can love who we can love, and in so doing – in a thousand small and pointless acts – we can push back against the darkness of complicity and indifference.

    • Liz says:

      I have been thinking about this comment since you posted it, Quimby. I got my BA in International Development, which might be why these questions have always haunted me (and continue to haunt me). This bit of your comment particularly resonates with me:

      “And through the accumulation of these somethings, these empty, tokenistic, meaningless gestures – even if you are motivated by guilt, even if you are acting to soothe your own troubled soul – you are saying: I cannot do much, Lord, but I can do something. I cannot stop a war. I cannot house 10,000 refugees. I cannot replace a system of rotting, toxic pipes. But I can give clean water to this family. I can give a pair of shoes to that refugee. I can challenge intolerance, in myself and in others.”

      I want to say that this what the Atonement means when we talk about it making up the difference – that we give our small portion, whatever it is, and God will make up the rest. I want to believe that, but yet I see so much suffering and wonder if God is actually making up the rest. And then I wonder if we’re actually giving our small portion, too.

      • Quimby says:

        I think it depends on what you mean by “God will make up the rest.” What do you expect that to look like? God isn’t going to create a world in which every single person can live like I can live. The earth can’t sustain that. But I think God is more concerned with the immaterial – with the “worth of a soul.”

        In his book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis says that the most-often quoted scripture on poverty is, “The poor will always be with you.” Too often, Christians use this as an excuse – The poor will always be with us, therefore it’s God’s wish that poor people are poor. Instead, Wallis asks us to use it as a challenge – The poor will always be with you. What are you going to do about it?

        In the same book he quotes a man as saying, “Nobody gets into heaven without letter of recommendation from the poor.” But what strikes me is that that letter of recommendation doesn’t have to say, “Liz was great, she replaced our water pipes and kept our children from getting lead poisoning.” I mean, hey, if you can do that, great – please do! But that letter of recommendation might say instead, “Liz bore witness to our suffering, and wept with us.” And that is valuable too. After all, isn’t that what Christ did? He knew he could lift Lazarus from the tomb. But still, he wept, because his friends were in mourning.

        A homeless man once told me that the worst thing about being homeless was that everybody pretended he was invisible. He just wanted to be acknowledged. I used to live in a red light district and the prostitutes there said the same thing – that they just wished people saw them and treated them like human beings. There is power in being a witness. There is power in bearing witness. There is power in looking into the face of inequality, in staring into the eyes of the marginalised, and saying, Tell me.

        Sometimes we can do more. We can support charities, we can deliver bottles of water, we can vote for candidates who can effect lasting change. But sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we can just sit and listen.

  8. Caroline says:

    This is so good, Liz. “I want to know how my words and actions contribute to the problems, so that I can change. ” Me too. Me too.

  9. Rachel says:

    Thank you for all of this, Liz.

    These questions are on my mind, too: “it’s comparatively easy to see one dying person in the street and help them as the Good Samaritan did, but what if you see whole dying cities? Dying communities? Dying peoples?” One of my favorite philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, wrote about responsibility to the other, and suggested that we owe the other person everything, but also acknowledged that there are always other others. His student, Derrida, explained it even more simply by stating that even if we feed our hungry cat every day, we are still not feeding all of the other hungry cats. And as humans, our resources (of time, money, emotions, etc.) really are limited, so it is exceedingly tricky to find that balance. Levinas saw it as ethics versus politics (or maybe ethics And politics). It’s why I think it is good to ask ourselves the questions, and to try to give/live good answers, but why institutional help and change is also needed.

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