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.
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.