By Kristin Weschler
I approached a diner counter and was asked to sit down on the pedestal seat, put headphones on, close my eyes, and place my hands flat on the counter in front of me. After a short period of still silence, I heard someone whisper in my right ear, “What are you doin’ here, n—-r? You don’t belong here.” I cannot recall the next two minutes and twenty seconds in detail, but I can remember how my body felt and responded. I remember being yelled at, pushed off my seat, and feeling vibrations on the counter. Yet, this simple whisper had the hairs on my arms raised, and my heart beating out of my chest. It triggered a traumatic memory of my own. While I am a Caucasian female that the interrogator was not speaking to, I clearly connected with the reaction of fear and danger. At that moment, I was able to briefly and incompletely put myself in the shoes of a black individual who experienced harassment and abuse, but usually over many months, if not years. I cannot imagine living a life, day in and day out, in such terror and uncertainty.
This was one of many experiences I had during a recent 10-day immersion trip I took for seminary. The trip followed the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christian and black civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s who advocated for equal rights. This specific event simulated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black students sat down and ordered coffee in a white designated seating area. It reminded me that despite our differences (gender, class, ethnicity, faith tradition), we can all identify with fear. That terrifying feeling when our sense of safety is threatened, whether physically, emotionally, or morally. What must it be like to feel like your life is in danger every day? And yet, there are people who live like this today in the Middle East, in Africa, in Mexico, and many others who live silently in their own internal prisons.
I have not traveled to the Middle East, or have any knowledge of the complexities of the conflict. Still, my understanding from the things I’ve read, the people I’ve met, and my work at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) is that we all experience trauma and injustice; however, this is based on our personal experiences and environments. I believe the experience of Palestinians living under occupation is an injustice, just as the African Americans who would have been sitting at the diner counter experienced the injustices of discrimination and oppression. We must open our minds and hearts to others, seeking compassion and understanding.
At this time of year, many of us are in a time of reflection and preparation during the season of Lent. I have been spending time wondering how people endure and find strength during experiences of exploitation and violence. Despite my faith, could I endure such cruelty and instability? Could I reside somewhere hearing gunshots every day, fearing for my life, or being forcefully separated from loved ones? I cannot say; however, I am certain that without my faith, I would not be able even to consider this. I would be completely without hope.
So, what brings me hope? Certainly, knowing that my Lord and Savior suffered temptations, brutality, and death but continues to live among and within us. Yet, it is also the sense of identity and the common bond that I share with others that sustains me. It is witnessing God in others, knowing that we are all equal in God’s eyes. No one is less than or greater than the other. God loves us for who we are, and we are asked to do the same (Matthew 22:37-39). We are community, the body of Christ.
Martin Luther King expressed this in his vision of ‘the beloved community.’ At the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a plaque that describes this image:
The Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness…The Beloved Community is a state of heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation. At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world we have now but I do believe it is a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination and through education and training, if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment (emphasis added).
I love his vision and his belief that it was possible. He identifies parts of each one of us (mind, heart, and spirit) that bring us together and cannot be hindered or taken away unless we allow it. But it also takes courage and determination, a mind and heart willing to listen and the desire to relate to, and love, others who may be different from us. This is not what the world prioritizes or values, but we are to follow Christ, being open to transformation and renewal (Romans 12:2). Will you join me in this journey?
Dear Heavenly Father, we live in a world of instability, violence, and trepidation. We have experienced our own moments of fear and anxiety, leaving us feeling isolated and alone. However, we know we are not alone. We live in unity with you and one another as a beloved community. Help us to open our hearts, recognizing the similarities we share and the love we have for one another. For in being unified, we stand strong as the body of Christ to further your kingdom. We ask all these things in your holy and precious name…Amen.
Kristin Weschler is an intern at CMEP.