Pumpkin spiced lattes, advertisements for u-pick apple farms, rusty colored foliage, hooded sweatshirts, and cooler mornings and nights. They are signs that fall is here. But when did summer end?
This post is a look back at one particular experience from this summer. I’m taking time to remember and honor it because I fear that if I don't, it will get catalogued into “Summer 2017”, sit idle, and collect dust. It’s one that I hope will shape how I do life including how I perceive and make movement toward those who are my other. It also relates to the recent happenings in Charlottesville, VA and the conversations about race. Although direct references are not made to this event and although my grasp of these complex realities and dynamics are limited, my reflections are with these in mind.
July 2017. I traded in the familiarity of suburban comforts and conveniences for eight days of simple cabin life. I joined 14 individuals from my church and groups from Tennessee and Alabama, to serve the tangible needs of Haywood County, North Carolina. We provided home repairs, light construction for community groups, visited widows and the like.
One project involved a trailer home in need of major renovation. We headed inside for a quick rundown of the day’s to-do list. I didn’t know what to expect but I was immediately shocked. My body jerked as my unsuspecting nose caught a whiff of something putrid. It was a concoction of mold, decrepit flooring, canine and rodent feces and urine, and bodily odors.
This is where I confess my judgments. How does one reach such extreme tolerance for negligence and poor hygiene? How does one live in abhorrent, deplorable conditions? Where is one’s sense of pride, dignity, and worth?
Shortly after, a work group gathered to apply sealant on the roof, another to paint the interior walls and ceiling. My group was tasked with the culprit of the awful stench, the bathroom.
Everything in that space, including the toilet had to be removed. Unfortunately, the bolt and nut on the side of the toilet next to the bathtub refused to cooperate. It would wiggle just enough to loosen but it was a tease. It stubbornly circled in place. No more than two people at a time could attempt unscrewing the nut and the maximum was two to three minutes before we had to rotate out due to the smell. Our body squeezed into the tight nook between the toilet and the tub. Our face was mere inches away. It was a solid 20 minutes (it felt much longer) before progress came. And when the nut was finally free, there were cheers of great relief and accomplishment.
As horrendous as this project was, it was here and meeting the couple who called this place home that changed me. Our exchange was brief but their sincerity was undeniable. The judgments I held earlier were challenged. More than that, I grieved over those judgments, for human dignity is so much more than the standard of cleanliness. Their home was outwardly unattractive and not something you would praise or esteem; nevertheless, it was holy ground.
It was sacred because their home was where I crossed socio-economic, class, power, and even racial lines. And it was there that I re-learned that to truly behold the beauty of the other, you have to cross lines. It can’t be done from afar. You have to be close enough to touch, taste, hear, see even smell the other.
Timothy Keller writes in Generous Justice,
“We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need – regardless of race, politics, class, and religion – is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.”
Value, worth, and dignity are not reserved for a select group nor is it for people you identify with. It is inherent in all people.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28