A Soft Place To Be Real



Our shoulders rubbed years ago in a Roxbury, MA sandwich shop. You stood behind me, chitchatting with your friends. You sounded sassy, loyal, and smart. I studied the menu, aware of your eyes on the back of my head. A handwritten sign taped to the register read: “Cash only.” I rummaged through my purse for my wallet. Six dollars—enough for a chicken salad sandwich. I glanced around the room feeling other eyes on me. No doubt they knew I had wandered in—as white people did—from the seminary up the street.

I’d almost turned around when I realized I was the only Caucasian in sight. I’d willed myself to move toward the line after stepping through the front door. I knew it wasn’t wrong to feel uncomfortable, but I sure didn’t like my impulse. Why did skin color stand out before facial features and expressions in our eyes? I ached in that moment when the divide between us became visible.

It was 1:30 in the afternoon and you weren’t in school. I’d heard from other teens that they avoided school because of bullies, stealing and violence. Others had said they went to school hungry. Many didn’t think education would buy them much.

“You think you can save the world,” you said as you brushed against my shoulder. Hurt and anger flooded your eyes. Your friends looked on curiously.

Teens had voiced their suspicions over white people coming into the neighborhood to minister to the black community. Most kids assumed I was rich, and it created barriers.

I stared at my wallet, not sure what to say. I wanted to buy you a sandwich. Then again, I feared it might come across as condescending.

Growing up around cow pastures, mint fields and Skandinavian descendents hadn’t prepared me for that moment. Every imagined response sounded trite or arrogant. I wanted to explain that I only had six dollars because I was broke and struggling to pay for seminary. Yet I knew that life had afforded me access to different opportunities and higher education.

I wanted to express that I passionately supported the Civil Rights Act—promising equal access to education, employment, credit, fair housing and government representation. But I felt ashamed, because my skin was the same color as many who had put roadblocks in the way of those promises. I didn’t know how to talk about the injustices set in motion long before either of us had been born. Who is to blame? Who bears responsibility to those who have not had the same advantages for so many generations?

“Uh, Ma’am, which sandwich do you want?” The man behind the cash register waited for my answer.

“Chicken salad, please.” Somehow those words came out of my mouth. Other words sat in my brain like puzzle pieces mixed up on a coffee table. If I hadn’t been so conscious of the people watching, if I had been wiser and bolder, I wouldn’t have left so quickly. “I’m sorry,” I stepped toward the door, “I have to go.”

I’ve thought of you over the years, wishing that I hadn’t stumbled over my discomfort and uncertainty. I’ve studied the faces in a crowd, wondering if you were among them. I’ve imagined you joining the Millions to March. I’ve envisioned you walking with your friends, holding up a sign: Black Lives Matter.

If I could have a do-over, I’d get over my discomfort long enough to ask you to share a sandwich. And I would invite you to gather with your friends around a table. I hope we’d talk about our lives and struggles. I hope you would be patient as I learned to listen and not react. With God’s help, I’d find the words to say I’m sorry for the pain so many have caused you, and for the ways I have benefitted from structures and systems that have harmed you and so many other black Americans.

I hope we could step into warm friendship. More than anything, I hope we could work together to bring down dividing walls as we live and move and have our being in the One who makes us family.   


Image credit: Alpha