The Mississippi midnight was heavy with humidity and the memory of Selma, both common to Mississippi at that hour and in that decade. What was uncommon was the scene. It was as if a playwright had carefully crafted a script in which the tables had been turned on a white majority and a black minority. I, the privileged white boy, having known only the white majority world, suddenly found myself in a world where “free, white and 21” did not matter.
I was desperate for gasoline and pulled off at the first exit. There was one small place open and, breathing a sigh of relief, I pulled in. Inside, the attendant was enjoying the company of a couple of “regulars,” laughing in that casual, easy manner of friendship. That there was not a white person in the group did not register with me.
That changed quickly, however, as I caught the steely, steady gaze of three or four young men off to my left, lounging on somebody’s car. Their attention was firmly fixed upon me, probably from the moment I climbed out of my car. Their gaze was hard with the attitude of “Who do you think you are and what are you doing here?” Then it registered: I am the only white person on the premises. I had stepped into a small African American community, smack dab in the middle of 1960s Mississippi.
The implications of that experience are telling. There I was, the minority, unwelcomed for no other reason than the color of my skin. Every move was closely watched, every step was cautious, as I was the lone person of the wrong color. There is not a black person in Mississippi who hasn’t felt what I felt that night, only many times more severely.
We Christians are told that the most important thing in life is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are also told that if we neglect loving neighbor, we neglect God. One of the Johns said that. And Jesus insisted that even that person we find difficult to love, for whatever reason — race, religion, politics, personality, sexual orientation, ethnicity — is our neighbor. He said anybody can love someone who is easy to love; easy love is nothing special.
My excursion into the world of a battered minority and my understanding of the Christian’s calling to a life of love, especially a love for all of the “thems” in my world, leave me with two compelling thoughts.
On the one hand, we can only love our neighbors by stepping into their world, walking around with them, seeing what they feel, gaining perspective. Doing so weakens the gap between “us and them,” and in order to care for someone, that gap has to go. We deceive ourselves if we think we can love from a distance and in the abstract.
On the other hand, it is imperative that we take seriously our obligation to make “us” easier to love. That night, I really became aware of the fact that I, the white kid, was a huge part of their difficulty in feeling any kind of compassion for me. To them, I was “them.” Nothing about the color of my skin made it easier for them to love me as their neighbor, even if they were Christian and knew the same call to love their neighbor.
The concluding words to the two great commandments are “as you love yourself.” The compassion I desire from others becomes the measure by which my compassion for others is appraised. It’s that simple and that difficult.