“No time for Jesus?” the ruddy-faced man in boots and overalls said to me quietly as I ignored his extended hand. The hand that reached out to me held a small booklet — a message of salvation — probably Romans, perhaps Revelations, or maybe the more poetic John. In his other hand, a large white sign hoisted high which read, “Sodomy is Sin.” Clever. I’d always been a fan of alliteration.
I was leaving our town’s gay pride event, held in the dead heat of another southern summer. This man was part of a larger group standing outside the event center in what must have been 100-degree heat and 80% humidity. All were yelling in one way or another about how I was going to hell. None of that bothered me. I’ll take being a flamboyant and fabulous sinner in exchange for being fully who I am, but this man’s quiet comment caught me off guard as I turned to look him fully in the face.
You see, what he didn’t know about me was that at the time, I was in discernment for the priesthood with the Episcopal Church — a lengthy process of several years (decades for some) that pushes you to unflinchingly and honestly look at who Jesus is to you. Nothing is off limits — your strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, beliefs about love, justice, mercy, your crazy family, and guiding morals and values. The light stuff. Needless to say, I’d made more than a little time for Jesus during the past two years of my life.
But his question gave me pause and made me wonder: what didn’t I know about the man extending his hand and the larger posse behind him? What were their vulnerabilities, strengths, weaknesses, fears, and crazy family histories? What did they believe about love? As I stood there listening to their raised voices and chants, they started to sound more like cries. Their humanity suddenly evident. Hollow echoes. Perhaps there was even a touch of desperation. All it took for this shift to occur was an outstretched hand and deep listening. Of paying attention to what showed up in front of me.
I wonder what would happen if we all took a second of pause to listen deeply to others and ask ourselves, “What don’t I know about this person?” To pay attention to what or who is in front of us. How might our dialogues change, our worldviews shift? What outstretched hands might we see that we previously missed?
In these tumultuous times of our collective histories, I’m beginning to believe that this is part of an answer. The answer to living together in an increasingly diverse society, in a digital world that’s made it easy to shout and hide, to skip over the deep work of not only seeing the “other,” but also hearing ourselves again and again through their echoes.
I’m relearning what I was taught as a child before crossing the street: Stop. Look. Listen. But now, as I cross over into the worlds of others, I’ll add: See. Deeply see and be seen.
“…don’t let yourself lose me. Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.” — Ranier Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59
Images: Oliver Jeffers, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth