Slowing Down to Hear the Other
By Fred Koenig
Several years ago I was going to a church for an event in North St. Louis. I was following directions I had printed from my computer, and when I turned from a major street onto a small residential street, I got an up-close look at the community.
Not only was it in disrepair, but the people were far from welcoming. Quite the opposite, they were hostile. As I drove up the street, I immediately noticed unfriendly stares. As I went on, it was more than stares, some people were actually yelling at me. I had my windows up and was rolling along, so I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were definitely being confrontational, that much was clear. Some even had hands raised; I think I saw a shaking a fist. This wasn’t just a few people in one yard. Block after block it continued, it seemed to even intensify.
I was already nervous going in, because I had been warned by others that this was a very “bad” neighborhood. But I couldn’t understand the immediate hostility. I thought it must be my race that was making me stand out. Normally, as a white guy, I don’t think about my race much. But this was an African American neighborhood, and I didn’t see any other white people anywhere. Maybe this was that reverse-racism thing I had heard about.
But it had to be more than that. Then I considered what I was driving. At the time, my car was a blue Ford Crown Victoria that I had bought used from my parents. It looked just like the standard police-issue car of the day. Driving it, with my jacket and tie and short haircut, I probably unintentionally looked much like a plain clothes police officer. I didn’t need a Department of Justice Report to know that community/police relations weren’t good in this part of town. But was it really that bad, that someone who just resembled a law enforcement officer would get shouted down just for passing through the neighborhood?
Regardless of the reason for the reaction, I was indignant. There were 900 other churches in the Missouri Conference that I could have been going to that morning. I was there on behalf on this community, yet I was being met with utter disdain. Looking back, I’m sure I was gradually picking up speed just to get through there, because everyone seemed so hostile that I wasn’t sure what might happen next.
After several nervous blocks of rude reactions from unfriendly people, I came face-to-face with a clear sign of why these people were treating me, the innocent stranger, so badly. The entire time, I had been driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
My intentions were noble. I was indeed getting closer to my destination. But I was doing it in a way that wasn’t just unconventional, it was dangerous. Those people shouting at me were issuing a warning about my own safety, but I didn’t hear it. I just kept speeding along my own way.
We’re entering a time of decisions, or as churchy people would call it, discernment. At Annual Conference we will vote on issues and elect delegates. Those delegates will vote on issues on our behalf at General and Jurisdictional Conference that will affect the future of the United Methodist Church. They will determine who will spend the rest of his or her life serving as Bishop, and which Bishop will come to Missouri to lead us when Bishop Schnase leaves next year. Outside of the church, we will all be voting on numerous political issues before the end of next year, from local tax proposals to the President of the United States.
Most of us have already made up our minds about everything. My prayer is that we can stop our car, roll down the window, hear what those people shouting from the front yard are saying, and consider that they may be right. Sometimes even if we are heading in the right direction, we are taking the wrong way to get there.