A few years ago, my small family planted ourselves in the most diverse neighborhood in all of America, soaking up the differences while striving for commonalities. Our new neighborhood had a rich history of African American and Native American populations, and it was also a space where wave after wave of immigrants and refugees crashed on the shores a decade or two after the wars in their own countries caused them to seek asylum.
In our new apartment, our new neighborhood, we were thrilled as only white people can be, gentrifiers in every sense of the word, experiencing the benefits of diverse cultures and cheap rent while having no knowledge or experience in the systemic injustices that governed the lives of many of our new neighbors. While we had lived in low-income housing before, we still managed to view it all as a bit of a lark, an “experiment” in downward mobility.
But things change when you allow the experience of your neighbors to shape you, instead of the other way around. We started to see how things that were fraught with complications for many of our neighbors were easy for us: obtaining fair housing, experiencing limited interactions with the police (who were always respectful to us), having access to fair-wage jobs, and enjoying a much lower propensity to be caught (and charged) for minor civil infractions. For a while, we were unable to comprehend what we were seeing and experiencing as bystanders in a divided America. Eventually, the weight of the truth started to settle on our shoulders, calling a grief that we never knew was in us, a form of lament that threated to overwhelm us if we let it.
And one day, it did.
The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and me pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned by our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and had nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died, and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: “You have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is.” In his astounding kindness my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand. That one sentence – You have the luxury of being surprised – will stay with me the rest of my life, a testament to privilege I no longer want.
My choice of neighborhoods is just the start of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.
That people prefer themselves and all others like them is not a surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refuse to acknowledge that our systems (political and religious) might have the same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me until I realized what the converse of that equation is: those systems are actively against others.
That realization alone is enough to stop me. The words sin and repentance and judgment are infused with new meaning. True repentance, I was always taught, involves turning away from myself and turning toward God. Now, it has meant turning toward the ones who are being shut out.
It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgment, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep, but it has turned out to be the opposite. You have the luxury of being surprised. And surprised I have been – how I have seen and heard and felt the Spirit convict me, how I am starting to understand how unwell I have been all this time. And the flip side is this: as it turns out, I am exactly the kind of person Jesus came for. He can only heal us once we figure out that we can’t be of any use at all.
This article is taken from Mayfield’s new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne, August 2016).
Photograph by Sean M. O’Grady, New Orleans Shotgun Double