Several years ago, I was waiting to board a plane when a group of men from Afghanistan entered the gate area. They were dressed in traditional garb; some spoke a little English. Two American guides explained that they were engineers on a tour of U.S. companies as part of a professional program.
The seat next to me was open. I motioned to one of the engineers that he was welcomed to sit. He joined me and we made small talk — not a whole lot, given the language barrier. I asked if he had a big family. He said yes, adding that his wife and two of his children had been killed by a bomb blast on a street.
Can you even imagine?
He asked about my family. I told him I had two teenagers.
“Ah,” he said, his face lighting up. “Teenagers!!!”
He knew. Parenting teenagers is a universal experience.
When it was time to board, he shook my hand warmly and repeatedly, wishing me a safe trip. And off we went, thankful for this encounter with someone from half a world away. For a chance to be reminded that we’re not all that different.
I came away thinking: We need more of this.
And why are we so utterly terrified of it?
I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how people are so afraid of anyone who’s different from them – different religion, different country, different sex, different age group, different sexual orientation, different political party. We pull away from them and look down on them.
We’re so afraid of making contact and realizing we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We don’t even see what our fear of each other is doing to our world and to ourselves.
Refugees? Keep ‘em over there. Mexicans? Keep ‘em out. Immigrants? Send ‘em back. Muslims? Keep an eye on ‘em. Women and minorities? Keep ‘em in their place. Poor people? Keep telling ‘em to get jobs. Gay people? Keep ‘em away from me. The person bleeding by the side of the road just like in the parable? Keep walking right past ‘em, just like in the parable.
Whatever you do, don’t stop and make eye contact. Don’t actually sit and talk. Don’t give them a chance to tell you about themselves and their lives. Don’t open up to them in any way. Instead, live behind locked doors and closed minds because, well, you feel safer that way.
No love is given or received. We even lose our understanding of what it means to love one another.
We’re so afraid of each other that we give up on the idea of getting along and instead build more bombs and buy more guns. We devise “religious liberty” exceptions to laws – you don’t have to bake a cake for anyone that makes you uncomfortable.
We’re afraid of getting close to others whom we deem inadequate – unlike our perfect selves. We worry that if we get to know them, we might realize we’re more like them than not. And then our whole self-righteous world will be turned upside-down.
We’ve become like Jesus’ hiding-in-the-closet followers.
You know how the story goes. After Jesus’ execution, his friends are so terrified that they hide in a room behind a locked door. The only ones allowed in are those who believe like them, those who are part of the club. And, as the story goes, Jesus barges through their locked door and tells it like it is.
He says: Stop being so darn afraid!
You simply cannot stay in your little room – physically and theologically — and hide from people who believe differently and live differently. You have to leave this place and go out and meet them, talk to them, listen to them, serve them, take care of them, meet their needs, and love them unconditionally. Even if it means you get hurt in the process.
And in the process, you and they are going to be changed. Grace and salvation and transformation will take place, right there inside of you and them.
Are we willing to do it?
Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them?
Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?
In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door.
That. We all need more of that.