I have always loved learning about diverse people and cultures. A favorite read at my grandma’s house was a book about houses around the world. I was beyond excited when my dad taught me to count to 10 in Spanish when I was in early grade school. I was thrilled to have opportunities in college to go on foreign mission trips and study abroad one summer. As a teacher, my absolute favorite thing was teaching my kids about U.S. history from diverse perspectives and discussing ways we can love others who are different from us today.
I make myself sound like such a virtuous diversity lover, but I recently had an encounter that made me realize I’m not nearly as loving and tolerant as I thought.
It was a Monday morning. I was at the library, looking for books for my toddler who was playing with the train set while my 2-month-old snoozed in my ring sling. As I sifted through the Eric Carle books, a family of three entered the children’s area via the elevator.
At first I didn’t pay much attention, but these individuals made their presence known quickly. The larger of the three figures began trotting around the children’s section. “Look what I found!” he said in a childlike voice that didn’t match the size of his pounding feet.
Meanwhile, the other two struck up a conversation with the librarian about the saltwater aquarium. “Where’d them fish come from, Florida?” a man asked in a very southern-sounding voice. As the librarian politely explained the local pet store where they purchased the fish, a too-loud elderly woman’s voice began asking, “What store? On which road? Now where’s that?”
Internally rolling my eyes at all this commotion in the library, I looked up from behind the half-wall of colorful children’s literature to see who these people were.
My eyes first landed on a man in a wheelchair, the one who had asked about the fish. He appeared to be in his late sixties or so. He had a long white beard and a right leg that stopped just below his knee, and he was covered in camouflage from head to his single boot. He was topped off with a ballcap sporting the Confederate flag.
Standing near him was a woman who looked shockingly old to be standing as well as she did. Her yellowish-white hair was twisted into a low bun at the back of her head, and every square inch of her skin was leathered with deep wrinkles.
I then turned my head to see this person running around the library. The man was large and tall and wore a pair of overalls atop a firetruck red t-shirt. I was unsure of his age but he was much younger than the other two.
Soon the elderly woman walked over to the amphitheater-style storytime seating and sat down. “Go find a book for me to read you, Jimmy,” she said to the man in overalls.
Around this time Evelyn, my two-year-old, decided to head over to the puzzles. The puzzles happened to sit on the amphitheater seats about five feet from the older woman was and just past where the overall-clad man was now standing. I secretly hoped Evelyn would change her mind and go play with the Legos at the other end of the children’s section.
“Hi, I’m Jimmy!” said the younger man, walking right up to Evelyn. He excitedly held out his large hand to her with a smile full of crooked teeth and eyes that crossed and seemed to look through her.
Evelyn, who usually fears strangers already, squealed and steered around toward me, throwing her hands in the air and crying, “Mommy! Mommy!” in a desperate plea for me to pick her up.
“It’s okay, Evelyn,” I said. “He’s just being nice to you. You can shake his hand.” Evelyn refused and instead started crying harder.
Jimmy then turned his hand and gaze toward me. “Hi, I’m Jimmy!” he warmly repeated. I reluctantly but with a little resolve took his hand and gave it a little shake. “Hi! I’m Bethany,” I said, smiling at him and then quickly looking down at my crying toddler.
“Now Jimmy!” repeated the woman. “Let them alone! The little girl is scared!”
“Oh, she’s fine,” I said. “She’s just a little shy sometimes.” She’s not the only one, I thought.
Slowly, Evelyn took my hand and pulled me toward the puzzles, using me as a bodyguard between her and the strangers. She picked up a Three Bears puzzle and seated herself at the little wooden child’s table that stood nearby. Jimmy wandered off to find a book.
I guess I should go ahead and sit here, I thought, unable to avoid conversation with the woman any longer. I seated myself about a bench’s length from the white-haired woman.
“You have beautiful children!” she began.
“Why thank you,” I said. “That’s Evelyn and this is Eden.”
“I’m Polly,” she said with a bright but worn smile. “And that man over there,” she said, pointing to the wheelchaired man, “is my son Walter. I’ve been taking care of him since he came back from the war. And the boy is Jimmy, he’s my great-grandson. He’s twenty-eight. We don’t get to see him very much,” she added, her eyes glazing over as she became lost in thought.
With a sigh, the woman continued, her eyes seemingly fixed on the back wall. “See, Jimmy’s mother ran off when he was little, and he never knew his dad. Jimmy stayed with us for awhile. But one day a neighbor called the police and told them that Jimmy had run off down the highway two miles from our house. But it wasn’t true!” she added with sudden intensity, looking at me. She had tears in her eyes. “Can you believe somebody would make up a story like that? We took GOOD care of Jimmy, and for somebody to say something like that!”
If I’d had a Snickers bar, this would’ve been my moment to grab it. I uneasily looked over at Evelyn, who had switched to an Around the House puzzle and begun playing with the little wooden vacuum and refrigerator pieces.
Then Polly looked away, her face softening. “But oh well, that’s how life goes sometimes. We get to see him once a week. We don’t know where they’re keeping him.”
Not sure what to say, I weakly remarked, “I’m so sorry. That sounds so hard.” Why is this lady telling me her whole life story? I thought.
“Yes, it was!” she affirmed. “And on top of all that, I’m not doing too well either. My knees are always hurting me so bad, and the other day I fell and made it worse. But we can’t afford surgery or anything.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” I repeated, starting to sound like a broken record.
“Well, it’s okay. Anyway, you should come and see us sometime! We live off old highway 349 about thirty minutes to the north on a gravel road.”
Now I was really at a loss for words. Just then, Jimmy trudged over with a book about dogs. “Oh, look at this!” Polly said, taking the book from Jimmy and opening to the first page. “Look there, Jimmy! It’s a beagle, your favorite!”
As Jimmy sat down to look at the book with his great-grandma Polly, I decided this was my opportunity to check out our books and head home.
“Let’s put away your puzzle, Evelyn,” I said, picking up the pieces and sticking the puzzle board back in the stack.
I grabbed our bags and Evelyn’s hand. “It was nice to meet you all!” I said with a polite but half-hearted smile at Polly and Jimmy and Walter, who had just wheeled over after talking with the librarian.
“Hope to see y’all again!” Polly said between pointing out illustrated dog breeds to her great-grandson.
Well, maybe… I thought.
This happened six weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about this little family and my own reaction to them.
Sure, I shook Jimmy’s hand and talked to the woman a bit. But I was not fully there.
I didn’t really want to talk to Walter or Jimmy or Polly.
I didn’t really want to hear about Polly’s aches and pains, physical or emotional.
I hadn’t even wanted to sit by her.
What if Jesus had been in my shoes?
I imagine Jesus would have shaken Jimmy’s hand heartily and given him a hug. He would’ve offered to read him a book.
He would’ve scooted closer to Polly and taken her hand in his.
He would’ve really listened to her story.
He would’ve asked questions about her life and cried along with her.
He would’ve gotten directions to her house and showed up for dinner.
He would’ve asked Walter about his favorite hunting places and talked to them about God while helping wash the dishes.
Loving people who are different from me should absolutely, without a doubt include getting to know and appreciate people of different ethnicities, skin colors, and cultural backgrounds. This isn’t in question at all.
But as a follower of Christ, I don’t get to choose to love only those I deem to be most interesting. I must love everyone.
If I speak words of compassion and racial justice to my children, but don’t love the elderly, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I passionately proclaim God’s love for the immigrant, but don’t love the person with special needs, I am nothing.
If I send donations to missionaries in third-world countries, but don’t love the person wearing a Confederate ballcap, I gain nothing.
Loving people who are different from me means being kind to the person I don’t really feel like talking to, like the very old, the mentally ill, and the person sporting symbols that make me a little uncomfortable. I must love the person I feel is close-minded and the person I disagree with politically. I must love the stranger in the elevator, the slow clerk at the grocery checkout, and the person with bad hygiene.
As Sarah Mackenzie writes in The Read-Aloud Family,
Every last person on this earth deserves to be loved with wild abandon because each and every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God.
Because God loves them all. And I should, too.