Sunday, January 31, 2010

A strange encounter

The following is a true story.

I was standing in the welcome center at church this morning, between services, visiting with a friend, when we saw a middle-aged woman come walking through, looking as if she needed something. There were a lot of people around, but they tend to be bunched up in groups, and it can feel awkward to try to get someone's attention. But we noticed her, and she, seeing us looking, walked towards us. We said, "Good morning," and asked if we could help.

"I'm new here," she said, "and I need to get my mother over to the elevator, but I need to park the car. Can you help and walk my mother to the elevator?"

"Sure," I said, "I'd be happy to." So I walked with her back to the other lobby, and met her mother, a black woman (I'd not mention her race were it not relevant to the story) who looked to be in her mid-70s, standing there with her walker. The woman introduced us, and went out to park the car, while I started walking her mother through the welcome center towards the elevator. As we walked, we chatted, and she told me that she lived in New Jersey, but had been born and raised in Mississippi. She told me that she had been a teacher for years, and that she was very concerned about the educational system. Hey, I'm concerned about the educational system, too. I'm a white man from Maine and she's a black woman from Mississippi, but in addition to the fact that we're both in the church, that sounds like some common ground. So I told her that my wife and I were home-schooling our kids, and, as we were getting on to the elevator, she told me that didn't approve of home-schooling, "the way you do it up here in Boston."

"OK," I thought. I didn't know what, exactly, she thought was "the way [we] do it up here in Boston," but that's her problem, not mine, so I just kind of nodded and smiled. At which point, alone in the elevator, she told me that, and I quote, "my people in Mississippi were better off when they were slaves."

How do you respond to that? If there's a good response to an elderly black woman who says that "her people" were better off as slaves, I'd never actually taken the time to figure out what it was. It was not a situation and comment which I'd ever anticipated dealing with, or spent any time preparing for, and it caught me unawares. While I think my eyebrows went up, I just kind of smiled and nodded. What can you say to that? And after telling me that she didn't actually approve of slavery (what a relief!) she continued:

"Martin Luther King, Jr.," she said next, "sold them out."

A brief pause. I found that I had nothing to add to that comment, either.

My habit, in conversation with strangers with whom I'm unlikely to meet again, is to be generally agreeable, to smile a lot (although I suspect that smiling is more of an intention than a habit) and to genially agree with what the other is saying, or, very politely, suggest that my opinion might differ on this topic or that. Nothing in my arsenal seemed adequate for this situation.

"We haven't had a good President in this country since Abraham Lincoln."

"So," I thought, "she's not an Obama fan." Smile and nod. Nod and smile. Praise the Lord.

We got off the elevator while she was, I believe, quoting Lincoln to me. I didn't catch the quote, as I had found myself eager to get her safely, and quickly, to a pew. Which I did, with her explaining to me that there was not enough preaching about hell, and the best way to reach people was through tracts, and people weren't doing enough of that, but she had a couple, and wanted to give them to me. Smile and nod, nod and smile, murmur polite nothings as she digs through her bag, thank her for the tracts which I'm now sticking in my pocket and smile and nod and "I hope that you enjoy the service," and I don't remember ever being at quite such a loss for words as I am right now.

But I do hope that she enjoyed the service...

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