The Strength of Listening

I can’t tell anyone else’s story - so I’ll tell my own. I grew up in a house with parents who were generally accepting of all people. As a kid, I remember specifically being told, when it came time for me to marry, the race of the person I wanted to marry didn’t matter - my parents only cared that he truly loved Jesus and he truly loved me. I didn’t think I had a racist bone in my body. In high school, I actively participated in a club called "multi-ethnic counsel," which was dedicated to promoting racial unity. I had a few friends who were minorities, but no super-close friends. I thought I was well-rounded and well-informed on most social issues. And these attitudes continued through my adult life.

I never thought I had any privileges as a white woman, and it really bothered me whenever I’d hear anyone talk like that. I didn’t grow up with connections or a ton of money. I worked through undergrad and law school - both of which I paid for out of my own pocket (with no financial help from my parents). I do remember I didn’t like that minorities got preferences for jobs or scholarships, because I also didn’t have anything handed to me, and I thought I could have used help like that too. I also thought it was kind of ridiculous how much people continued to focus on racism. To me, slavery ended and slavery was not my fault. I wasn’t even alive during this time. I definitely wasn’t racist, and I didn’t know any people who were racists. People needed to move on. 

I went to school (both undergrad and law school) in Camden, NJ. And, shortly after graduating, I ended up working as a public defender in Camden. I started to see behind the scenes of some of the problems I thought I understood so well. There were more layers of this problem than I had imagined. I started to realize that injustice was real, but it was so big, it couldn’t be clearly seen. You know how people blow things up on a microscope so big that you can’t see what you’re actually looking at? It was like that. I was just seeing a detail here and a detail there. Individual stories from individual clients who had heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. I watched them slip through the cracks of society, disregarded and alone. Still, I was bothered by ongoing claims of racism and especially by claims of privilege. Again, I was no racist. And I certainly wasn’t one of the ones who enjoyed privilege. It didn’t feel like my fault or my problem. 

Then, Election Day 2016 arrived. I held my nose and voted for Donald Trump. He wasn’t the ideal candidate by any stretch but, at the time, I felt there was no other choice. I decided to share this decision on my personal Facebook page in an effort to facilitate dialogue and promote healing amongst my friends on social media. The reaction was so much stronger than I anticipated. But perhaps the most surprising reaction for me, was the reaction of many of my minority christian friends. I was so surprised how hurt they were as a result of my decision. As imperfect as the circumstances were, I thought they would have understood and agreed with my thinking. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Suddenly, everything felt like it got flipped on its head. How were we (brothers and sisters in Christ) seeing this so differently? What wasn’t I seeing? What were they not seeing? Everything in me wanted to rise up and get defensive. "I didn’t want to vote for that guy! What was I supposed to do? How can anyone justifiably call me a racist?” But Someone in me made me stop and do something I never could have done on my own - listen. 

God, at work through His Holy Spirit within me, asked me to lay down my defenses at the foot of His cross, and listen… So I listened. At times, I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, listening was really painful. I’ve disagreed with many of the views (and many of the delivery tactics) I’ve heard expressed. Those defense mechanisms within me have tried to rear their ugly heads more than once or twice. But, glory to God, I’ve continued to listen. And while I've disagreed with many, I’ve agreed with many others. I’ve seen things I didn’t see before, and I’ve learned things I didn’t know. And I'm thankful, though it hasn't always been easy, for the new perspectives I've been able to consider.

Early on in this process, I was challenged to specifically read and listen to people who did NOT support my worldview. This was something I'd really never done before (I pretty much always read things that already supported my views), but I found this practice exceedingly helpful. Of the things I’ve recently read, one of the most impactful was a book by Bryan Stevenson entitled, “Just Mercy.” This book really opened my eyes to the continuing racial and social justice issues embedded in our criminal justice system. Though I was able to see the things discussed in this book first hand as a public defender, I wasn't able to see the bigger picture. This book helped me reduce the setting on the microscope (so to speak) and actually see, with more clarity and perspective, through the eyes of the poor and marginalized. For what its worth, its also a super-interesting and engaging book. In many ways, it reads like an episode of Law & Order. I actually didn’t want to put it down.

When I did finish it (and put it down), the first thought I had was, "how do I convince more people who look like me (more people who have thought like me) to willingly stop listening to their own narrative and read this book?" I thought about buying 100 copies but realized, after a quick calculation, that wasn’t in the budget. I also realized, sadly, many just wouldn’t be interested. I know from personal experience that listening isn’t easy - especially when it challenges your view of the world and, at times, calls you out on your stuff.

So instead of buying 100 copies, I decided to write this - to share my story - and to buy one copy of the book to share with someone who actually wants to read it - someone who’s bravely willing to listen. If that sounds like you, please leave a comment indicating you’re willing to read the book. I will pick a winner at random on October 1st, and mail you the book free of charge. When you’re finished, if you were impacted by the book,  please pay it forward by lending the book to another friend like “us.” 

Even if we think we’re right, laying down our defenses at the foot of the cross isn’t weakness. I can tell you from experience, it takes more strength to listen than it does to defend ourselves.

As it is, I'm still listening and learning every day. If you think I think I've got it totally figured out over here, I don't. Thank you for your grace in hearing my story. I would like to hear yours as well. My prayer is that we'll all be able to learn from and grow with one another and, hopefully, become more like Christ in the process.