A little over a month ago, a white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, South Carolina protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. I just think we should let that sink in for a second before moving on. A white supremacist rally took place in America a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure you’ve heard about it, but counter protesters came, and long story short, one woman was killed while others were injured, and many people are left angry, confused, and heart-broken. So church, what do we do? What do we do in a nation that swore to us racism was being abolished when desegregation laws were established? When we elected our first black president? What do we do when white supremacists are so bold as to hold a rally in America?
I think the root of all of this mess is just a deep lack of understanding. We make a lot of assumptions about people based on what color they are, what they believe, where they’re from, who they’re friends are, where they’ve been…but I’m a firm believer that you can’t really know anyone unless you’ve taken the time to really empathize with where they are. To quote one of my favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And I’ll admit I had no idea about a lot of things I thought I did until I got to know, sat down with and really knew, people in this world who have had very different life experiences than I have. And that’s what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to share stories of people because that’s all I really know how to do, and that is the only thing that will really create a space for empathy.
This summer I got to go to Nairobi, Kenya, and there I got to know a lot of school-aged people. We spent a lot of time at a boarding school that housed and taught kids ages 4-18. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to really connect. I didn’t expect to be able to understand their words, much less identify with their lives. Their lives were so different from mine…there was no way we would have much common ground right? I mean, I was excited, but I was not expecting to cry getting on the bus to leave for the last time. I wasn’t expecting to be touched so deeply by people halfway across the world.
When I first arrived at the school, I stepped out of the bus and took the hand of a little five-year-old girl named Hilder whose hand and I wouldn’t let go until ten days later when we left. She didn’t speak much English. Most of the kids did, but she was too little. But that didn’t matter. I felt a connection to a little girl who lives across the world as an orphan and doesn’t even know my language so strongly that I think about her every single day. She is never going to be forgotten, but we didn’t have a real conversation with our words. We never really spoke. I would talk to her and tell her she was loved and tell her I liked her little dress, and she would smile and hold on tighter to my hand, following me around wherever I went.
Then, I met Cyprose and Shanice. They lived in a village nearby and walked to and from school everyday. We instantly connected. They sang for me and taught me to dance (and laughed at me while I danced) We danced and laughed and sang all week. Yes, we had very different circumstances. But they cried when we had to leave. And I cried too.
Then, I met Ruth. A 12 year-old girl who kept her head down and always had her hood pulled up. When she made eye contact, she would quickly look down, not wanting you to see her smile. But she had the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She stuck by my side, but farther away than the other kids. She didn’t think she was good enough to be the center of attention. She wanted to be in the shadows. She didn’t want to be seen, but she desperately wanted to be seen. Over the course of the time we were there, I got to talk to Ruth about her life. I asked her about her family, her friends, her parents. She told me her father died last year. All I could get out of her was that it was an “accident.” It was unexpected. After her father died, her mother became extremely depressed and had a terrible sickness, but she wouldn’t tell Ruth what it was. She was so depressed and sick, she laid in her bed all day. She never got up. So everyday after school, Ruth walks a couple of miles home, makes dinner for her and her mother, takes care of her mom, and then does the laundry before going to bed. She told me the only reason she didn’t kill herself when her father died was because if she weren’t there to take care of her mom, she didn’t know who would. Her friends at school were mean to her, they talked about her behind her back. “I don’t know what I do” she said “I just don’t know why no one likes me.”
So here I was, sitting next to a girl with a life so hard I couldn’t even stomach it, but a heart so recognizable and so vastly broken in front of me. I looked at her, and I saw myself. I saw my scared out-of-her-mind 12 year-old self who kept her head down and her shoulders slumped. Who wore headphones with no music playing and painted her nails black. Who smudged her eyes with eye-liner because she hated what she looked like, but still got made fun of for wearing so much makeup. I saw myself putting on a hard exterior, silently screaming “no one talk to me” so I wouldn’t get rejected and people would think I just didn’t care. I practically begged people to stay away from me because I didn’t think anyone would ever want to be my friend anyway, but inside was a desperation to be wanted so real it physically hurt me. I looked at Ruth and I saw myself.
So, I sat next to a girl I loved and hadn’t met a week earlier and I told her the words I wished I had heard so badly: “I understand.” I know, what a ridiculous thing for me to say. I didn’t understand, I couldn’t possibly know what she went through everyday. But it was at that moment that I realized God didn’t create 493 different brands of people. He didn’t make us so we just couldn’t relate to each other unless we grew up the same. No, he created us in His image, and He created us the same. Deep in our souls, we yearn for something so big and so real, no matter where we grew up. Despite geographical distances or skin color, I know exactly how Ruth felt, because when I was her age I felt the same way. No, I have no idea the pain of losing my father at 11 years old, but a girl on our team just lost a dad. No, I have no idea what it’s like having a family member in prison, but someone on our team did. No, I didn’t understand it all. I couldn’t relate to it all, but I could relate to Ruth. I could relate to Hilder. I could relate to Cyprose and Shanice. Because deep deep down, we are all the same. We all hurt, we all experience great joy and great sorrow, we all love, we all lose, we all live.
I could talk about racism and prejudice and tell you my opinions on all of it, but I don’t know if that would make much of a difference. What I do know though, is that compartmentalizing other people is the worst thing you can ever do in this world. Making assumptions about someone and hardening your heart toward them from the get-go is such a despicable thing to do to a person. We are all the same. We just are. Thinking you are better than someone else or different from someone else based on where they are from or what they look like is basically deciding that they aren’t worth empathizing for. They aren’t worth feeling for. You’ve decided you’re so different you could never understand, so you just look away and never look back. But we have to open our eyes and realize we are so much more alike than we are different. We are so much more than American or Kenyan, Southern or Northern, Black or White, Democrat or Republican. We are bigger than that, and this world is never gonna change unless YOU start reaching out to the community of people who don’t look like you and don’t talk like you and saying I am here and I want to know you. The world needs people to step outside of their boxes and into others, because the world is just too good for us to refuse to love each other. Choose to move. Choose to look outside of yourself, and I promise you’ll never be the same.
words by Claire Prather and photo by Sara Beth Pritchard