A church I had attended on previous occasions would be holding a mid-morning service. This church, with its inspiring worship and preaching, was full of people in my life stage. I sometimes wondered if it would have been a better fit for me than the small church of Millennials I had chosen.
We raced from the car through the bitter cold to find seats in a sanctuary alive with the sounds of friends greeting each other after the holidays. As a detached observer, I concluded these people had intimate relationships that spanned generations. How comforting it would be to nestle into fellowship with such warm-hearted people.
Yet I already knew that if I wanted to connect with this body of believers, I would have to take the initiative. During previous visits, I had learned members didn't talk to strangers—except when they passed the peace by offering limp hands and a perfunctory, “Peace of Christ.” I had been surprised, but not offended, when no one spoke to me as I entered or when I left. I had simply filled out the attendance sheet and waited for the follow-up that never came.
I had not entirely given up on the notion of getting involved with this church. Perhaps in the spring I would join one of their women’s groups. Maybe I would begin attending their early service before heading to my own small church. I could always meet with one of the pastors.
Seated next to my daughter and her fiancé, I reveled in the exquisite pleasure of worshiping with two people who loved me well. Our voices blended in harmony as we sang familiar songs. Our elbows touched as we knelt during silent confession. I anticipated the warmth of receiving their heartfelt “Peace of Christ” and was grateful I wouldn’t be left standing awkwardly alone as people around me resumed conversations begun days or weeks before.
To my surprise, when I turned to offer the “Peace of Christ” to my loved ones, they were already engaged in an intense conversation. The group of older couples who surrounded them apparently had dispensed with ‘passing the peace’ and moved directly to ‘let’s get acquainted.’
“Good morning. We are so glad to have you with us,” one woman gushed. “Are you students at Duke?” “Did you just move to Durham?” “We would love to have you join us regularly.” “You must meet our friends.”
My daughter and her fiancé were like a horseshoe magnet in a bowl of paper clips. Her engaging smile, his Asian heritage, and their vibrant youth proved an irresistible draw for this gray-headed flock.
My daughter tried to pull me into the conversation, “I want you meet my mother. She just moved to Durham and really doesn’t know anyone yet.” I smiled warmly into faces fleetingly diverted in my direction and offered my name for good measure. Only one woman responded. Her obligatory ‘how very nice to meet you,’ sounded alarmingly like ‘how nice for you, dear,’ but I couldn’t be sure. In her haste to turn back to my daughter, her intentions spoke more clearly than her actual words.
“So this is what it feels like," I thought, borrowing the words and bemused expression of Andrew Hennings, the jilted groom in Sweet Home Alabama. This is what it feels like to be looked over and then summarily overlooked. This is what it means to be denied acceptance—not because of who I am, but because of what I am perceived to be. This is what discrimination feels like—to be rejected for criteria beyond my control—to know that I will always be too old and too American, that I will always lie outside the demographic of their intended mission.
Even as I reeled from the sting of this transitory discomfort, I recognized it as an insignificant incident in a primarily privileged life. My previous experiences with prejudice had been based on gender or things aligned with choice, like education or beliefs. Oh, I had sometimes been ridiculed for being blond—and for living up to the reputation—but other than that, I had no recollection of being discriminated against based on identity until this day. But at that same moment, I was jolted by remembering that encounters more blatant than this are the way of life for multitudes of men, women and children. My heart responded with a newly awakened compassion for those who have reaped the harvest of repeated discrimination.
I cringed anew as I remembered an incident that occurred years ago while we were hosting a stranger from West Virginia. Her son was participating in the Special Olympics; we had registered as a host family. We had inadvertently overheard her conversation as she tried to reassure her mother long-distance, “No, I’ll be fine. They seem like a nice white family. I don't think they will murder me in my sleep.” And we didn’t. On the contrary, we discovered, along with our guest, that what we held in common was greater than the differences on our skin. At the time I assessed her mother’s concern as the laughable worry of an old woman. Now I recognized it as a reflection of personal experience.
I recalled books I had read, and I saw the characters more sharply defined and illustrated in denser hues. I experienced a profound empathy with Ruth Jefferson, the protagonist in Small Great Things (Jodi Picoult), whose education, competence and reputation were of less consequence than the color of her skin. Whereas previously I had absorbed with abhorrence the experiences chronicled in the fictionalized history of Lalita Tedemy’s family (Cane River and Red River), I had gained a new perspective and a small glimpse into the despair that must surely settle into marginalized and persecuted souls.
I have thought about the incident for months now and have shared the story with other people. Some have winced at the transparent age discrimination; others have shuddered at an unfortunate church growth strategy. Many have encouraged me to talk to one of the pastors. To do so would be to miss the point of what I gained that day. That brief episode was a gift I opened and am slowly unpacking. In it I am uncovering new insight, greater compassion, and a heightened awareness of injustice. (As a bonus, I also gained deep gratitude for the young people who embraced me in the very diverse faith family I truly call my church home.)
It would be tempting, and far too easy, to come away from this experience with grand declarations for radical personal change. Reality reminds me this is the start of a journey.