How do your words and behaviors affect others? Do they ever draw a line between "us" and "them"?

todd herman web

As is so often the case, the source of this year's December newsletter comes from my experiences serving breakfast at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) with my friends from First Lutheran Church.

International Students Serve at GUM in 2015 – Impressed With the U.S.!

Last year, in late 2015, about a dozen students from a language institute in Greensboro came to serve with the Friday Breakfast Team at GUM. The focus of this language institute is to provide intensive English language instruction to international students – all appropriately authorized by the U.S. federal government – in preparation for college or graduate school in the United States.

These students come to the United States from all over the world, representing a variety of continents, countries, faith backgrounds, accents, skin colors, and forms of dress. They come because they believe the best about our country – our openness, our inclusiveness, and our reputation as a melting pot for people seeking a better life or education.

Coming to GUM to serve with our group and interview some volunteers about what we get from serving had been assigned as a class project. Still, the students came to GUM eager to learn about our culture, and especially how we treat our neighbors currently experiencing homelessness.

Even though these were young adults aged 18 to young 30's, they pitched in and did the same work done by our middle school and high school students – making PBJ sandwiches for bag lunches, serving plates of food, pouring milk, and greeting guests with a smile. They meshed perfectly with our team – you could barely tell “us” from “them”!

After everything had been served and cleaned up, their adviser gathered the students and asked them to share their reactions to serving. All were amazed at how well we treated persons currently lacking homes! They noted that, in their own countries, no such programs – whether through government or charities – existed. They were impressed because such programs in our community and nation showed people cared enough to help their neighbors in need.

This year, in late October 2016, I was contacted and asked whether a different group of students from the language institute could serve with our GUM Friday Breakfast Team. Of course they could! Checking calendars, Friday, November 18 worked well for both the adviser and the students.

Finding a Devotions Leader to Navigate Tricky Terrain

Early on Wednesday, November 9, the results of the U.S. presidential election were known. Over the next few days, I read news reports of supporters of the president-elect directing hateful comments at persons having skin colors, accents, faith backgrounds, or countries of origin different than their own – even though many of the slighted persons were American citizens born in this country!

I became concerned about the international students soon to serve with us at GUM. I needed a devotion leader who could help address and calm any anxiety these students might feel. In short, I wanted to ensure these students had the same wonderful experience as the students in 2015. Two friends, Brian and Kristina – both pastors –immediately came to mind to lead devotions.

When I called Brian, he shared a personal story of hurtful comments directed at a friend who plays with him in a praise band, leading a contemporary worship service at a local United Methodist Church congregation.

“My lead guitarist is Latino. He's a really good, hard-working, talented guy who has never lived outside of North Carolina and works behind the counter at a popular fast food restaurant in Greensboro. Two days ago, a customer told him and another Latino co-worker to ’pack their bags 'cause Trump's gonna send them and all the beaners back south of the border.’"

Please take a moment to re-read that passage. Then, as we approach Christmas, reflect on this question: Where was Christ in that fast food line? Certainly, NOT with the customer!

Christ was

  • Standing steadfastly with the demeaned Latino co-workers.
  • Calling out the customer delivering the slur.
  • Speaking through that restaurant's manager, consoling the workers and trying to make things right.

Brian had a conflict that particular morning, so I called my friend, Kristina. A Caucasian married to a Latino, Kristina told me her experiences post-election, and said leading devotions would be a good way for her to wrestle with her feelings and direct them into a Christ-like response.

International Students Serve at GUM in 2016 – A Message for Them and All of Us

November 18 arrived, and so did the students. This year, seven young adults from the language institute came to serve with us, and they excitedly shared their experience of reading Morgan and Jenna's story, which I told to the 2015 students – an assignment in English class! Like their counterparts last year, they pitched in and started making PBJ sandwiches. When I asked their adviser about the students' experiences last week, she acknowledged the post-election rhetoric concerned the students, and faculty and staff were already working to address these concerns.

We finished our preparations and circled up for devotions. Kristina opened by saying she would not normally discuss an election during a devotion – yet these were not normal times. She shared her experiences with three family members who had voted for the president-elect. Only her nephew was uncomfortable with remarks and behaviors the president-elect and his supporters had demonstrated prior to and following the election – the other two, both Christians, showed no such discomfort.

Kristina recalled Moses preaching to the Israelites as a commandment from God:

You must treat foreigners with the same loving care —

remember, you were once foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19, The Message)

She noted we were ALL foreigners in this country at one time, yet we are now one nation united in our principles and ideals. Kristina challenged us to not only treat others well – to go further and stand up for those being harassed or demeaned. In closing, she reminded us that to follow God's will requires us …

To do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, New Revised Standard Version)

When you harbor ill will towards people who are not like you, you likely do not personally know a person of the race, heritage, or religion you are targeting. You most likely have made those people into what Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher and a clinical psychologist, terms "The Unreal Other." When we don't know people who are different from us, it is so easy to over-generalize, stereotype, and turn a very real person or group of people into unrecognizable caricatures. Tara's prescription?

“The practice that really helps is for people to talk with people who are different. Yes, there are differences, but the one who is looking at us also experiences the same fears and yearnings as we do – and the same deep, deep longing to love and to be loved.”

"Non-Cooperation With Everything Humiliating" – Are We Complicit?

Gandhi based his philosophy on the teachings and actions of Jesus. Gandhi taught, "The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating." We see this many times in the Christian gospels – Jesus standing up for those who have been shamed, hurt, or marginalized. We see this many times in the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others working for social justice and civil rights – people, often dressed in their "Sunday best," protesting unfair systems and disobeying unjust laws in a peaceful and civil manner.

Those of us who fail to call out others for reprehensible words and behaviors? We are complicit in those words and behaviors. We are cooperating with something humiliating. We are not yet living up to the ideals of our faith tradition, whatever that may be. Martin Luther boiled it down to this – "You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say."

In both 2015 and 2016, the international students who served with us at GUM saw people serving their neighbors in need, and hopefully reflecting the BEST of their faith and their nation. Unfortunately, these students – and many others – have now become "Unreal Others" to people who reflect the WORST of their faith and their nation.

What if we all practiced Gandhi’s philosophy of “Non-Cooperation With Everything Humiliating”? Would we allow slurs and putdowns to draw a line between “us” and “them”? Which side of the line would God be on?

Jesus, Moses, Micah, and Gandhi would all answer that question the same way – God will ALWAYS be on the OTHER side of that line.



Todd L. Herman