Back in June, while we were living in an apartment lent to us by a church acquaintance, one of the regular highlights for me was listening to Trevor Noah describe growing up in Apartheid South Africa in his memoir, Born a Crime. Noah describes what it means to be “colored” or mixed-race, but not fitting into any of racial categories because of his particular social location. Noah candidly describes a life of poverty, living on the margins, the challenges women like his mother face in their culture, a life of robbery and thuggery which many blacks are forced into because of poverty, and the challenges faced in the Homelands because of State-Sanctioned White Supremacy. Noah looks back on his formative years with a compassionate lens, describing for the listener the countless injustices he and his mother and his community faced. Noah astutely compares the Apartheid and racist South Africa of his youth with that of the United States of America, where he now lives. Listening to Noah, at times I found myself laughing, but other times I found myself crying. I experienced a mixture of tears and joy with Noah's poignant and dramatic conclusion.
In August, Kristi and I listened separately to When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, the life story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization. Khan-Colors describes growing up “between poverty and police” in Van Nuys, California. Khan-Cullors describes how her mother worked three jobs to barely support their family, how her father figures were “missing in action” due to their jobs being taken away and because of the “War on Crime” and mass incarceration, how her brothers were harassed by the police from their early teens, and how her bi-polar brother Monte was deemed a terrorist for a minor traffic accident and beaten senseless and tortured by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Sitting on the shores of a lake in Central Illinois with my headphones on, I wept as I listened to the sad account of her father Gabriel’s substance abuse and early death. While Khan-Cullors has been labelled a “terrorist” and worse, in listening to her share her story, it became abundantly clear to me that Khan-Cullors' life passion is simply seeking life, dignity, and freedom from injustice for all persons and communities. I wonder aloud with her, “Is that too much to ask?”
A colleague in mission cites the wisdom of an Asian proverb, “To hear is to forget, to see is to remember, but to feel is to understand.” May we ‘feel’ the pain of others, listening to their stories, and thus ‘understand’. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Isabel Wilkerson, acclaimed author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, describes the need for “radical empathy.” Along with Wilkerson, I believe that this ‘radical empathy’ only comes when we hear the stories of others, have a more complete picture of our history, and are motivated to action, action which will create a more just and loving world. Amen.