“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground.” Genesis 18:1-10a
One of the interesting things about staying in Brooklyn, New York, was that I was often the only white person on the subway, on the street or in the shops. The first time I hopped on the subway, it was more than a little confronting to realise that there was no one else in the carriage with the same colour skin as mine.
Standing on the corner of 116th St & 8th Ave (Frederick Douglas Boulevard) in Harlem was another very distinct experience of isolation and alienation. It was late afternoon, it was raining and I was huddled undercover with a number of people very different in appearance to myself.
I was alone, in the sense that I was not ‘normal’ for that environment. I was different.
My experience in Louisville was very different where, once again, I became part of ‘normal’ society. I looked the same as everybody else – white! Louisville seems to be a segregated city to me. Perhaps I’m wrong.
During my time in New York, the trial in the Trayvon Martin case was the dominant story. Dominant, not just because he was shot in the street by a stranger, but because of the colour of his skin. Trayvon Martin was African American, and regardless of what people have written and said about this case, the colour of his and his assailants skin was at the fulcrum around which it revolved.
When I commented that I had had no incident of ‘Stop and Frisk’, the much discussed New York police policy of stopping and frisking without cause, the answer was quick: ‘Of course YOU wouldn’t, you are not black.’
John Howard Griffin, a friend of Thomas Merton, wrote one of the most significant books of the 1960’s. It was called Black Like Me and chronicled his experiences when he changed his appearance from white to black and he went to live amongst the black people in the American South.
Here is a snippet of his experience:
‘I was the last to leave the bus. An elderly white man, bald and square of build, dressed in worn blue work clothes peered intently at me. Then he crimped his face as though I was odious and snorted, “Phew!”. His small blue eyes shone with repugnance, a look of such unreasoning contempt for my skin that it filled me with despair.
It was a little thing, but piled on all the other little things it broke something in me. Suddenly I had had enough. Suddenly I could stomach no more of this degradation – not of myself but of all men who were black like me.’ (BLM, pp 153-4)
Much of the discussion about the Martin case, amongst the African American people, was how do we protect our children, particularly young men? How do we stop this happening again?
How do we move past colour as the first door into people’s lives? Christopher Pramuk in his book Hope Sings, So Beautiful makes the case clearly and is well worth reading, not just to understand the race issue in America but the issue of privilege and poverty and it’s roots in colour and race right around the world, including Australia. He writes authoritatively as one who,with his wife, has adopted two Haitian children and has lived and worshipped within an African- American community.
Pramuk writes graphically of the long line of Haitian citizens who line up everyday, way before dawn, dressed in the Sunday best, to apply for a visa to ‘the promised land’. They pay four hundred non-refundable US dollars just to apply, and of the ‘tens of thousands who apply each year, less than 2 percent will be granted a visa.‘ (HSSB, p6) And you are only allowed to apply once!
The Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with strangers suggests very clearly what we need to do and it is simple, like Abraham and Sarah we are to look at all others, legal or ‘illegal’ refugees, black or white, gay or straight, male or female, able bodied or disabled, as an opportunity to offer welcoming hospitality. It is to look, not for sameness or difference, but to see the person in all, and be open to the possibility of relationship, blessing and hope.
Abraham is sitting just inside his tent on in the middle of the day. Maybe it was a great spot to catch a breeze, maybe it was out of earshot of Sarah or maybe it was where he could get a good look at what is going on around him and his home. He was doing the equivalent of sitting on his veranda watching the world go by.
Each morning, when I walked down Winthrop Avenue, Brooklyn, on the way to the subway I was greeted by a cheery good morning from the two elderly ladies sitting on the stoop, the veranda, of their home which sort of fell into the street. A little further down was the elderly gentleman, occasionally further down was the young mum and her baby, each would say hello, comment on the weather and wish you a good day.
Like Abraham they were expecting and greeting those who passed by, strangers they did not know but welcomed into their lives by this little daily routine. Sometimes they were there when I returned. Either way they were a joy in my life, people who connected me to my community, as it became while I was there.
They expected strangers and so did Abraham. It was midday, it was hot, and people travelling at that time needed hospitality and a welcome. Abraham made sure he was there to care for those who were out in the midday sun. And so was Sarah – absent from the stoop but within calling distance if required to provide hospitality.
Notice when Abraham sees the strangers he does not hesitate. ‘When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground’. He didn’t wait to see if they had come through the right immigration channels, if they had their papers, if the colour of their skin was the same as his, if they were acceptable for someone like him to greet. He made no assessment of character, no check on the geneology website, and made no attempt to see if they would rob or murder him and his family.
He simply welcomed them, not as strangers, but as guests and friends. The hospitality wasn’t over the top. It was basic. It met their needs. They were cleansed, given something to eat and drink, and made welcome. Abraham didn’t bring on entertainment or a feast fit for celebrities. He simply welcomed and cared for them. Nothing more, and nothing less.
And Genesis says, ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham’. And a promise of a child was made again. Neither of which Abraham sought or desired when he welcomed the strangers. He simply did the hospitable and the ordinary – he welcomed strangers without judgement, without fear, without question. And he received much more than he expected.
Standing under the awning in Harlem as the rain bucketed down, I was joined by a young African American boy, just a bit older than Trayvon. He was a solid young man and we exchanged greetings. As the time went on, the sun went down and the street came to life, he stayed next to me, not talking just standing there, occasionally glancing my way. Just before I was to leave he looked at me and said, ‘Now, you take care’, and disappeared. It was then I realised he was my guardian angel, he had taken it on himself to stand beside this rather strange Australian who had obviously wandered into the ‘wrong’ part of town.
Like Abraham he welcomed the stranger and I entertained an angel. How differently life would have been for Trayvon, and could be for us, if only we could let go of our prejudices and entertain strangers as Abraham and Sarah did. It is simple, but seems never to be easy.