When I was growing up I was taught that Roman Catholics were going to hell. (It’s ridiculous, but it’s a true story. I was also taught that anyone that didn’t ascribe to the particular brand of the charismatic tradition that I was part of was not ‘filled with the Spirit’ and therefore a second tier Christian.) This way of viewing Catholics shaped the way I treated them. I was nice, polite but firmly convinced there was nothing to learn from such people.
It was in the first year of my twenties I met a young Catholic couple. They were very dangerous; dangerous to my deeply held prejudice. After conversation, laughs, and storytelling, I realised that the lens through which I viewed them was skewed, clouded, and actually didn’t make sense of my experience of them. None of the caricatures fit. It was actually unsettling. It pressed on my own self understanding.
A few years later I became friends with a Catholic Priest. His love for Jesus, compassion for people, and gentle spirit humbled me. He was someone I could only aspire to be like. This was disconcerting. How could he be so wrong, yet so very right and good? Hearing his personal story, his pains and fears, joys and hopes, was the beginning of a journey for me. It was a journey out of the wilderness of isolation; a journey out of the echo chamber that affirmed my own rightness. He changed me. He was a gift to me.
Tonight I am reflecting on the many people I’ve encountered that didn’t fit into the neatly shaped boxes I created (or inherited) for them. These personal encounters altered and condemned my previously held conceptions. Face to face encounter has a way of melting away the proclivity to ‘other’ people; to put them on the outside as a means of subconscious identity preservation. This does not suggest that significant difference does not exist, it surely does. But difference doesn’t have to insulate or isolate us from our neighbours.
It’s probably true that before we can love our neighbours: we should probably meet them. When we meet them we will find that we are very different in many ways, and similar in other ways. If we take the time to hear with our ears and our hearts, empathy may just well up in us. We need more empathy in the world, which probably means we need more face to face contact. It also means we may have to take some risks. The risk of acknowledging that we may have been wrong about ‘them’ (whoever ‘them’ is for you). This takes some humility – a characteristic not in surplus for me.
We are all on a journey. Mine has been peculiar, strange and often embarrassing. I am embarrassed by my previous ignorance and narrowness. But, alas, I think the journey is heading in the right direction now: toward generosity, embrace in spite of difference, and working for the common good.
Here is a photo of my good friend, Rabbi Dan. 20 years ago I would not have had the capacity to engage with him. Today, I can’t imagine not receiving him as the gift he is to me.