By Cary Umhau 7-14-2015

Tuesdays are my regular night for serving dinner at the Central Union Mission, a men’s shelter in Washington, D.C.

My short frame hidden behind the steam trays, I’m simply a smiling white face with a mop of gray hair amidst the dozens of homeless men, mostly black, who file by hoping that we’ll have something to offer besides the usual (canned green beans with the meat and starch).

On a particular night, one man in the endlessly snaking dinner line caught my attention. I could feel his anger even before it was his turn to approach the food window. I summoned up a silent prayer, asking God how to meet his glare in our upcoming encounter over rice and gravy.

As he stepped in front of me, I said rather haltingly, “Have you had a rough day?”

Even as it came out of my mouth, I knew it sounded inane and condescending, hardly a logical or inviting conversational gambit for a stranger.

He looked at me with what felt like disdain.

“No, not particularly. What I’m having is a shitty life. Here I stand in this line to get food, and there you stand on the other side of this counter with a perfect life, heading into — I'm sure — a ‘happy holiday,’" he said, his dark, muscular arms punching the space between us with air quotes.

I inhaled and prayed wordlessly, wondering what response would come out of my sucker-punched little self. Unexpected tears began to escape my eyes, which soon stung with mascara.

“You’re right," I said.

"I have absolutely no idea how to make sense of the fact that I’m on this side of the counter and you’re on that side. But yes, it’s shitty.”

He laughed almost gently, his wrath deflating a bit as he took his food and wandered out to look for a seat among the other men.

From time to time, he’d look up at me again as if he were thinking, “What just happened? That wasn’t what I expected.”

It wasn’t what I expected either.

I was raised in Atlanta during the heyday of the civil rights era. I went to high school with some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children. And I didn’t know there was a racial problem in my city. Because for me and my people there wasn’t. It was somebody else’s problem. Across town. Somewhere else.

The black maids and gardeners rode a tidal wave into my white neighborhood each morning, tended babies, fried chicken, and manicured lawns. And then the tide washed them back out again. We didn’t often ask where they landed for the night and whether it was as sumptuous as our digs, or whether their neighborhoods were even safe. We just dropped our bath towels on the floor and figured that somebody would pick them up again in the morning. Life was good.

From the remove of 40 years and 600 miles, I see it differently. But it took more than time and distance to reckon with my own cluelessness about race. It took what it always takes for barriers to fall between “us” and “them” — getting to know some of “them.” And knowing them as friends, not as maids. I’ve begged God to change my heart, to show me the depths of my racism, my judgmental and critical spirit. I’m begging him to keep changing me.

I’ve gotten as far as being able to name that I am on one side of many different divides, including the dinner counter at the Mission, and I’m usually on the less-shitty side. And it’s through no merit of my own. In fact it’s where people like me, white and privileged, have long been and have little questioned.

Yet I now have tears and the beginning of a glimpse into that disparity, offerings which have come late in life. Formerly, I would have avoided a seething stranger or — I fear — given him some inane platitude, thinking I had something to offer besides my humanity and the desire to treat everyone with dignity.

As it turns out, those are enough. We don’t need to correct or fix anybody. We don’t need every interaction to become a kumbaya moment. But we can take a stab at conversation, connection, and empathy.

I have hope in some of these interactions around what friends and I call “flash tables” — part flash mob, part banquet table. We set beautiful tables in parks or spaces around town, and we invite people who pass by to sit down for homemade pie and conversation. These flash tables are meant to be living parables, something we think Jesus might have done in our melting pot of a city.

We’ve met eager, earnest tourists and hurting, lonely locals.

We’ve met gang members who checked us out from afar, then settled in and hung out with us, sharing stories and doing cartwheels in the grass. One of them shared a passage from his favorite book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Another said to the rest of his posse, “Hey, we have food stamps. We could feed people ourselves in this park.”

We wanted to restore joy to a derelict corner that used to be known for music, so we hired a drummer who got many of us dancing. Later we learned it was the same corner he’d slept on when he was homeless.

We’ve tucked a fleece blanket around a shivering mentally ill woman at the table, transferring her drink from a gold goblet to a blue one when we discovered that blue is her favorite color. Because sometimes love demands that you wash an extra cup.

We want to be among the ones in D.C. who say yes as we set the table for an ever-evolving conversation, to hang out with love as the only agenda. Our cities need open tables — more pie, more dialogue.

There’s not an easy way to talk about race. So we whites largely don’t. And rightfully so, for we have been historically clueless about the impact of our cluelessness, and about the fact that we are ourselves a major “them.”

But the admittedly limited encounter over rice and gravy at the Central Union Mission sparked in me a commitment to talk about race, even if awkwardly. And to name where I have privilege and others don’t. And to seek out relationship with people and groups I’ve traditionally considered “them.” And to lean into the fact that God is a healer and redeems broken systems, broken people, and me.

When we admit where we are, we are on the way to something better. We are on the way to life getting less “shitty” for some, and better for all of us.

Cary Umhau has lived in D.C. 30 years and is the founder of SPACIOUS, a community organization that conspires to turn strangers into neighbors by living out the gospel in creative ways. Snippets of this piece for Sojourners appear in her book, Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel.

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