I asked the woman from Panera for two “fives”. (I owed an extra five dollars on rent, and was trying to make change.)
This month, I'm low on money--as I am most months--so the reality of peanut butter sandwiches and Cliff bars was/is my next week and a half. And because of this, the extra five-dollars (of my ten total) felt nice in my pocket. A beer at happy hour, a small meal, a coffee downtown.
But when I got on the metro home, around 11 pm, I saw a woman on the Yellow-line train with me.
She had a teal-green bandanna wrapped around her dark hair, which exposed the top of her head (with mint-colored hair curlers in front). She wore an expressionless face that seemed to ask for no one's attention, or help. A striped tank-top laid across her chest like a forgotten nation's flag, and she wore old, white Nike tennis shoes (the kind from 90's movies). Her arms laid bare against the seat's top, steel railing; her arms were the color of the most exquisite African queen from a time before Christ or pyramids.
With her, she had a small cart (the horizontal, movable kind that you transport groceries in); it was lined with a red recyclable bag—maybe from Target—as well as a polka dot one on top. Her eyes were hard and yet searching. She pulled out silver coins from her back pocket and began counting silently. There were a lot.
My heart started racing.
My legs got antsy and began to twitch and bob, up and down. And suddenly, the extra five-dollars in my pocket felt heavy. My neck got hot and my heart continued to run around my bones like an Olympic sprinter; my legs bobbed like excited seals. (Sometimes, this is how the Spirit speaks to me; a racing heart and unsettled legs and an overheating body.)
“But Lord,” I whined, “what if it's offensive? What if she takes it as pity? What if she yells? What if she gets angry?” Other thoughts went in too, like “What if her face softens? What if she needs it? What's wrong with just asking?”
We got to the stop before mine, and my mind moved back and forth, like a sailboat in a storm. “If she opens her eyes and looks at me, then I'll know the Lord wants me to offer,” OR “I'll just walk by and do it. So what if I get yelled at,” OR “No, I don't want to offend her.”
The train moved along, and within minutes the operator announced my station. “Braddock Road,” he said. I stood up before the we came to a full stop, as I had planned. I walked past one door, and moved toward the back--even though this was further from the escalators--so that I would pass her seat. The train-car jerked and shifted, and I grabbed onto the steel rail two seats from her; one seat; and then, I was holding to the steel rail on her seat. The five-dollars was tucked in my fist, but she was looking down at her hands.
A moment passed. Then two. She didn't look up. The train kept moving forward, jolting back and forth. Another moment. And then.
My heart sprinted; into my stumbling mouth.
“Mam,” I said (she looked at my hand first, which had the five-dollars extended), “would you like this?”
She saw the bill and grabbed gently--but without hesitation--and looked up at my unsure face; and then: her cheeks and lips and eyes broke out like a waterfall of fireworks into the most soft, open smile I have ever shared with a stranger. Baby birds were learning to fly and clouds broke open to the sun. My heart raced into my mouth again and, chest-and-soul open and bare and vulnerable, I smiled back at her.
The trained stopped and the car-doors opened and I put my hand on her soft, African-queen shoulder (which had some bumps along it), as I walked away.
“Thank you!” she said with a hoarse, but lighter voice than I expected; she sounded like she could fly to Neverland. “You're welcome!” I said; and I walked out. I whispered “Thank you's”. “Thank you for letting me push past the fear being kind, Lord.”
But this isn't a story about five dollars; and this isn't a story about how kind or giving I am.
This is a story about how cowardly I can be.
Because let me tell you what apathy looks like; what racism looks like; what ignorance, or lies look like: They look like the fear of offending people--with human interaction, kindness, or inquiry.
Racism and unspoken privilege run rampant in this country—why? Because people are afraid of speaking; of saying something wrong; of saying too much. And so nothing is said and injustice rules in a land where Fear is King. (I say this as one who fed into the unknown white privilege I had, and as one who was forcefully confronted with it.)
Let me tell you what apathy looks like; what it sounds like; what it feels like: It feels like fear and shame for being honest, for being human, for extending a hand, for offering kindness to a stranger. Apathy looks like fear--of doing good, of being honest, authentic.
Friends, run the risk of offending for the sake of love. Run the risk of offending for the sake of learning—over and over—how we can be better neighbors to one another. Run the risk of offending for the sake of being kind.
Friends, be offensively humane; be an offensive seeker of truth (and by offensive, I mean bold); be offensively curious and questioning, whether within religious institutions or racial systems of injustice. Boldly seek out others; boldly extend your hand, even if it be slapped away; learn from taking offense, and learn from being offensive.
Friends, apathy is dressed like good manners. Please do not be fooled by the trickery of “being proper”. Please do not be fooled by the trickery of cultural norms, or fear.
Let's start loving in ways that risk pride, and risk being wrong. This is the only way we learn and grow and become bold and love well. And even the hardest faces are, at times, only waiting for a hello; even the hardest discussions are, at times, only waiting for a question to begin.
Friends, apathy is dressed like good manners.
Let's stop being so darn polite.