The room fell silent as soon as a 91-year-old man finished his highly prejudiced description of the picture that used to come to his mind every time he would hear the word, “Muslim.”
That was when I learned that a completely silent room could become even more silent than silent.
He continued his story, “But I’ve got to tell you—since my wife passed away several years ago, the only family in my neighborhood that has been consistently nice to me are my next door neighbors, who just happen to be Muslim. And it’s got me thinkin’, ‘If there can be nice Muslims in this world, then there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that I don’t know about because I’ve never met ‘em.’”
That was when the room went from “pin-drop silence” to “speck-of-dust-drop silence.”
All 30 of us in that mid-week Bible study knew that what we had just heard was the truth, and we all recognized the fact that each one of us had been guilty of the same thing.
Take your pick. Choose your “those people.” We all have them. If you can’t think of who your “those people” are right away, then just think a little harder.
The reason we all have “those people” in our lives is not necessarily because we don’t like them; it’s because we don’t know them. Knowing “those people” changes them from “those people” to REAL people. But far too often we simply choose to remain comfortable in our boxes of unfamiliarity, boxes that lead to us form caricatures and inaccurate assumptions about who “those people” are and why they act they way they do.
Matthew 5:23-24 tells us to refrain from worshipping until we’ve settled our differences with our neighbor, or with “those people.” How do we settle those differences? By talking.
As basic as this sounds, we need to talk.
How are disputes in a marriage settled? By talking.
How do next-door neighbors decide how to split the cost of a new fence? By talking.
How do countries reach agreements and form treaties? By talking.
And yet, as simple as it seems, talking with people is not naturally our first reaction when we don’t understand the actions of “those people.”
“But people might see me talking to them!”
“But they might not want to talk.”
“But what if they really are like the prejudiced caricature of them I’ve painted in my mind?”
Those questions didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Over and over, Jesus was criticized for associating with “those people.” In fact, Jesus spent way more time with the people who were cast aside by society than he did with the “in crowd.” And in doing so, Jesus introduced the Kingdom of God by destroying the imaginary divisions that separate groups of real people from other groups of real people, one conversation at a time.
Lord, that we might do the same! Give us the courage to break the mold of comfort. Guide us into encounters with people who are vastly differently from us. Open our eyes to your image on the face of every person we are privileged to meet in this world. And fill our mouths with conversations that break down barriers.
So, the next time you find yourself tempted to judge “those people,” begin by asking yourself, “Do I even know any of ‘those people?’ Have we talked?” After all, “there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that [we] don’t know about because [we’ve] never met ‘em.”