A few days ago, I drove my four kids ages 5-11 almost an hour into downtown Atlanta to participate in our first ever food distribution event for the homeless and elderly. We were the minority both among the volunteers and recipients, and we were all quite out of our comfort zone. What would possess me to do that?
God opened my eyes in August 2017 to a reality surrounding me that I didn’t even know existed: often African Americans have a very different American experience than I do simply because of the color of their skin. Since then God has been continually softening my heart towards African Americans and at the same time He has placed a heavy burden on my heart to earnestly love African Americans and stir up other light-skinned Americans to do the same. I cannot undo the past of slavery and segregation and disrespect. But, I can start earnestly loving today those who our country for hundreds of years disdained.
All of God’s commands are summed up in love God, love others (Mark 12:30-31). In addition, the Bible declares that “happy is he who is gracious to the poor.” (Proverbs 14:21) The Bible gets even more specific in Proverbs 31:20 and states that the godly woman extends her hand to the poor and needy. When I look at downtown Atlanta, I see whole communities of struggling African Americans. Yet, what have I ever done to help any of them? I have stayed aloof in my predominantly white, comfortable suburbs while 30 miles from me so many African Americans are homeless or struggling financially.
My heart breaks.
I’m going to them. I’m scared. I’m anxious. But, I’m going to them. Their cry has reached my ear.
And, so I went. I did not know where this choice would lead next or how this situation would go or if I would be well-received or shunned. I was anxious. But, I was determined. God had lit a fire in my heart and a passion that I could not easily extinguish, nor did I want to. I wanted to love. God is love. I understood He loved all mankind. I understood He uses you and me to show real love in real time to real people.
In addition I want my kids to interact with African Americans. I want them to feel comfortable around African Americans. I want them to love African Americans. I better lead the way.
So, I went to downtown Atlanta.
As soon as I got off the exit for the food distribution event, an African American man stood there at the intersection with a sign in one hand and a cup ready to collect money from drivers in his other hand. Next up we saw the sad sight of another African American man lying near the entrance of the drug store attempting to sleep. As we continued on, we noticed the area was not well-kept up. Sidewalks, buildings, lawns. The overall feel was a bit rundown. Large murals of African Americans decorated the sides of two buildings. Everyone I saw was noticeably darker than I was. Right or wrong, I felt scared. But, I also felt I was on a mission. A mission to love people the way God loves. God has a heart for the poor and repeatedly throughout the Bible encourages us to have a heart for the poor. God also made all mankind, and so I knew that though I might be scared, I was surrounded by people God had made and loved.
I had an issue getting to the actual church that was housing the event. I found the building fine enough but getting to the parking lot itself was another matter since the church entrance was blocked. I circled the neighborhood twice trying to figure out how I was supposed to get to this church’s parking lot. I called my husband to get advice and listened to the kids try to persuade me that maybe we shouldn’t go after all. I was feeling nervous, out of my comfort zone, and willing to bolt at the slightest justification for that choice. Isn’t that just how Satan works? When you strive to do something for God’s glory, don’t be surprised if there are roadblocks! However, I finally decided to just go up the narrow exit lane to the church and hope no one would be coming the correct way. Thankfully, no one did, and I finally made it to the parking lot at the back of the church. Relief.
I started following what appeared to be other volunteers. We eventually figured out where to be, signed in, and waited. The basement room was full of young adults choosing to volunteer for unknown reasons. I stood out like a sore thumb with my fair skin and four fair-skinned kids. No problem. That’s one reason I came. To be around people that were different than me and get comfortable and then help my kid’s do the same. I found a spot to sit and immediately struck up a conversation with the young African American woman I was next too.
She was very kind, and we quickly got to why I had come. I mentioned being out of my comfort zone. She understood saying that is how they (African Americans) often feel in the predominant white world. She confided she thinks, “What should I wear? What should I say?” She was super nice, and I’m so thankful she was there to welcome me into the new situation and make me comfortable.
Shortly after that the event started. The 30 or so volunteers all jumped into action as we hustled around getting food into grocery bags and preparing everything just so for the recipients. Before long, my kids started having a blast and excitedly said to me, “This is fun!” And, it was. Here we were, a part of a large group, doing something kind for people struggling.
How did these almost 200 elderly or homeless recipients come to the point that they needed to stand in line for hours to wait to pick up a few groceries? I don’t know. All I knew was this was my opportunity to show a very small act of kindness, look them in the eye, and care about them as a person. This was my opportunity to bring my kids up face to face with people different than them. People. Not property. Not second-class citizens. People equal to them and made in God’s image just as my kids are. This was a huge moment for me as a mom.
My biggest concern was my five-year-old daughter. It doesn’t take much to get her out of her comfort zone, and when she is out of her comfort zone, social skills nose dive. Sure enough, she was out of her comfort zone. But, she was able to stay close to my side most of the time and just be there. But, then something beautiful happened. After we had been there awhile, she was standing beside me holding a tomato in each hand and holding them out hesitantly offering them to the recipients as they passed by. As time passed, my somewhat timid little daughter was bravely, even eagerly, holding out tomatoes to complete strangers. One jovial, elderly African American man coming through the line rejected the tomatoes I was holding and that my oldest son was holding and pointed to my sweet little daughter and said happily that he wanted her tomatoes. She proudly stepped forward and gently placed them in his bag. I was so proud of her. I was so thankful that God had helped me get out of my comfort zone.
After the event, the kids kept saying how fun it was and that they wanted to do it again. Wow. That was a 180 from the attitudes they had going into the event.
Did we just change the world with one food distribution? Yes and no. My world has been changed. My kids’ worlds have been changed. And, we are interconnected with your world. Will those people still be struggling financially? Will they still suffer from hunger? Sadly, yes. But, perhaps that one man who happily chose my daughter’s tomatoes had his world changed too. Maybe her young, white face healed some racial wound from his past and the mental picture of her small white hands reaching out to him will bring him continued comfort that future generations of whites as an overall group can learn to truly love, honor, and show dignity towards African Americans as a collective group. Or maybe that is just what I imagined as I watched the small tomato exchange. The world can change. One person at a time. One small act of kindness at a time.
As we left the event, my 11-year-old son asked me why almost all the recipients were black. Out of almost 200 recipients that morning, only about 3 were not black. How would you have answered my son?
Obeying God’s command to “love others” will force us out of our comfort zones at times. Personally, I have found that a place worth going.
And, just to clarify, this post might sound like I’m patting myself on the back and so proud of what I did. In one sense I do have a huge feeling of satisfaction. I faced my fear and did not let it rule over me. I am proud of that. But, I was only able to overcome by God’s overwhelming love working in me. So, all praise goes to Him for helping me.
And, as to patting myself on the back, that is not at all my intent. Instead, I’m hoping you will see how out of our comfort zone it can be to go love others. But God can help us overcome our fears. I want to stir you to do good works yourself—not so you can earn God’s approval (which you can’t do!), but so that you can show the love of God to the world.
Proverbs 21:13 states, “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered.” The inner-cities of America seem to be crying out to us in the suburbs. Will we answer the cry?
I don’t have all the answers. I’m struggling through this myself right now. You are getting a glimpse into my journey.