One afternoon over a decade ago, I was cleaning up after serving lunch at a soup kitchen for poor, elderly Russians in the middle of Moscow. I was wiping down the tables as a pair of women were getting ready to go, tying their scarves and packaging the food they’d saved for dinner. I went to hold the door for them and in my clumsy Russian, wished them a good afternoon. One of them said to me, in the clearest of English, “See you later, alligator!” Her eyes sparkled beneath her fur hat and she went off into the cold.
This simple sentence jolted me. It wasn’t just that she spoke a fun bit of American vernacular. It reminded me that people are a whole lot more than our initial impression. Everybody has a rich story beneath the surface. She was more than just a poor, pitiable widow in need of my help. She was the wife of a diplomat who worked in the United States in the 1960s and earned multiple graduate degrees. I learned this about her when I took the risk of sitting at her table and listening to her story. I had made all kinds of assumptions about her in all the previous times I scooped borscht into her bowl. While it was true that she was desperately poor and our meals together sustained her, there was a whole lot more to her.
I had done what we all do so often. I’d succumbed to what writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story. (Check out her TED talk here.) Instead of acknowledging someone’s multiple layers of identity, experiences, and gifts, we see only one thing about a person. (Poor. Rich. Old. Young. Black. White. Immigrant. Citizen. Straight. Gay. Etc. Etc.) This takes away a person’s humanity. Putting people into boxes of a singular identity helps legitimize exclusion, injustice, and violence. And it drives us into deeper division. We retreat into our corners away from those people who seem, because of that single story, so very different from us.
But unlike many of our problems, this one is relatively simple to fix. All it takes is openness, along with some curiosity, and a listening ear. It can be really delightful, too, because we’ll be blessed to hear the beauty, struggle, resilience, and faith of people’s rich and diverse lives. It could happen over a meal together, in a line at the store, or maybe even as we talk with the people sitting in the pew next to us. Our understanding of others with different backgrounds and experiences can even be enriched by reading books or watching movies that authentically add layers to their stories.
When we take the risk of listening to one another’s stories, we’ll discover that not only do we have a lot in common but our differences don’t actually have to divide us. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (who were themselves suffering from the danger of a single story): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We are, each one of us, God’s children, one in Christ. Maybe this is the only single story that actually works, that we are God’s beloved ones. With this identity, we can courageously open our hearts to the lives of all God’s people, and then work for a world where all of us, with all our many stories, can flourish.
–Sara Olson-Smith, associate pastor