Two days ago, I went to a food bank for the first time in my life. I was so new I hadn’t even considered that there might be a line. There was, and since I arrived right when it opened, I was at the very end.
I stood there, silent. Some people talked to one another; two women who hadn’t seen each other in a while started catching up. A man sat in the shade, away from the line, waiting for the door to open. I thought he had the right idea. Even though it was October and the morning looked like it would rain, the clouds kept pulling back, letting the sun heat up the air. I wondered how quickly the line would move, and whether I should have put on sunblock. My poor, fair, white skin–it burns so quickly.
I was the only white man there and one of three white people. I saw one of the women accompany another person inside–a caseworker. I remember thinking, people who oppose affirmative action and want “race neutral” criteria should stand in this line. Being “color blind” just turns a blind eye to the reality that our country is still deeply shaped and scarred by racism.
I was not there with a client. But I was not picking up food for myself. Eight refugees from Congo (they had fled to Gabon) needed food. The previous week, one of them had told me they had no more food; I gave him some money and then 20 minutes later found out from the landlord he had been looking for a ride to buy wine the day before. He found one, apparently, and now had wine but no more money and no more food. So I was there, standing in line, waiting to get my bag.
Ever since I joined an AMIA church (Anglican Mission in America), I’ve been bothered by a simple observation: we are a nearly all-white church under the leadership of an African church (the Rwandan Anglican church). Working at World Relief (refugee resettlement) has only made that question more intense: why are predominantly white churches eager to make space for Africans and Burmese Christians, yet often detached from Hispanic and African-American congregations? The question took on a more subtle emphasis while I stood waiting: what am I doing, standing here in line, disconnected from the African-American congregations all around me, picking up food to help an African family?
The African family speaks French; only the dad speaks a little English. It makes having a conversation quite difficult but between my broken, high school french, lots of gestures, and repetition we manage. At least I think we do. Yet I could not think of anything to say to the two men standing next to me in line. Later in the day, in a different line, I joined in the common conversation, telling what food banks I had been to that day, whether there were lines, and learning where I should go if I still needed more food. The time went much faster than when I stood in the first line–my first time in a line–struggling to think of something to say to my neighbors.
I started a book–I know, a surprise–called “The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture,” by Amy Kaplan. The first chapter is titled “Manifest Domesticity,” and looks at the way “domestic space” and “foreign space” are intimately connected (as she puts it in the last sentence of the chapter, “‘Manifest Domesticity’ turns an imperial nation into a home by producing and colonizing specters of the foreign that lurk inside and outside its ever-shifting borders,” p. 50). She begins the book through a discussion of a famous case regarding Puerto Rico’s status as neither a full-fledged state, nor a sovereign nation. It was, as the case said, “foreign in a domestic sense.” Strange, but close to home.
I had read that introduction the day before I went to the food bank. It didn’t help me find something to say, but it gave me a new way to approach the questions I had been asking since I started at World Relief. It’s often easier for white people, like myself, to strike up new ground with foreign foreigners, Africans or Burmese, than with those who are “foreign in a domestic sense.” As I stood in line, I knew I was connected to the other people in the line, that my story intersected theirs in very real ways. But I can’t tell that story. I’ve been trained to ignore it–and it has taken the patience and kindness of others to help me realize that much. But I’ve also been raised to be the master narrator, to tell the story–sing the song–of myself and all others. I’ve been raised to think that all other stories fit within my own and that I am capable of telling a story that includes them all. But there, in that line, I could not figure out what to say. I needed someone else to begin the story, to start the conversation, so that I could finally speak.
Perhaps we, white American Christians, find it easier to go to Africa than to the African-American church in our own city (perhaps even in our own neighborhood) because we feel we can start fresh there. It’s easier to pretend (please note the emphasis on pretend, fantasize, imagine) that our interaction is fresh, that it is free from a long horrible history of violence and injustice. We can engage in dialogue–mutually beneficial dialogue–because we (think we) know what we ought to say. We can speak of “cultural differences” because the boundaries seem clear: Rwanda is foreign in a foreign sense (which, as Kaplan will argue, isn’t actually as foreign as we think–but it is still easy to see it that way). The African-American congregation who hosted the food bank and let me stand in line is certainly much closer to home.
Jesus calls us Gentiles to join a people who are not our own, to let another people tell our own story for us, and to realize that we only know God as guests in another house (for the stark presentation of it, read Mark 7.24-30). I felt something of how uncomfortable that can be.
In the 1930’s, Karl Barth wrote that “salvation means alienation, and ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (Jn. 4.22). And because people will not be alienated even for their own salvation, they roll away the alienation on to the Jew” (CD I/2, 511). Salvation, according to Barth, means something like becoming foreign in a domestic sense. If that is so, then my hope for salvation is in fact deeply connected to the African-American, Hispanic and other “domestically foreign” congregations around me. I depend on them to continue to confront me with the good news of alienation–and I hope that Jesus will graciously prevent me from rolling away that alienation onto others. I depend on them to teach me just how far my alienation must go. And I depend on them to continue to show me that even, or precisely, in this liminal space, Jesus offers a joy so deep it will outlast and finally heal the deepest wounds, even the wounds sustained by being marked as foreign in a domestic sense (let us not forget that crucifixion was reserved for domestic foreigners, non-citizens under Roman rule).