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True community

Peeling back the labels to reveal the stories of our neighbors

by Perry Engle

“Hey, I know you!!”

We arrived simultaneously at the self-checkout lane at the local grocery store, and I had clearly startled her as she turned to stare at me through coke-bottle glasses. A good foot shorter than me, she had sun-weathered skin, sandpaper hands, and a stained t-shirt.

“I mean, I know you. I know what you do. You’re that lady that holds the sign for the tax-preparation service out on Mountain Avenue.”

She stared even harder. She looked like she wanted to run away.

My family tells me people sometimes feel threatened by my loud, outgoing personality, and the way I invade their space. I like to think of myself as sincere and enthusiastic, but I guess my extroversion could at points be, well . . . obnoxious.

I introduced myself, and said, “I want you to know that I think you’re really good at what you do. You really give it your all.”

She blinked, told me her name, and then said somewhat abruptly, “You know, I haven’t always done this kind of work.”

“This kind of work” is standing on street corners with hand-held signs directing people to local businesses. And this lady doesn’t just hold her sign. She dances with it, twirls it, and gets down with it. In her own inimitable hyper-animated way, she never fails to draw attention to her sign.

Just then, giant red-hot tears started exploding in huge splash marks on her dirty shirt. She explained that for years she had been a teacher’s aide at a local community college. She had been laid off during the recession and the only kind of work she could find was dancing with a sign, dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, while standing out in the California sun for eight dollars an hour.

I went weak in the knees when I realized I didn’t know this lady at all.

More than that, I realized I had been complicit in demeaning this woman from the comfort of my car. While driving around town, I would make a point to tell my daughters to “make sure you get your college education so you don’t end up holding a sign like that lady.”

Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Every human face is the face of a neighbor.” But so often I casually dehumanize people in order to give myself permission to ignore them. I label people so that I can stereotype them and then dismiss them.

It’s easy to do—to objectify people by where they live or how they look or what they do. We stereotype, reject, and ignore people because we don’t know them. And honestly, we don’t want to know them.

If true community means anything, it means being willing to involve myself with people who are not like me. Writes Nouwen: “No one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process. Who can take away suffering without entering it?”

True community is the recognition that every human face is the face of a neighbor. It’s making the effort to see each person as having a face, a name, and a story—a story of disappointment and brokenness, of possibility and hope.

It’s admitting that we may not know someone, and having the humility to step out of our comfort zones to give it a try.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle makes a habit of shamelessly embarrassing himself and his family in very public places. He is bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Regional Conferences of BIC U.S., and lives with his wife, Marta, and their family in Ontario, Calif.

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Carol Wenger Posted on July 31, 2014

Hi Perry,
I sometimes embarrass my spouse by striking up a con-
versation with a total stranger. I thought you article was
really interesting. Sometimes, it involves giving the other
person a bit of help in their time of need but...a good way to let them know, that we are a Christian and we care:) CW

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