I was excited by the racial and ethnic diversity of my neighborhood when I moved to West Philadelphia in 1989. My neighbors were African-American, Asian, and white. I didn’t feel safe, however, walking alone in the city at night. Encountering any man on the street after dusk made me feel anxious, especially dark-skinned men. But I didn’t want to live a life of fear. As I hurried from the trolley stop to my apartment, I would talk to myself whenever I noticed I was afraid of the person coming toward me on the sidewalk. I would remind myself that I was encountering a human being.
In graduate school I had read a 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison called Invisible Man, the story of a black man in this country who had learned that people of the dominant culture wanted him to be invisible. White people acted as if he was not there–except when they were harassing him. I didn’t want to perpetuate the prejudices and injustices pervasive in my culture, or be controlled by fear. I wanted to live with an open heart. So instead of turning my face away when I encountered a man coming toward me on the sidewalk, I would gather my courage to look directly at each person I met and say, “Hello.”
What I was really saying is, “I see you. I recognize your humanity.”
Usually I got a response. A momentary eye contact, a greeting. Sometimes the other person greeted me first, which helped melt the tension I felt. It was a very small thing, but each time it felt like a little victory over fear, prejudice, and alienation–for both of us. Fifteen years later, when I walk through my neighborhood, local park, or on city streets, greeting strangers and being greeted by them still feels like an opening to a more peaceful, joyful world. It helps me to live in the Kingdom (or Kin-dom) of God, here and now.
Probably my most powerful experience of being “seen” by a stranger in a public place happened not long after the horrific attacks of September 11th, 2001. I was one of many Americans who went out onto the streets to participate in vigils and hold signs asking my country to choose a non-violent response. My friends and I got together and wrote letters to the President, our Senators, and Representatives in Congress, asking them not to start a war. Sadly, at that time there was a terrible upsurge of violence against Muslims in this country. I received an email from a peace group asking every women in this country to wear a head scarf on a certain date, as an act of solidarity with Muslim women. That turned out to be the very date that the USA began bombing Afghanistan.
I was traveling home from Lancaster, PA that October day. When I went to the train station in Lancaster wearing a head scarf, I was apprehensive that I would be looked at with hostility. In fact, nobody paid much attention until I arrived home in Philadelphia. I was the last one on the regional rail train by the time it pulled in to my station at the end of the line. When I stood up to leave, the African-American train conductor looked directly into my face. He saw me and understood why I was wearing the head scarf.
“Thank you!” he said.
He blessed me in an amazing way that I have never forgotten. Quietly, we looked at each other with mutual appreciation. That moment gave me a glimpse of what a different and much more wonderful world we could be living in if we all respected and trusted one another.
Every time we encounter another person, we choose what world we want to live in.
I See You: What has been your experience when you move through the veil of fear and prejudice that separates us from our neighbors?
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My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, was recently reviewed by Friends Journal. It’s available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.
© 2016 Marcelle Martin