Black Lives Matter to me. Some of them are very dear to me, in fact. (Not all of my inter-racial experiences are with black people. In fact the majority, maybe, are not, but this post will deal with my black-n-white experience – one slice of it anyway.)
Today’s vignette we will call, “My Failed Attempt To Be Helpful.” It is the story of a learning experience, and perhaps there is still more to learn.
In as few words as possible (or less) I need to say that over the course of my years growing up, I had relatively little interaction with black people. My family moved a lot. We lived mostly in small towns around the western United States, and by far most of those towns had few or no black people in them. (There were exceptions to this picture, but this was the trend.)
However, black people did become the topic of conversation on numerous occasions among family or friends. It was clear to me that my parents were not haters, not bigots. My parents were not actively seeking civil rights for blacks, but I recall from early on that my parents spoke respectfully of blacks. Despite the rarity, I witnessed my parents relating with blacks at times, and they always showed respect both to those black faces and then later behind their backs too. They speculated on a few occasions that if either I or my siblings were to grow up and marry a black person, they would be welcomed in our family.
In the First-Do-No-Harm realm, my parents were pretty on-target.
My grandparents though… well, I would not call them haters either, BUT the bigotry was evident nonetheless. Racial slurs were not common, but sometimes were occasions for another sort of education for my young impressionable mind. Again, the discussions about black people in my family were rare, but when they occurred (which might not crop up for years in between), my grandparents would use “the N-word,” characterize blacks as “scary” sometimes, and I recall my one grandfather revisiting a favored joke that I did not “get” for many years.
Things changed when I was a young adult. My parents divorced, and when my dad remarried, I suddenly had a racially mixed step-sister close to my age. She was half white/half black (presumably… for to my knowledge she did not get a DNA test to determine exactly). I did not grow up with her, did not live with her, but she and her black husband did come to visit and celebrate Thanxgiving one year with my young wife and I, when our newly married parents also came. Though we did not share a lot of history, I sensed nothing but good will, friendship, and a desire to make a go of being family together both in myself and in my new siblings. I recall to this day a handful of stories my step-mother revealed about her experience(s) working for the Civil Rights Movement, being married to a black man (briefly), and raising a child who (for all functional purposes) was black. None of this was exactly a college lecture, but I gained new insights to be sure.
However, while on that visit, my sister and her mother had taken a brief shopping trip into the city and had come home with a story of having been slighted by the staff at one of the businesses they entered. Not a crime, per se, but an ugly exchange which had been obviously contemptuous and upsetting. My family was hurt by it.
This was a learning experience for me. I had heard of such things before, of course, but now it had happened to “one of us” – so to speak. I FELT it too. I knew this kind woman (my new sister) who was a professional, who conducted herself honorably everywhere she went, but now she suffered scorn for NO GOOD REASON. She was more respectable than me! But I am white. But I was getting a personal dose of reality vicariously, for she was one of OUR FAMILY. It was personal now in a new way.
When my sister and brother-in-law traveled back to their home after that visit across two states, I worried for them. This too was new for me.
Now For The Main Story:
About a year later, after my black sister and her husband traveled to my place to celebrate holidays, I was driving along a rural stretch of a highway in West Texas in a small hatchback loaded with my wife, lots of luggage, and our cat. I, like anyone (I think), feel a sense of vulnerability about getting in a car and driving out of town. Not a lot of fear, exactly, but I do take precautions purposely. I check fluids, pressures, and lights on the car; I prepare funding with the bank (in times past this involved using traveler’s checks), I call ahead and make reservations and check in with family and friends periodically about my current location as we move along. Normally none of these precautions rise to the level of fear, but they are a standard feature of nearly all adventures.
These concerns rarely rise to the level of fear, but if there is car trouble along the way, THEN sometimes it does. However, on this particular occasion, as I came around a bend in the road, I could plainly see up in the distance a car broke down on the shoulder with the hood up and a black man walking around it. I immediately thought about my sister and her husband traveling; I immediately thought about how vulnerable that driver (and his passengers) were; I immediately recognized that racial injustice could easily be a major feature of this man’s struggle – an added feature I never had to deal with before.
Suddenly I felt a responsibility to stop and help.
This put me in a new place of vulnerability. No cell phones (in those days), no safety net. I told my young bride what I was going to do, to gather her cat in her arms and not let it jump out. That I would pull over several yards ahead, past the stranded motorist, and if she saw any monkey business to hop over in the driver’s seat and lead foot it to the next town for help. Meanwhile I would see if I could help.
As I walked back to the stranger and his broke-down car, I saw two white women emerge. It appeared his car was overheated. Fortunately, after living in Arizona for several years, I made it my practice to carry a jug of emergency water in the car with me. I could offer that and see if it would get them rolling again.
I was eager to help. I could only imagine all the people who would drive past and not stop. I could only imagine all the people who might slight this man or do him harm because of his race and vulnerability, and I could head all that off. Hopefully, this would be easy.
I was proud of myself too. I was facing my fears. I was sacrificing my well-being and my family. I was the ONE who stepped up when it counted. I was part of the change I wanted to see in the world.
I greeted the man. He seemed nice. We looked at the car and talked about it a few minutes. He claimed it had a leak and would need either a tow or a fix before he could drive it. My gallon of spare water would not be enough.
Hmmm… That stinx (I thought).
He had an idea. Could I give him a lift to the next town, help him find a mechanic there, AND bring him back out to the car while the women with him waited there. He was quite articulate and purposeful with this request. No guessing what he wanted or meant. But it felt like a lot more than I was prepared to offer.
I actually entertained the idea as he stated his need. But of course I had to process it. I had a wife and a cat in the car. What if this man has ill intentions? He could overpower us. Even if not, I have to face my in-laws with this story later, and they surely will scrutinize me on exactly that thought.
I thought of how we might have to put luggage out of the car to make room for him, and certainly that cat would not take kindly to him (I knew it’s temperament).
But the straw that proved extra heavy to me was the part about getting him to the next town, I did not know how far it was, and stopping there to help him find a mechanic AND then bring him back too. The timing on all of this was just excessive, it seemed to me. I had an agenda, an itinerary, to keep. What if I gave him a ride to the next phone?
Shouldn’t that be enough???
I waffled as we talked about the options, and finally I landed on that idea. How far is it to the next town? I asked the man, but neither of us knew. I pondered aloud how long this would delay me to do all of that and suggested I get him to the next phone and let him take it from there.
Suddenly the man’s demeanor changed.
To be honest, I was not so closed minded that I couldn’t discuss it further, but he became angry as he rebutted me. He also questioned if a black man would find a mechanic or tow service AND get a ride back out to the broke down car. I could see his point. That was all in jeopardy, alright, but now he was fuming with anger as he said this. I certainly did not have room in my car for that.
I tried to calm him down, but whatever words or phrases I used in that moment did not sit well. I do not recall this long now what I said, but I am sure it was something LIKE: Let’s just calm down and talk about this.
He did not.
He shouted at me, “What good are you to me then?”
I caved then. I walked away. All those extra paces back to my car which I had put between us as a precaution to give my wife a few extra moments to jump in the driver’s seat and speed away if I was ambushed. But now I endured this man’s painful, shrill questions and laments every step of the way back. I still hear the refrain burned into my memory more than twenty-five years later.
“What good are you to me then?”
My good deed for the day totally collapsed.
I drove away defeated. I had not helped at all. I actually just aggravated the man and his situation instead. I would have done better to just pass him by at 70 miles an hour! And no sooner did I get around the next bend in the road and there was a sign informing us we were only ten minutes drive from the next town, a town with a mechanic! If I had known that two minutes earlier….
I never saw that black man again. But that exchange stayed with me, and still does, for many years afterward. Over the years, that stretch of road has proven to be a path I traverse at least a couple times a year. I always remember that man as I pass by there even now. I think of my failure. I wonder about him.
I can only imagine how the man resolved his problem. Almost certainly, someone proved to be better help than I was, for I never heard any headlines about a black man murdered there. Thus he found some way off that stretch of highway, though I am sure it was painful and more than a little scary for him.
I had failed. What should I have done? What did I owe that man? Why could he not have been more reasonable with me? Was I the first to offer help? Was I the last?
What could I have done differently? At what point did my responsibility begin and end? What responsibility did he have toward me? Are these fair questions???
Over the years since, I have decided that I need to be more purposeful about helping others. Offering myself to help should be the priority, not just incidental. I am not saying I will just throw caution to the wind, but I will make these divine appointments the priority over my itinerary. To the extent my offer of help to others puts my passengers at risk, I will not stop when I have small children or pregnant women in my car. (Of course cell phones have dramatically changed such scenarios in the years since.) But I will not pass a stranded motorist if I plainly see children or pregnant women associated with them either. I will be happy to put my own skin in the game. I will find a way to get help or give it myself.
But I will not seek the convenient solution. Jesus sets a different standard. I should not put my kids lives in jeopardy, but my own is a no brainer. The Good Samaritan would not only stop to help a man from a dreaded race, but he would take him to the next town AND pay the bill for his recovery. He would be inconvenienced with both time and money. He would risk his own life to help. That is an entirely other priority.
Do I think that black man COULD have treated me better and possibly gotten a better deal out of me?
I like to think so. But it is easy to armchair quarterback that game after the fact for one thing, and for another, I have come to see that whole worldviews collided out there on that road that day. His burden went far beyond a broke down car. He had a lot more at risk than me. I had a LOT more to offer than I was willing to consider. And especially given the whole history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racist injustice stretching back more than 400 years (involving this continent), it’s not my place to straighten him out so that he can receive my help. It is me, assuming I want to be the change I wish to see in the world, who needs to GIVE MORE time, money, and patience to the exchanges I have with strangers who are black.
I feel sure he has a responsibility to receive me graciously, but I cannot convict him for that. I must leave that to the Holy Spirit, for certainly as a white man, I am not in the position to demand that. On the other hand, I have a long way to go before I have presented Jesus to him. If he rejects the LOVE of Jesus, that will be on him, but if I fail to show him Jesus, that is on me, and that puts enough on my plate to worry about without dictating to him his part.
I am working on it.
And this story plays a part in it.
Now For YOUR Feedback
I want to hear from you. I would especially appreciate if you identify yourself as black, white, brown or other, and then consider what I did right or wrong, how I might improve this story if I could live it again. Do you have similar stories? What do you think? What do you feel? I am open to critique here.
Is there more I have yet to learn from this story? What do you think?
If I can make the world a better place by telling this, and if you can help me with your feedback, then let’s do this!