A few weeks ago, the church I’ve been attending here in Edmonton co-hosted a church picnic. Being a student, I couldn’t afford much in the way of food but I did have a vehicle I could bring to assist transporting people to the picnic grounds.
Wouldn’t you know it: there was a new woman there that morning who wanted a ride.
Here name was Jan* and she was from one of the southern states. Jan was camping across Canada for our “Canada 150” celebrations. Since the national parks are offering free admission to everyone, she thought it would be a great idea to take the time to explore our nation.
It also meant that I got to know things about Jan I wish I hadn’t.
Years ago, when I was in a particularly dark night with God — around the church, around humanitarian issues, around deep questions of identity, life, and purpose — there walked in a pastor who opened a door of light. He and his wife held what seemed like endless space for me as I processed black vitriol being vomited up again and again and again. There was gentleness, kindness, patience, and love.
There was generous space.
Never once did I sense that Calvin had his back against the wall. I could spew out anger, hurt, pain, rejection, and question after questions after question after question. If I ever did offend him, he never seemed to show it. Lori mainly showed me how to laugh at myself a little bit more — something that hasn’t come easily for me.
Since that time, I have aimed to become a pastor that emulates such people. I want to be a person that holds generous space for all kids of people, even if we disagree. I want the space to be so safe and so true, that even the most disagreeable person will be able to be fully themselves no matter what. Truth and love in a mystical dance together.
However, this is probably where I made a major erroneous assumption with Jane.
As Jane talked about feeling called to seminary but feeling too old to begin anew, about God’s purpose for her life, or about how she, as a Jewish person raised in a largely Lutheran community, experienced anti-Semitism from a young age, I assumed she needed generous space. I assumed she needed no judgements from me. I assumed she needed some care.
I assumed wrong.
As the surface discussions around seminary eroded away, she began making statements about how hurt she was that we, as Canadians, hated Americans.
We hate Americans?
I began to feel the world become a little fuzzy.
She started making claims that the hatred from Canada was felt by “her people”, and she couldn’t understand why. She didn’t understand why Canada would possibly be upset at being made the “buffer nation” during the Cold War (a war between America and Russia with Canada caught in the middle). And she didn’t understand why we would accept cowards from the Vietnam draft, or be upset at being called socialists or communists.
I suddenly didn’t understand why she was camping across our country.
As the talk progressed — or digressed — she began poking at the stance on biblicism at my seminary. She asked: “Do you folks preach and teach the Word of God?”
I hung my head. I knew where this was going.
Her jaw dropped when I referenced God in the feminine, and demanded I show her where in the Bible God was ever a woman. I wasn’t spoiling for a fight. However I wanted to guide the conversation towards usefulness, so I suggested she start with re-reading Proverbs and to dig into the image of Lady Wisdom a bit. This gave Jan a genuine pause for thought, but whether it was thought over what I had said or thought towards how to keep sapping at me, I can’t say. For the conversation then turned back to how Canadians hate Americans.
I tried explaining how Canada is engaging in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the first peoples of Turtle Island. We are far from being reconciled, but interracial dialogue and the dismantling of white privilege were important life choices for me and —
(Jan interrupted) — “Hey girl, I’m a Jew. I know far more about oppression than you ever will. Don’t talk to me about white privilege.”
Jan went to talk about how her parents had sent her to a Lutheran school because it had the better education system. Being the only Jew (or so she claimed at the time), she said that she was told repeatedly that if the Holocaust were to ever happen again, Lutherans would hold to Luther’s teachings and make sure the Jews were eliminated.
Powerful. (true or not)
At the time, while I was way past the point of comfort, I still didn’t really have a good reason to blow her off. I heard deep spiritual pain and trauma from her, and whether I liked her other views or not, I perceived she needed what I had years ago: ears willing to hear all that darkness fuelling Jan’s life. So I stayed put. The two of us carried on.
I mentioned that I hadn’t been a Lutheran for very long, but I was given to understand that the majority of Lutherans denounce anti-Semitism to the core. Many groups are involved in reconciling with POC and LGBTQ+ groups, and especially in Canada our indigenous brothers and sisters.
“You know what, sister? You’ve been fed propaganda and you’ve fallen for it. Those blacks and Indians? They’re doing all of that violence to themselves and each other. And no one talks about what they’re doing to us. They’re LYING TO YOU.” [emphasis added to highlight Jan’s sudden increase in vocal tone]
The blacks and the Indians…what?
My friends, both north and south of the border, are…what?
“Those Mexicans you have a bleeding heart for? They’re lying to you, honey. They’ll tell you anything to sap off your country and then disappear into your nation, taking all of your resources. Our immigration guards? They don’t shoot people like they tell you! They bring people in, try and understand their situation, and then get a horrible rap in the media.”
My Lantinx friends are…lying to me?
“We’ve tried making peace with black people, but look at it all. They’re doing it. They’re making it happen. The Indians just keep attacking each other like they’ve done since before we white folks came. Sure we did damage, but it was the same old damage the Indians did to each other. Ain’t our fault.”
Hold up now!
I interjected. I reasoned. I was firm. I refused to get mean, but it seemed like this woman was spoiling for a fight!
And it didn’t stop. She talked about teaching English as a Second Language in Vietnam (but only as a front so she could sneak in Bibles and teach Christianity). I challenged her on it because she didn’t understand why the local people were upset with her, or why she had no power to change the poverty she saw.
I finally found my words, which were woefully lacking in the shock I was experiencing, and challenged her:
“Maybe it’s because you’re an American trying to convert people in a country you bombed the hell out of four decades ago.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with the war.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re still colonizing. You’re still the oppressor. You’re still trying to tell a people your country demolished that their way of life and their beliefs are WRONG and that you are RIGHT.”
“What’s that got to do with it? I’m only speaking the words of Jesus Christ. Everyone needs them. I never bombed anyone. I never hurt anyone. If fact, I’M the one who got hurt as a kid!”
She claimed that she hated Donald Trump.
She continuously repeated “I’m all for ‘love thy neighbour’.
She expressed desire to be open to the ways of Jesus.
Yes, she reflected a conservatism that I was intimately familiar with and have long ago left.
Yes, she made some confusing statements about Canadians and Americans.
Yes, she was a Seinfeld “Close Talker” extrovert that was draining a lot of my energy.
…a full on bigot?
Even after ‘love thy neighbour’?
There it was.
Bright as the sun…
…the sun! Oh shit.
In one burning moment of pain, Jan pointed out after three hours of “generous space” I was turning a little bit red. I looked at my legs and arms: I was turning a lot red. In my eager desire to be a safe person, to listen without judgement, and to hold space, I had neglected to re-apply sunscreen and had given space for hate.
As Jan pointed towards my inflamed skin, a Godsend of a woman came by offering popsicles to people. As deep and intense as my conversation was with Jan, all it took to veer Jan off topic was the offer of a cherry popsicle. I was able to reorient myself and be truthful about another engagement I needed to attend to.
Thus I gave her a ride back to the church. It was only then that I discovered that she had a car all along. Why she needed a ride in the first place, I can’t say. I drove away in searing pain, both in body and spirit.
I wanted to express love to this woman and to hold space.
Well I certainly held space. But I totally misread her needs.
Jan was spoiling for a fight. She wanted me to engage in conflict. And while I didn’t realize her need in the moment, I had already decided going in that I wouldn’t be baited by her stuff. I was going to hold space.
And I burned in hell for it.
After debriefing with the pastors at Trinity, I realized my error: it’s a good thing to want to create space for everyone — even with people we don’t agree with. During a time of polarized rhetoric and public outrage (both of which I’ve been guilty of from time to time), safe and generous space is desperately needed.
However, I do need to learn some better boundaries in terms of shutting conversations down when they need to be. Jan needed to be shut down. I gave her all of my time, stood my ground, but I did not fight. Still, her word were lies and certainly racist and disgusting. She needed to be asked to leave the picnic about forty minutes into the conversation. The pastors did thank me for keeping her attention, though, and away from the children. Bigot or not, her processing did not sound…sound.
I’ll likely never hear from Jan again, which is 100% okay by me. And I highly doubt now that she really was interested in the seminary, which is also 100% okay by me because with those views she wouldn’t make it past the recruitment process.
However, I have learned to always reapply protection. Know the need going in before engaging, and assess accurately as I go along. As sacred as holding space is during a time of hatred, my friends of colour deserve a louder and quicker voice on the uptake when a loudmouth gains my full and personal attention.
If I keep playing gentle and nice all of the time, I get burned.