by Ben White
*Reprinted from the Summer 2015 edition of Shalom!
I’M A PASTOR in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing” – and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out atco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish-speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean-cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.
I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between my fellow Taco Bell customers and me? What would it take to bring us together in one body?
There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation. These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than I am; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably; that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.
Of course this was all speculation – an exercise in missionary imagination. I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”
I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read, a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.
“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them,” one said,
Well, that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.
“Wow, thanks! Yes!”
Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.” He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.
What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.
There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and suddenly I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!
I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”
After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism?” I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”
Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?
It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos.
We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are farther and farther apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.
But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. This generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.
Ben White is pastor of the Marlton Pike site of the Circle of Hope.Network of Brethren in Christ churches in Philadelphia, PA.