I do not usually live life on the edge. I’m not interested in sky diving or wrestling an alligator. I don’t like to stare into the face of death; I prefer to keep my eyes tightly shut.
Except for one weird thing.
It started one cold morning in my early 20s when I was on my way to work. A young woman flagged my car down. I stopped and rolled down my window. She explained that her daughter had forgotten her ID at a friend’s house, just down the street. She needed a ride there and back.
I, being the young starry-eyed West Texan living her first year in The Big City, thought, “What the hey?! My passenger seat is empty!” So she climbed in my car and we headed off “just down the street”. Thirty minutes later, we arrived at our destination- a rundown apartment building in a maze of other rundown apartment buildings. By this time, I had a sneaky suspicion that Tina didn’t need her daughter’s ID. She disappeared into an upstairs apartment. I locked my doors and waited. I gave Alex a call. He was sleeping because he was working nights at the chip factory so he woke up to a voicemail that sounded like this:
“Hi Alex. Just wanted to let you know…I accidentally picked up a stranger and drove her to an apartment complex. Her name is Tina. She’s wearing a pink shirt and purple pants. Here’s the general area where we are right now. You know, just in case you don’t hear from me again. Love you!”
Tina took much longer in the apartment than finding a student ID (for her elementary school daughter…), but she finally emerged from the apartment and we started the long drive back to her apartment. On the way she “got” a “phone call” from her “sister” who told her that Tina’s “boyfriend” had been “cheating on her”, Tina started “crying” because she had “nowhere to go”.
“If only I had fifty dollars, I could stay in a motel with my kids tonight,” she wailed.
The sun had now risen on my starry eyes and I had an inkling of what was going on here. I handed Tina a few dollars for her daughter (who now I’m not sure really existed) and told her good luck.
With morning traffic, I was a full hour late to work and I spent the hour thinking about how to explain to my boss why, exactly, I was late.
After that, there was the woman who approached me at the library and wanted a ride to the bus station. I hemmed and hawed until she exasperatedly said, “I’m not a serial killer!” as if that would convince me. I thought a second longer and then said, “OKAY!” Her airtight logic persuaded me. Indeed, she was not a serial killer, at least not a serial killer of me. Here I am today, still kickin’.
There were the two separate men I picked up at bus stops because it was raining and I felt bad for them. One of them was an international college student from China who was doing his grocery shopping. The other had just completed a job interview at a grocery store and spent the entire car ride talking about how he wanted plastic surgery to make his nose look “less black”, which made me sad. I think we were both trying to convince each other that we were safe.
For a time, I had reasonably thought that only picking up women would be safe. Women aren’t going to do anything to me. They might be weird and make me uncomfortable with fake calls from fake sisters about fake cheating boyfriends so that I would give them money, but at least they wouldn’t stab me…
And then, I got enamored with watching prison documentaries and some of the women in the women’s prisons were like, “She said she didn’t like my hair SO I STABBED THAT BITCH IN THE EYE WITH THE WAND OF MY MASCARA” and I had to revisit my reasoning about women being safer just because they’re women.
I just can’t help it. Sometimes, I just feel compelled to say, “YES!” I don’t give everyone who asks a ride, but there are moments where I just feel it in my gut that I need to take a chance on this downtrodden stranger in front of me. My dad and Alex hate that I do this, but Alex, at least, has resigned himself to the fact that sometimes I’m going to do the irrational thing of inviting a stranger into my car.
Well…I had a meeting in downtown Dallas last week with the community organizing group that I volunteer with. It was supposed to be an awesome Jericho Walk around the jail, a symbolic representation that we were going tear those walls of mass incarceration of Black, brown, and poor people down and set the captives free. The stupid Dallas weather didn’t cooperate so they had to move the event to the basement of a hotel in downtown. It was raining and cold and the event started at 6, which basically guarantees that you’ll be sitting in traffic until you want to jab a rusty spoon in your ear.
I was already running very, very late. I refused to pay $20 for the hotel parking so I drove around and around the downtown area looking for parking. Finally, I spotted a metered spot on the street. As I turned around the corner, at least 10 street cops descended on a truck that was handing out food to homeless people, right in front of the spot where I wanted to park. I parked and watched the truck pulled around into a parking lot and continue handing out food.
As I got out of the car, the cops started manhandling one of the homeless men, causing him to drop his food on the ground. He was non-threatening, peaceful, and they were screaming at him to drop what he was holding and take his hands out of his pockets. Mind you, it was raining and very cold. My heart started to clench as I watched this unfold. In hindsight, I should have said something. I should have taken out my phone. I should have moved closer or indicated in some way that I was watching, but I was frozen in place.
That situation died down as quickly as it started (because the man was completely compliant). I looked at the meter and saw I had to download an app to pay for the parking. Sighing, I opened my phone and started looking through the app store. I started the download and then heard a very quiet “Hello” immediately to my left.
I jumped and looked up into the eyes of a Black man carrying a bag of food from the truck with a blanket over his head. He had kind eyes.
I said hello and we started chatting a little. He asked me what I was doing in downtown. He asked me my name. He complimented my jacket. He asked me what I was doing in downtown again. I asked his name. He said it was Dwayne**. By the time I had downloaded my app and paid for my parking, the truck was gone and the police had regrouped over by a bus station. They were eyeing Dwayne and me.
I made a split-second decision.
“Dwayne, do you want to come to this event with me? There might be food. At the very least, you can get out of the rain for a little bit.” While I wasn’t consciously thinking this at the time, Dwayne is exactly the person that we try to center in our ending mass incarceration work- he was poor and Black and likely had mental health issues. If he had been picked up by the police, there’s a good chance he would have stayed in jail longer than he needed to because he couldn’t afford bail money to get out.
He agreed. I grabbed a reusable bag out of my car for his belongings and we started our brisk walk toward the hotel. We walked past the police officers and I was aware that, for the moment, Dwayne was safe under the umbrella of my privilege.
Walking through the dark bus terminal, along a dark downtown city street with a homeless man I don’t know at all probably isn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made but we kept up the conversation. Dwayne explained that he was a veteran. He showed me his homeless shelter ID, the only ID he currently has. He muttered repeatedly about how “they stole my laptop and phone”. He told me he went to the State Fair and then couldn’t tell me anything he had done at the State Fair.
When we got into the lobby of the hotel, I was keenly aware that Dwayne would not have been allowed inside the building were he not walking with a white woman who looked like she meant business. He followed me dutifully to the front desk so I could ask for directions and then we took the elevator down to the basement.
Dwayne checked in and I got him settled in a chair near the back with a plate of chips and salsa, an apple, and a cup of coffee. He seemed content to sit and eat so I told him I was going to go talk to some other people.
When we arrived, the event was already well underway. A woman who had been in the Dallas county jail was sharing her story. It was compelling, to be sure. I had located my friend, La’Tonya, and was seated next to her, chatting quietly. Another friend came up and whispered, “Um, Beth. Do you want to take care of your friend?” I was momentarily confused, thinking he meant La’Tonya, and then he pointed to the front where the formerly incarcerated woman was still speaking.
Dwayne had wandered up to the front and was standing two feet from her, staring intently, his blanket over his head.
I rushed up to the front and gently escorted Dwayne off to the side, asking him if he needed anything. He said he couldn’t hear. We rectified the problem by finding him a seat on the first row. I brought him his coffee and his apple and he seemed settled again.
I stepped to the back and took a breath. My face was flushed with embarrassment that my guest had interrupted the event, but I figured he would be fine for the rest of the evening. I texted my long-suffering husband who only asked if I had let Dwayne in my car and then went back to eating popcorn and watching Monk.
Dwayne was fine, until the African drummers came out. He genuinely enjoyed the music, rocking back and forth in his seat, until he leaped out of his chair and started dancing with the woman wearing their native dress. His blanket twirled around him, his arms and legs moved to the music. He looked free. He was certainly not bothered by the realization that he was the only one dancing.
After a few seconds, a staff member gently guided him to his seat and asked him to not stand up again.
I took a seat next to Dwayne and we listened to the next speaker, an undocumented man who had been held on the request of ICE in the Dallas County jail and was treated horribly. Dwayne got really into his story and started to cry out in agreement. It wasn’t unlike what I’ve experienced in Black churches, but it was disruptive as he was the only one doing it. I had only given him some coffee and apple and some Tex Mex appetizers, but it seemed like he was getting more and more agitated. I quickly glanced around at the inquisitive looks (directed at me) and made another split-second decision, this one I’m not so proud of.
I asked my friend Zach to come with me. I leaned over to Dwayne. “I have to leave. Come on! I want to give you something.” Zach, Dwayne and I made our way out of the room and back onto the elevator. We chatted in the elevator, wound our way back through the lobby and made it to the double doors. I shook Dwayne’s hand and chirped, “Well, Dwayne. Thanks for coming to the event! I’m glad you made it. Here’s some money for you!” He looked briefly confused, pulled his blanket back over his head, and then turned and walked off into the cold, dark night.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Zach and I returned to the event, which was wrapping up. I joked a little about the evening, but I was left with a lingering feeling that I had done something wrong.
I had, of course. Anti-racism work is all about learning to center marginalized people. Dwayne, who stands at the intersection of racism, classism, and ableism, is a marginalized person, one of the people we’re supposed to be fighting for. But when I let inquisitive looks push me into escorting Dwayne out of the room, I was centering the comfort of the other people in the room (myself included) over Dwayne. Most, if not all, of us in that room were going to leave that hotel basement and go directly to our warm cars and drive directly to our warm houses. While Dwayne was unencumbered by social norms, he was not dangerous. Yet, I chose to our comfort, my comfort, over his getting to sit just a little while longer in a warm, dry room.
After a week or two of reflection, I’ve been ruminating on the parable Jesus tells of the Great Feast. You know the one:
“For there was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’
“Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’
“Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’
“And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’
“The servant went back and told the master what had happened. He was outraged and told the servant, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’
“The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’
“The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”
This parable is sandwiched in between a promise and a warning. Just prior to this parable, Jesus had explained that we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He promises that, while they can’t repay us, we will be repaid at the “resurrection of the righteous”. Yay! Rewards are fun, right!
But then, right after the parable, Jesus warns about the cost of being a disciple, including the infamous verse about hating your mother and father and this fun little passage:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.”
That passage feels like a zinger. I had not counted the full cost of inviting Dwayne to this event. I didn’t see it all the way through like I should have. My tower was left unfinished.
Feel free to ridicule me.
Part of the problem was that I had always pictured my “Great Banquet” as a simple swapping of people in coat and tails with people who might smell a little and have a shopping cart in tow. Like, maybe you want to open a window to get some airflow, but the string quartet is still playing, you still hear the gentle clinking of silverware on fine china, and the guests quietly enjoy themselves.
But what if that’s not it? What if you go out to the countryside and the dark alleys and the parking meter near the bus station and you invite these people? What if, instead of eating their plate of chips and salsa and hot coffee quietly near the back, like they’re “supposed” to, they go stand in the middle of the string quartet or they dance around the room with a dance partner who’s not there? What if they scream or rock back and forth or take your silver forks or put ketchup on the caviar? What if they make the few “typical” guests that managed to come feel uncomfortable? What if they fake a phone call and hit you up for money? What if they prefer to lay on the floor or stand in the corner?
As a white person raised in white evangelicalism, I always pictured this story with me as the hero, the woman who opened her home to the less fortunate, quietly, humbly (HA!) presiding over the marginalized people who were lucky enough to grace my table. I always thought that it was simply the act of inviting the poor into your home that was the key to the reward.
But, now I don’t think that’s it. Dwayne helped me understand.
Perhaps the parable is less “Privileged person plays savior to marginalized people and God rewards them” and more “Marginalized people teach a privileged person about the kingdom of heaven by challenging her need for comfort and control”.
Perhaps the reward is learning to ignore the discomfort of the privileged people around me and seeing the evening through Dwayne’s eyes- an evening of food and warmth and stories that he can relate to and African drummers that make him want to get out of his chair and respond with his body.
Maybe that’s where the kingdom of heaven is- not in my ability to control the people around me, not in trying to look like a hero, but in my willingness to let God and people move like they need to.
Maybe this parable isn’t about powerful people being gracious hosts. Maybe this is about powerful people learning to give up their power and their insatiable need to control because that’s the only way we can experience heaven on earth.
While I might have been stupidly clueless in picturing myself as the heroine of The Great Banquet, Jesus knew exactly what he was asking of the people around me.
Jesus knew that inviting chaos into our perfectly controlled environments is what the privileged need to confront their twin idols of control and comfort.
Dwayne taught me this.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
**name changed for his privacy