She was pushing a broom, picking up litter left by inconsiderate customers.
I’m sorry if I’m in your way, she said.
Not at all, I replied, scooting my chair to make room for her.
I read her name tag and thought it said Stacey, so I called her that.
It wasn’t her name but close.
I’m a trainee, she confessed. This is only my fourth day on the job.
Where’d you come from?I asked.
Charleston by way of Austin, she said.
Oh! Are you in college here? Columbus State University draws a lot of students from all over.
No, she said. My husband got a job here.
How do you like it so far?
It’s the hardest place I’ve ever lived, she said, somewhat embarrassed to admit it.
I wasn’t surprised. Columbus is that place of juxtapositions that Barry Hannah used to talk about. Old money. New money. Staunch Republicans in a Blue Dot City. Rich people. Poor people. Both black and white, but with an undeniable and long history of a racial divide.
I have never lived anywhere that is so openly racist and homophobic, she added.
She needn’t have had to explain it to me. I grew up here. I know exactly what she’s talking about. Misguided but seemingly good people often quote the Bible to justify their views on Blacks, on Gays, on Women. People they believe deserve to be oppressed.
Consider that the goal of most religious folks is to gain entrance into a gated community. To live behind bars protected from “those” who weren’t worthy enough to be granted entrance. Imagine living your whole life in hopes of passing muster enough to spend eternity behind locked gates in a community that is modeled after Trump Towers, gaudy gold and cold marble.
Yeah. No thanks.
That’s why I took a job here, she said. It’s a place known nationwide for progressive attitude. Even so, just an hour ago, I heard several co-workers mocking another co-worker here because he’s autistic. They were making fun of him without any thought. And my night job is at a restaurant and these guys started making all these homophobic comments. I told them if they didn’t stop I wouldn’t serve them.
Good for you! I said. We all have to stand up the way you did.
I don’t care if I lose my job, she said. My one brother is gay and married. My other brother is an Atheist and is with a Jew. I married a Palestinian but I don’t tell people here that. I just say he’s Arab because if I said he was Palestinian, people would freak out.
Her father is a full-blown Evangelical Trumper. His blood runs MAGA. Not surprisingly she and her brothers have a rocky relationship with him. When she followed her husband to the Middle East her dad told everyone she had joined ISIS.
Now that they are back in the states, he likes her husband. Still, he makes racist statements they feel compelled to overlook out of their love for him.
He’s my dad, you know.
I know, I said, although I’ve cut ties with most everyone who is a full-blown MAGA myself. I am simply unable to maintain relationships with those who embrace such a worldview.
I grew up in Charleston, she said. It’s racist too, but not as openly so as it is here. People take more steps to hide it there. And Austin, well, that was great. Everyone there was so accepting of others.
Years ago I read Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz and that image of pulling people into the boat has stayed with me, has helped transform the way I think we as a people ought to act toward one another.
There was a time in my life when I wanted to push people overboard. Now, I just want to hold out a hand and pull them aboard. My own mother sat beside me on the steps of our home here in Columbus the day I graduated from Columbus High and told me that she was drowning after Dad died, and in that sea of despair she reached for whatever floated past her. A drowning person will grab hold of a lot of shit, she said.
And she did.
It was her way of apologizing for the wrongs she had done without actually using the word wrong. Perhaps because when you are in the midst of such despair anything that pushes you along and toward a better life isn’t wrong.
She’s only 22, this girl standing before me pushing a broom. She’s troubled by the people she’s met in my hometown.
Trump has emboldened the racist, the misogynistic, the religious zealots, I said. But there are plenty of good people here in Columbus. People who won’t push you overboard. People who will pull you onto the boat.
Go downtown. Check out the Springer Theater. Get to know those people. This is a blue dot city in a red state. She didn’t believe me when I said that so I repeated it. Honestly, it is.
It’s refreshing to talk to you, she said. You’ve given me hope.
Paying attention matters.
Being kind matters.
I learned all of that right here in this community that helped raise me. A community I love but one with a long & blighted history of bigotry. My high school, after all, was known as Blue Jew High.
The two sermons I’ve heard over the past 24 hours have repeated the same message: Be a hopeful people. Pray without ceasing.
I am praying for my new friend whose name isn’t Stacey. Praying she finds community here in this place that helped raise me.
The truth is people are drowning all around us. If we don’t reach out and offer to help them onto the boat, they might grasp for something that will only take them under.
Do you see them?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of The Murder Gene, available wherever fine books are sold.