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Rev. Peter M. Wallace Headshot

Putting My Anti-Racism Training to Work: An Unexpected Encounter

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After you spend time and energy trying to learn something, sometimes God gives you an opportunity to put it into practice, ready or not. And that's a good thing because it compels us to live what we've learned. For me, it happened the moment I walked out the door after an anti-racism training workshop.

As part of my involvement in The Episcopal Church, I recently spent a day at the workshop at Atlanta's Cathedral of St. Philip. The leaders had structured the information around a model of spiritual formation, so we participants began the day with the Eucharist, coming together around the bread and wine that inhabits the heart of our faith.

In groups small and large throughout the day we grappled with the issues. I found myself overwhelmed by how much institutional racism -- and personal racism -- we still need to overcome even in our churches. I became aware of the phenomena of internalized oppression and white privilege, and caught a glimpse of how we can build transformed churches where anyone is welcome and embraced no matter who they might be.

It was a humbling time. I'm a white male who considers himself a strong proponent of diversity and equality by any measure, but my eyes were opened to see things differently, perhaps in ways others with a different skin color might see them.

After the daylong session, I stopped by the Cathedral bookstore intending to purchase a smart leather-bound copy of the Book of Common Prayer and the Church Hymnal, even though it was $100, assuming I'll need it some day soon. I turned to take it to the cashier, but then returned it to the shelf. Nah, I'll get it later, I told myself.

I walked out the Cathedral door to return to my car and go home, and nearly ran into a tall, rather large African-American man who was pacing and muttering to himself, "God help me get through this! God help me... help me get through this!" Automatically I said "Amen!" as I walked by him, heading for my car in the parking lot. Now wasn't that a nice thing to do? Solidarity, man.

But he said, "Can I ask you a question?" Uh oh, here it comes. He's going to ask me for something. I looked him over. He was dressed casually and had a satchel over his shoulder and a cell phone in his hand along with some folded sheets of paper. "Sure," I said, walking back to him.

Pointing to a piece of paper printed from a church website, he asked if this was that church. "Oh no, this is the Cathedral of St. Philip. The church you want is all the way downtown, about five miles from here."

He glanced at his watch: It was 4:00. "Oh man! The bus driver told me to get off here! He must have mixed up the churches! Do you think I can get to this church before 4:30?" he asked, pointing to the paper in his hand.

"Sure, traffic's not bad yet, you should get there by then," I explained, helpfully.

"But I'm walking." His distress grew.

"Oh," I said, realizing I was getting into something serious here. What do I do? I muttered, "Well, I'm heading that way, I'll drive you there."

He looked at me with surprise on his face. "You will? Oh, that would be so great!"

As we walked toward my car introducing ourselves to each other, I noticed he was limping. While I drove out of the parking lot and headed south down Peachtree Road, he began telling me his story. I'll call him Randall.

Amidst laughter and tears, Randall shared his plight with me. He had to get to the church's homeless ministry before they closed at 4:30. He had already walked a number of blocks from his brand new job to catch a particular bus that would take him to the downtown church. But the bus driver had mistakenly told him to get off at the wrong church -- five miles away.

"Let me show you what my problem is," he said, removing his shoe to show me a right foot that was half gone. "For 17 years I had a landscaping business in Chattanooga, and I wasn't rich but I got by, doing lawns for a lot of different folks," he said. "One day I was mowing on the side of a hill, and I slipped and before I knew it my foot had gotten tied up in my mower blade. They had to cut it off right across there."

That was eight months ago. Randall lost his business, had no family. His mother had died a few years ago. "I know she's up in heaven right now telling God to bless you for doing this!" he laughed. I brushed it off.

For the past several months Randall had been involved in a rehabilitation program that was designed to help people get back on their feet with job training and temporary housing. They helped Randall find a job on the loading dock of a nearby mall, where he scans incoming deliveries. He was excited about his job. He had just completed the training and this had been his first day on the job.

But his employers realized Randall would be relying on friends to drop him off at work every morning at 6:30. That wouldn't do. He would have to show proof that he had reliable transportation, or he'd lose the job he'd just gotten.

Panicking, he had called the rehabilitation organization. They put him in touch with one church and then another, searching for a ministry that could give him a voucher for a MARTA transit card, good for unlimited use on the Metro Atlanta bus and train system for 30 days. If he could produce that, his employer had said, they'd keep him on. Randall had to have it by 6:30 the next morning, or else.

A woman at the homeless ministry he'd been referred to told him on the phone that, yes, they had one last voucher for a monthly transit card, and they'd be happy to help him as long as he got there by 4:30 when they closed. Once he had proof of his transportation with the monthly transit card, and kept going in his job, he'd soon be able to start paying for his apartment, food, and so forth. The pay was pretty good, and he was excited and grateful. But... he had to get this transit card. I was the only way he could get there in time, and Randall was so happy about that.

As we drove down Peachtree Road to Peachtree Street he continued his story. He had been trying so hard to make it work these past months. He was grateful for the training program and the support they'd given him, but he'd made no money yet and wouldn't get paid for another couple weeks -- assuming he was able to keep the job.

"God has helped me through this whole process, but why did he let that bus driver tell me to get off five miles away from where I needed to be?" he asked. I said, well, who knows. Maybe God wanted you to bless me. He laughed.

His plan was to pick up the voucher at the downtown church, then head to the MARTA station to buy the card. Then he could take the train back to his apartment and prepare for the next day's work. Thank God, it was all working out -- thanks to my willingness to take him to the church.

We pulled into the church parking lot. It was 4:20, so he had plenty of time. I could've driven off then, good deed done, but something nagged at me. I walked with him into the reception area, passing a man cutting plywood just outside the church door, and we approached the receptionist, who looked at my white face and his black face and didn't seem to know what to say. Randall explained that he had an appointment with the homeless ministry. The woman said, "Oh, I think they're already gone for the day." Randall inhaled sharply. She called several extensions. No one answered.

Randall said, "Well, they said they'd be there till 4:30, and they have a MARTA voucher for me that I have to get." The woman said he could go see for himself at the office downstairs, but he couldn't go through the church. We'd have to go out and walk up the street and around the block to the back entrance to see if anyone was still there.

We walked out, passing the man cutting the plywood who was, it turned out, the church's facilities manager. He asked what was up and we told him. He said, "Naw, you don't have to walk around the block, come on, I'll take you down there." We followed him down steps and around halls to the homeless ministry's offices -- but sure enough, it was locked up. Nobody there. The man led us back up and out of the church, apologizing for the situation he had nothing to do with.

We walked back to my car. Randall was upset, to say the least. Why would God have me drive him to this place on time, and they be closed? Why would they tell him they had his voucher and to get here by 4:30 to get it, but left anyway? How would he be able to get a monthly transit card before 6:30 tomorrow morning? What would he do if he lost his job?

"Randall," I said, "we may never understand why we have to go through things like this, but you'll get through this." I pulled out my wallet and gave him the money I had, which was far more than I usually carry -- I'm far from wealthy. It was exactly the amount I was going to spend at the bookstore earlier. It was exactly the amount he needed to buy the monthly transit pass.

Randall was crying with grateful joy. "No one will ever believe me when I tell them what you've done for me, Peter. I may never see you again, but I will never forget you," he said. "I should call you 'Angel'! That may sound like a sissy name but it's true."

"But you have blessed me too," I told him. "Just pass it on, Randall." He gave me a big hug after I dropped him off at the MARTA station, and he walked in to buy his transit pass.

Did he? I will probably never know. I think I am a pretty good judge of character, and Randall was as genuine a person as I have ever met. I didn't get his phone number or contact information, and didn't give him mine. Maybe we'll run into each other someday, somewhere. But I don't know what happened. What if he didn't? That's not up to me. I can only do what I can do, be sensitive to God's holy nudges, and keep my eyes and heart open. But I do hope it all works out for him.

I have thought a lot about this encounter since. If I hadn't been at the Anti-Racism Training that day, would I have been so quick to invite this unknown African American man into my car? And give him that much money? Was it the right thing to do? Was it just a way to soothe my white guilt? I'm still wrestling with these questions.

I do believe, however, that God ran me smack into an opportunity to put into hard, real-life practice what I'd been wrestling with all day in that workshop. And I was blessed beyond measure.

But now what?