As I walked up to the parking meter machine, I saw a gentleman with poster boards resting against his legs and an opened wallet in his hands. I turned around him to start a line, and I saw what was on his signs. He was a counter protester to the demonstration I was there to support.
I guided him through the steps of purchasing and placing his ticket on his dashboard. As we walked over together, a look came across his face as our paths diverged. Maybe he was disgusted with me. Maybe he was confused. Maybe it was a look of surprise in realizing that someone who he was there to heckle had shown him compassion.
Murmuring emerged from the corners of my mind throughout the evening of chanting and listening to my fellow activists and their battle cries. I kept looking back at the counter-protester. He was an island, unto himself, ignoring the gentle questions of some of my peers and the baiting of a select few.
He was unreachable, untouchable, unwilling to listen to anyone but himself. And I, thirsty for a fight, was no different.
The counter-protester is not my enemy.
Questions around identity can be revealed in the most unremarkable ways. For me, it was in a parking lot by Dealey Plaza on a Tuesday night in November. As I sat in my car, I wondered if I was an activist first and a Christian second. My intensely methodical and overwhelmingly partisan mind was asking questions that I had no immediate answers for.
When I got home that night, I turned to my Bible. I found no solace in Matthew 5:44, which says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That quote was unfulfilling, because the counter-protester is not my enemy. That’s giving him too much power. He’s my opposition.
As I flipped and flipped through the pages, I found nothing that spoke to me at the moment. My thoughts led me down merciless paths.
Since I was a little girl attending Catechism, my faith was a function of familial tradition and not my independent thought. Being Catholic in St. Louis was being a part of a rich community. I still associate certain days of the year with the lives of certain saints and I make the sign of the cross after every meal.
Though my journey has taken me away from Catholicism and exploring Protestantism, something that is fused in my being is the placement of faith and good works on the same level of importance. For so many years, my life was focused on forming an answer to this question: when Judgement Day arises, and Jesus asked how I helped the most vulnerable, what will I have to say?
It’s all too natural to be an arrogant activist.
I have always felt a thread that ties me from one human being to another.
When I was in third grade, I organized a letter writing campaign to senators and was invited to Austin. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote my book report on Nelson Mandela while others wrote theirs on Mia Hamm. When I was in high school, I registered voters.
Now, I write grants that raise millions of dollars for preschools serving poor children and choose to abstain from eating meat to lead a life of nonviolence. On Monday nights, I volunteer at the local homeless shelter. A life of service for me is compulsory.
But I am still an immature activist; in fits of zealous and righteous anger, I can make gross generalizations about my opponents. Despite my best intentions and even though I’ve grown over the years, I’m deeply aware of my own failings.
I love finding errors in my opponent's logic and pointing it out to them in a grandiose way. I use the facts I’ve memorized to make it even more impressive—I have had the minimum wage worker’s annual and weekly take-home pay memorized for years. When I spout off my facts and try to blanket people in feeling wrong about their opinions, I have felt invincible.
Yet I know there’s a better way. I know there is something that hardens in the soul when there is a perceived attack, and I have definitely hardened a few souls.
Activism requires an all-encompassing love.
Love cannot stop with those who are oppressed—it has to extend to everyone. If I am asked to love my neighbor, I do not get to pick who my neighbor is no matter the boundaries that I so desperately want to draw.
As much as I want to claim that the counter-protester and I are light years apart in our compassion and understanding of the world, I am subject to him.
I take my guidance from 1 Corinthians 13:5 “Love is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful.” As much as I enjoy being right, I know I must place the same value on doing the right thing.
Activism highlights a necessary diversity in life and in the church.
The part of my heart that looks to the heavens for answers is the same part that curses its obscurity. People have such faith that God will take care of those who are struggling and everything will work out for the best. I don’t have that type of faith.
The doubts and questions that I have about the true depth of God’s power have frequently left me feeling ashamed, unfaithful, and unworthy.
I realized that I can spend a lot of time worried about how my Christianity stacks up against others. But in giving myself permission to express my Christianity in a different way than others, I’ve stopped thinking of myself as inadequate. Christianity and activism are quite similar in that regard—the less time you spend thinking of yourself and how you are perceived, the more enriching life becomes.
As I grow in my faith, I have yet to find a church that perfectly aligns with what I believe nor have I found a church body that holds similar thoughts as I do. Yet as difficult as it is for me to bite my tongue, I know surrounding myself with people who align with me completely is the best way forward.
The counter-protester who thinks I am wrong and the men and women at church who I know I disagree with all come from the same body. Understanding my fellow human and treating others the way I want to be treated is at the cornerstone of the Christian faith. I am stronger and better for being a part of a diverse congregation.
Cover image by Tangi Berton.