I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead – you first,” I like your hat.”
It was a quiet and peaceful evening as we gathered to pray for our world that was frayed at the edges and unraveling all around us.
Six of us had gathered with the singular purpose of seeking God even as protests and riots raged around us in response to the unjust killing of George Floyd, a man not much older than me who was stripped of his humanity simply because of the color of his skin.
Our hearts were broken as we asked, “Where are you, God, in the midst of so much pain?”
There we were—five white and one black. Nearly an hour into our prayers, our friend who is black began to cry out for God to help her and her family. Her voice shuttered and cracked as she prayed for guidance and hope and healing, for a safe future for her children, and for her white friends to understand her pain.
Tears flooded my eyes as I looked up. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in that moment as I opened my eyes to look over at my friend.
Two others had flanked her on both sides, kneeling, hands grasping at her in a gesture of solidarity and oneness.
I heard the crickets and I cried. It was a holy moment unlike any other I can recall in recent memory.
Where is God in the midst of so much pain in our world today?
He is all around us if we have the eyes to see. He is in the workings of you and me and longing for all of us to do what my friends did—to be safe harbors in a world moaning in pain.
I recently dived into the book Love Does by attorney, humanitarian, and speaker Bob Goff. It’s a pithy, witty, life-giving collection of everyday heroes putting hands and feet onto their confessions of love. Goff graciously but firmly asserts that “Living a life fully engaged and full of whimsy and the kind of things that love does is something most people plan to do, but along the way they just kind of forget.” (xiii)
As we look around our world and see systemic issues of such scale that we either want to run away or to weep, we come to believe that our own small and seemingly menial efforts are simply incapable of making any lasting difference.
To my friend who offered up her tears on that holy night, however, our menial presence gave her a moment of solidarity, hope, and community. And for those of us honored enough to share in her grief, her honest tears and heartfelt cry gave us a picture of courage and resiliency that none of us dared hope we would see.
Her vulnerability was the catalyst for deeper community and a deeper commitment to friendship.
I recently charted out a list of painful realities that too many of us face:
We face a lack of opportunity, a lack of validation, a lack of popularity, a lack of acknowledgement, a lack of healthy relationships, health, a lack of community, a lack of kindness, and a lack of love to name just a few.
We have too few champions and advocates.
Too few people to stand side-by-side with another for as long as it takes.
Too few people who are willing to risk all for the sake of a neighbor.
Love does because it has to. It is compelled to. And love does is the only answer to the big, systemic issues our world faces today.
It is true that systemic issues affect all parts of something, but the whole is never more than the sum of its parts. The community is made up of individual people. The totality only exists because of each piece put together.
This is where the heromaker comes in. Let me explain.
Begin where you are
Some time ago, I received an email which began this way: “No one hears me. No one cares. Can we talk?” This woman, I would soon learn, had been in an abusive marriage for years and finally found her way to a safe house.
Each time she would try to tell others about the abuse, they didn’t believe her. Her extended family covered their ears. Her church community shrugged off the harmful gestures and words in deference to her husband being the “head of the family.” Even close friends accused her of exaggerating the extent of the harm being done.
As I talked to this woman, she cried. And I cried. We cried together.
Near the end of our conversation, I offered to help her find a healthy community in her area, people she could trust and who would trust her back.
Her response made me catch my breath: “You’ve done more than so many others. You’ve heard me and you’ve believed me.” I wish I could say all ended well, but honestly, I don’t know as she never responded to my emails after that.
I learned a very important lesson that day and it’s this: sometimes we believe we need to do more, be more, and say more. We fall into the trap that we don’t have what is necessary for the hard parts of someone’s life because we aren’t counselors or pastors or professors or doctors or…. Pick your occupation or training.
The truth is that what we have to offer someone facing emotional or physical pain may be exactly what they need.
And the needs are all around us.
When the problems of this world seem too big for you, take a deep breath and believe that you have what is needed in each moment.
More than 75 years ago, an unknown girl in the Netherlands kept a diary of another time in our world when our edges were frayed and our world was unraveling. As death loomed large and evil ran rampant, she penned these words that would inspire countless people to be the heroes they were made to be: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
In her short span of life, Anne Frank used what means she had to expose both the horrible tragedy of life and the limitless potential of it. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment…
See what you do not see
“White people act as though this is the first time black people are experiencing injustice. But the truth is that for many of us, this is all we’ve known our whole lives.”
The words cut me like a knife as my friend talked about another rally he had attended to support equal justice and treatment for all. As I looked into his big, brown eyes, I saw nothing but compassion for us white people who thought we were trailblazers in the fight for justice. I had to smile.
Speaker and activist Parker Palmer wrote powerfully in his book Let Your Life Speak about the ability of humans to conform to a standard that is asked of them:
The social systems in which…people must survive often try to force them to live in a way untrue to who they are. If you are poor, you are supposed to accept, with gratitude, half a loaf or less; if you are black, you are supposed to suffer racism without protest; if you are gay, you are supposed to pretend that you are not.
Until and unless our worldviews are allowed to expand to include those unlike us in every aspect, we cannot fully fight systemic injustice as we need to.
A world of heroes fighting the big issues of life like gender violence and nationalism and racial profiling is only as hopeful and strong as the measure to which we can say, “You are different from me. Tell me your story.”
Sometimes we believe that we can still hold distance when loving those who are victims of injustice. The truth is that until we are willing to either literally or figuratively grab the hand of those not like us, the wall remains.
How hard! we lament. How time-consuming! we bluster.
Indeed. But here’s the kicker: How rewarding! How amazing! How remarkable! …. this world would be if we were able to crack the worldview we’ve held and allow others to enter.
The truth is that what those facing emotional and physical pain have to offer us may be exactly what we need. We need to hear that all is not well in order to no longer walk the surface of injustice but to instead to go deep down where healing begins.
We need to see tears to catch them in our hands and declare we walk together.
Years ago, I volunteered in a domestic violence safe house. The house bustled with activity as moms and their kids sought to dwell securely and find normalacy.
From the moment I entered, smiles met me at every turn. In the midst of housework or homework, each mother would make it a point to smile at me when I came to spend time with their kids.
One day, however, I sat across from a mother who was filling out paperwork. Looking up at me, she smiled. As I smiled back, I noticed her eyes. They were sad. And fearful. No, I realized, they were empty.
In that moment, I realized I had never truly looked at any of these women. Believing my volunteer hours helped me support them, I had missed true connection. I was one of many people they needed to hide from and to hold at a distance. I hadn’t sought to open my worldview to what they were experiencing.
It was devastating.
Systemic issues involving violence and pain, whether emotional or physical, can only be healed when we are able to see what we do not see.
The layers of life that make someone who they are—that make them beautiful or broken, and likely combination of both. Theologian and scholar C.S. Lewis once wrote, “You can’t go back to the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Our world has big problems. And these problems aren’t going anywhere. But our world also has big people like you who have what is needed to confront all that is wrong.
One person at a time, all of us have the ability to dismantle the pain and isolation that millions of people are suffering under today.
I’m not going to tell you everything is going to be alright, but I am going to tell you that if you be the heromaker you were made to be, everything just may be alright.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Laurie Nichols is founder of the Heromakers Movement, a freelance editor and writer, and is committed to helping those who have been marginalized to become the those who most deeply impact and inspire how we all live and how we see the world.