“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”
― Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Yesterday I felt a memory. It hurt almost as much as it did seventeen years ago. I was discussing religion with a friend and it brought to mind something I’m sure I wanted to forget. How many words does it take to describe how horrible it feels to be judged? Not many. And yet choosing the words is so difficult for me, even now.
I’ll start at the beginning. My father converted to Catholicism shortly after marrying my mother, and my siblings and I were raised Catholic. But when my brother, Matt, met his wife he joined the congregation at her non-denominational Christian church, and his new church family came to supplant his birth family. It was not difficult to understand why: we were raised in the “classic” dysfunctional family. You know the kind; we looked so good from the outside that no one could believe it when we fell apart.
I understood my brother’s desire to believe and to belong. I had moved away with my husband and started a family and a life separate from the drama that was a painful part of my past. I was mothering a newborn as Matt was beginning his married life 300 miles away. We had always been close, but for three years we saw each other only occasionally. We exchanged birthday greetings and the obligatory holiday wishes through the mail.
Then my brother called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. My husband, young daughter and I arrived on his doorstep the next day. We were met at the door by a man I did not know. He introduced himself as Bruce, a close friend and the pastor of Matt’s church. We stepped into the small living room of Matt’s ranch house to find him comfortably settled in his favorite chair with his dog in his lap. He looked great; he was smiling. After the three of us exchanged hugs, Bruce suggested that my husband and daughter take the dog into the yard for a romp. Matt grabbed a ball and joined them, and Bruce and I were left alone. That’s when I discovered that Bruce was serving as a sort of gatekeeper to determine who could spend time with my brother. He was applying a religious test to anyone who didn’t identify as an evangelical or born-again Christian.
He asked me to describe my relationship with God. I told him I was Catholic. He asked if I had acknowledged that I was a sinner and asked the Lord for forgiveness.
“Of course, I’m a sinner. Aren’t we all?” I answered.
He pressed on: Did I understand that my brother would be going “home” and could I support him in this journey? I felt like crying, but I was steel. I told him that Matt and I had always been close and that I loved him dearly. I assured him again that I considered myself a Christian. Bruce left shortly after our conversation and we enjoyed the day with Matt. My “Catholic credentials” had been deemed satisfactory.
I will never forget how it felt to be held in judgement. I thought I had, but yesterday the immensity of it came back to me with full force. There were people who felt they had the moral authority to decide whether I should be allowed to spend time with my own dying brother. Well, I confess, I judge them as well, and I find them to be lacking in compassion and grace. My opinion of evangelical Christians was formed by that single heartbreaking experience.
Since then, I’ve been careful when I interact with people who I know to be Christians. But for some reason, this week, after all these years, I opened up to the wife of one of my husband’s closest friends, a woman with whom I’ve also grown close. I’d been careful to avoid talk of religion with her knowing that she attends a Christian church, but when we found ourselves alone our conversation turned to things we hold dear, such as family. She mentioned her faith and I found the courage to share my memory with her. She disavowed the isolationist position of the members of my brother’s church. While she shared some of their beliefs, she could not exclude us as her friends. I was not steel; I felt tears come to my eyes.
Making judgements is part of being human, but it can be humbling to reflect on the moments you’ve been judged. It can be a reminder to work to consciously choose acceptance of others over rejection.
When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking of the waitress at a restaurant I frequent. She’s Mexican, and one day she told me that since our president came along she’s been concerned about what people think of her. Are they wondering whether she’s legal? Did they think she should go back to Mexico? I thought of the day I was discussing colleges with a friend and she said that she and her daughter were researching the rising incidence of anti-Semitism on campuses out of concern for her daughter’s safety. I reflected on a discussion I’d just had with a young man who lost Facebook friends when he announced his engagement to another man. Suddenly my mind was filled with the faces of those who had been judged and hurt.
Perhaps we should all regularly call to mind those times in our lives when we’ve been deemed unworthy so that we may be less likely to inflict that kind of pain on our neighbors.