The first time Millie (not her real name) came over to my house, she brought a bottle of wine. This surprised me a little because I had made some assumptions about her. I had assumed she was Dutch. And therefore conservative. And therefore more comfortable judging other people’s drinking than imbibing herself.
But I was wrong to assume.
As Millie and I and three other neighbors gathered around my table that evening, we shared wine and coffee and cookies and conversation. I learned that Millie and I have tennis in common; we play with some of the same people, but I play on Saturday mornings and she plays on Sunday mornings.
Which led me to another little assumption about Millie: If she plays tennis on Sunday mornings, she must not go to church.
Turns out I was wrong about that too.
As Millie and I were driving home from a meeting together, we were in conversation again. She mentioned how much she appreciates the pastor who is currently filling in at her church. A Lutheran church, not a Dutch Reformed church. And they have one service on Saturday nights and two on Sunday mornings. Millie might go to the Saturday service. Or maybe she goes to the later Sunday service. Or maybe she goes to the early Sunday service and plays tennis afterward. I really don’t know.
These small revelations reminded me that I had made other assumptions about Millie. She had been the first neighbor to ring my doorbell and introduce herself when I moved into the neighborhood. I loved that she had taken the initiative to welcome me, and though she seemed a little abrupt, and I wasn’t sure what to think of her, I did enjoy meeting her.
A few days later, Millie and I crossed paths while she was out for a walk. “I just couldn’t stand to be in the house any longer,” she unloaded somewhat suddenly. “I have to get out and do something!” I smiled and commented on the weather or something, but in the back of my mind I was making assumptions again. I assumed that Millie was a little crotchety. You might even say I assumed she was a “typical” old person.
Another day, another conversation, and I learned that Millie’s husband had died only eight weeks earlier. I learned that they had moved to this neighborhood only a year ago, and they had thought they would enjoy a leisurely retirement together. But soon after moving, they learned he had cancer. Millie had spent the last several months tenderly caring for him, until one afternoon he quietly said her name and then stopped breathing.
I was ashamed of myself and the assumptions I had made about Millie.
When we think we know
When we think we know someone’s story, we don’t have to bother to actually get to know her. We can use all our assumptions and stereotypes as shorthand. Which is much more efficient than starting from a blank slate and having to spend s000o much time and ask soooo many questions and s l o o o o w l y grow in understanding.
The problem is, the stereotypes don’t fit.
But we keep relying on them.
Churches, this is why our attempts at “outreach”
are so often ineffective and offensive:
We think we know the story already.
But we don’t.
We have a story, a stereotype, a set of assumptions about almost everyone we want to do ministry to:
- Poor people
- Black people
- People who don’t go to church
- Old people
We don’t feel the need to learn anything about them—we already have all the answers. We know what they need, and we know the best way to deliver it to them, and, frankly, they should be grateful that we are showing them the right way to live. Right?
We need to humble ourselves and be willing to learn. People are complicated and full of surprises. Stereotypes are simplistic and small. And you know what happens when you assume.
Come to think of it, I still don’t know if Millie is Dutch. She looks like she might be, but I’m certainly not going to make any assumptions. Maybe it will come up in conversation someday.
But it doesn’t really matter. Because being “Dutch” can’t be shorthand any more than being “Black” or “Single” or “Unchurched” can.
Millie and I will just have to get to know each other.