A Story of Encountering “The Other” (with further reflections on a theologian’s role)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly to Milwaukee and visit Marquette University’s doctoral program in theology.  Needless to say, it was an excellent and very fruitful visit. While staying at a nearby hotel in downtown Milwaukee, I had an interesting experience which I felt related closely to the recent “theological shark week” action as well as to the wider question of relating to the “other.”  For those unaffiliated with the term, “the other” is a way of expressing someone who is truly not you.  While I’m not quite sure the origin of the phrase, it has become a useful way of talking about all kinds of groups and peoples with whom we are not familiar and rarely ever contact.  It also allows for nice short phrases like “relating to the other” which encapsulates all kinds of people to whom I could be talking, meeting, emailing, getting to know, etc.

In my story, “the other” was a middle-aged black man named Ben who asked me for money on the streets of downtown Milwaukee one evening.  Specifically, he asked me for a dollar.  Twice.  First, on my way out to find a quiet place to eat dinner (unsuccessfully); second, on my way back to visit the place I ate the night before.  By the second time he asked me, I had already realized the futility in my search for a place to eat and do work, but I still didn’t really feel comfortable just giving him a dollar.  So I asked him if he’d like to join me for dinner.  I had never actually done this before, but I was missing my family very much and didn’t mind the thought of some company.  Besides, I figured, it was a good Christian thing to do–should’ve thought about it the first time he asked me.

Nevertheless, he graciously accepted my invitation, and we walked over to a pizza and sub place to eat.  We talked about why I was in Milwaukee, about why I’d rather be a professor than a pastor, about when and where he goes to church, about music, about sports.  At some point through our meal, Ben starts to talk about his frustrations with his life.  He tells me that he’s really a good musician and is trying to get enough money to buy another trumpet.  His trumpets just keep getting stolen where he lives (always a money-maker at a pawn shop).  He states that he made a tape one time of him playing an entire trumpet solo in honor of Miles Davis and the album Kind of Blue. That tape was stolen as well and he’d do anything to get it back.  He’s angry, he tells me, as his eyes get bigger, and I question for the first time if this was really a good idea.  The moment passes without incident.

“John, you’re a budding theologian,” I say to myself, “you’re not a pastor but there’s gotta be something about Jesus you can say here.”  I try to talk about the anger Jesus must have felt and the forgiveness Jesus offered to others who hurt him–knowing that Ben has talked about a Baptist church he sometimes attends.  I try to expound upon this idea of forgiveness, but its quickly clear that my words are just going over his head.  At one point he asks a question that had nothing to do with the point I was trying to make, and I just had to stop and relax.

I offered Ben the other half of my sub, which he happily accepted.  We talked a bit more about sports and weather, and he made a few comments that showed he forgot the beginning of our conversation.  Before we got up, he asked, “hey, any chance I could get a dollar from you?”  “Sure,” I said, and handed him a dollar from my wallet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That Ben represented “the other” to me was clear.  Besides speaking the same language, there was little about his life I could comprehend.  Here was a man in his 40s or so begging on the street in order to buy a trumpet that will almost certainly be stolen.  Never in my life can I see myself even remotely close to such an action.  How can two lives be so different?

As I said before, I am not a pastor.  Perhaps, you might say, I should have prayed with Ben at that moment.  Perhaps I should have offered to meet him at a music store the next day to buy him a trumpet.  Perhaps I should have done a lot of things.  WWJD, indeed.

Ben had heard many sermons in church before.  He told me he liked to listen to T. D. Jakes preach from time to time on TV (I wasn’t about to offer that Jakes’ comes dangerously close to preaching a prosperity-driven Gospel).  I may be wrong, but I felt that praying with him would have been disingenuous to our respective lives.  What prayer could I have said at that moment?  My Roman Catholic background, my middle-class upbringing and upper-class education, my ministering in white Kansas suburbia?  The man clearly needed a meal, so I gave him the love that I could through that meal.  I have prayed for him many times since then, and hopefully that is something along the lines of what Jesus would have done.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Upon coming home, I finally got around to reading the five excellent posts by my colleagues during “theological shark week.”  Each of the five authors responded to the question “whom does the theologian serve?”  While I felt each article rather compelling, after my experience with Ben, I feel that one area was left out of the discussion: to serve others, as Christ did, in ways other than by being a professional theologian.

No matter how insightful one’s theology may be, no matter how may academic accolades one may garner or even how much respect from the wider Church community a sound doctrine might acquire, a theologian is still, simply and beautifully, a person–and, in our context, a Christian.  As a Christian, one must still love those around us each day (indeed, knowing many historical arguments around the notion of love, one could say we must love all the more perfectly).  My theological writing is the way I can find a place in this world, but it does not define the fullness of my being.  I am a human, blessed to simply exist in this chaotic and wonderfully amazing world, and, theologically, I am called to respond to the world first and foremost out of love.

I didn’t know what to do as Ben approached me the second time–he was only one of probably half a dozen people who asked me for money while walking around Milwaukee.  But I was hungry, and I felt he could probably benefit if I treated him like a person instead of like “street beggar #6” in my middle-class saunter down the road.  I can only hope that there was grace in that moment instead of just some self-gratifying desire within me to “feel more Christian” sometimes.  Ah, the perks of commonly performing multiple layers of meta-analysis on my daily actions.

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