As I was leaving church one recent Sunday, I was stopped by a member of our congregation. This particular person has said a few questionable things to me in the past, but because I was raised with manners and because I was at church, I stopped to chat briefly.
“How old is she now?” as she gestured towards our daughter.
“Oh! Is she going to kindergarten?”
“No, first grade!”
“Oh, but does she even learn anything?”
“Yes, every day, just like the rest of us.”
And with that, I walked away determined to never, ever speak to that woman again.
Unfortunately, this is not the first ignorant question that I have been asked and it won’t be the last. Even worse, this was not the first time I’d been cornered like this at church.
This is NOT a criticism of a church that I know and love as 99% of the congregation are wonderful and supportive towards our family. Our pastor was our most frequent visitor when our kids were in the hospital, and for that I am so grateful. Since this latest incident, I had countless church friends reach out to me, frustrated by the treatment that we have gotten. In a phone call with my pastor that day, I fought back tears as I told him, “THIS is why people leave. It only takes a few negative experiences before you decide it’s just not worth it.”
When I go out into the world with my daughter, I am prepared for the unexpected. I am a white woman with a Chinese child with special needs who yells, drools, and touches people without warning. She will sing loudly, smile at you or growl at you depending on her mood.
I get it. We do not blend in.
The nice thing about being out in the wild with her is that when we have weird or uncomfortable interactions with strangers, it is easy for me to brush it off and move on because I know I will not see them again.
But at church, when people find it necessary to ask me a question they could find the answers to on Google, it gets me down because they aren’t strangers. I’m going to see them again the following week at the communion rail and try not to think about stabbing them in the eye. Deep down, I guess I expect more from a group of people that are gathering (supposedly) in the name of love.
With this experience I now have a greater understanding as to why groups, churches, and organizations of any sort are so homogeneous. If you are different than everyone else, someone in the group is going to say something to let you know that you aren’t welcome. How many times should I be expected to educate or deflect when someone corners me with their Styrofoam cup of coffee to ask me something that was actually none of their business?
If you are different, you won’t stay (believe me, I’ve considered this for our family). I’m starting to believe that is exactly what these particular people want. We are too different, after all. Maybe we are too outside of the “norm” for some to believe we belong. Maybe they are uncomfortable around individuals with special needs. Maybe they initially put us in the category of sainthood for “adopting those poor orphans,” only to realize that we aren’t so saintly after all.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why. Maybe the intentions for these interactions were all very innocent, but the IMPACT has been painful for me. It has me thinking about others who may feel out of place in some settings. I challenge you to think of the groups and organizations that you are in. Ask yourself how you can be more open and more engaging to those that are different than yourself so that they stay. Our lives are richer and more meaningful when we do not spend all of our time with those who look, sound and think the same as ourselves. Most of all, apologize when you realize what you said or did made them feel unwelcome. After all, we have all done and said something at some point that was unkind or just plain rude.
We are staying put in our church whether some people like it or not. And, whether WE like it or not, we have been put in the position of educating others on how we live as a multiracial family with a few special needs. I do not know the impact that we may have on others (none of us do). So for that reason, I’ll be getting up every day, showing up, and doing the very best that I can.