I was bouncing my baby girl on my hip and grasping for my son’s hand, as moms often do when trying to have grown-up conversations in public. I was trying my best to engage at an informal meet and greet with other Christian parents. We were going around the circle, introducing ourselves, and when it was my turn, all I could manage to say was, “Hi! I’m Michelle. I live in East Austin.”
Right as the words came out of my mouth, my baby girl threw down her cup of cheerios, and I had to quickly bend down to grab it. But when I stood back up, I noticed that the introductions had stopped, and several of the women were still looking at me. The surprised looks on their faces started to make me nervous. You know that moment where you start to wonder to yourself, “What did I say?”
One woman then replied, “Wow! East Austin. I would never live there. That’s like the barrio.”
Now I was the one who looked surprised.
What was this woman saying? Actually, I knew what she was saying. Austin is a tale of two cities. The highway runs straight through the middle of it with West Austin being predominantly white and wealthy and East Austin being where most of the minorities in our city live. It’s not a dangerous community, but it is predominantly black and brown, and many people often assume that our neighborhoods are unsafe, crime-infested, and worse.
Undoubtedly, this woman’s words were hurtful, and I probably would have felt hurt had this been the first time I’d heard such words. Sadly, they were not.
The problem was that she called my community “the barrio,” a Spanish word for “ghetto.” People only use the word “ghetto” to talk about those places of town they deem undesirable. It’s also code for the places minorities live, and it’s degrading language that dehumanizes the people who live in these communities.
The thing is I know it’s not just her. So often, Christians use harmful words to talk about the poor and the minority. I once read the story of Christmas from a children’s Bible that describes the manger where Jesus is born as located in the “not so nice part of town.” Devotionals, Christian living books, and even sermons can be guilty of pitting wealthy, middle-class (and often white) Christians against poor people of color. The former is “nice,” “safe,” “well-maintained,” and even “good,” while the latter is “crime-ridden,” “immoral,” “godless,” “rundown,” “impoverished,” and “bad.” But when we do this, we treat one group of people as superior to the other. Even worse, we convince ourselves that we need to save those who are not like us.
In that moment at the meet and greet, I simply responded, “Actually, East Austin is a great place to live. We love it there.” I could have said more. I wanted to say more. But it wasn’t the right time or place.
What I wanted to say is this: I’m proud of my community. There is so much beauty here. The values of family, hard work, respect, and resilience are on glorious display throughout our streets. We have history and art and multiple languages. We have skills and crafts and an entrepreneurial spirit. It won’t look anything like our fellow white neighborhoods across town, but that doesn’t mean we are lesser.
We should not think less of one another because of the color of our skin or the location of our neighborhoods, and we shouldn’t use hurtful words to talk about others, especially when we talk about people of color.
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” When it comes to cross-cultural relationships, we have to know that people are always listening. They hear what the other people say about them. They feel the pain of emotionally-charged words. Wounds are created, divisions worsen, and trauma lingers. This is the real consequence of words that seek to distance, to other, and to insult.
Our words have the power to build up people of other cultures or to tear them down. May we each seek the good of our neighbor, no matter their neighborhood, skin color, or ethnicity, and may we be intentional about speaking words of love over one another, words that see the good and the beauty, and words that benefit and encourage.
May we each seek the good of our neighbor, no matter their neighborhood, skin color, or ethnicity. #loveyourneighbor -@drmichellereyes: Click To Tweet Leave a Comment
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
I’m sorry that those hurtful words were spoken to you. I never cease to be amazed at the stupid things that come out of people’s mouths. I love my job as a crossing guard. My post is at the elementary school close to our home. Every day I get to meet and greet and assist children and parents who represent a multitude of nationalities, races, and colors. Except for the absolutely crazy drivers who are always in a hurry and often angry, my part time job is a favorite part of my day. I’m learning words and phrases in Hindi, Thai, Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Ukrainian, and more. It’s a time when children and parents come together in the everyday experience of getting to and from school. It does my heart good to see the children mix together so effortlessly. We could learn a lesson or two from their openmindedness. Fear drives division. Love brings different cultures together and builds bridges. May we all be bridge builders.
Becky Keife says
Bev, I love that you’re a school crossing guard! We have the best crossing guard at my kids’ school. Bill’s big smile and warm hellos are such small things that make a big impact. No doubt in my mind you’re doing the same! And I appreciate your thoughts here as always. xx
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
I LOVE being a crossing guard. Who else gets to start their day with hugs and High-fives?
I love this Bev! God made us all with unique looks, cultures, languages and different skin colours. Yet he made us in his likeness. We are all connected although different we are all the same in our humanness. Jesus died for us all and his love doesn’t see difference or discriminate AND neither should we!
Marian Frizzell says
I grew up in a neighborhood called a “kampung” which was basically a village tucked in behind the big rich people houses. My grandmother called it a slum, but for me it was home. When my parents moved out three girl family there, well meaning friends warned them that we would most likely be molested and raped. Instead we were treasured and protected. I am still so grateful for that time of being immersed in another culture and welcomed into a neighborhood that defied expectations and taught me so many beautiful aspects of community.
Becky Keife says
What a beautiful testimony, Marian. Thank you.
Theresa Boedeker says
Words can hurt or heal. And we so casually toss them around. Guarding our words so they don’t hurt and cause divides is not for our sake, it’s for the sake of others. It is a way we show love and respect to others. May our words be of loving.
Michelle, thank you for your grace and wisdom and powerful testimony. We need to hear more from you as we seek to grow and be transformed.
Dear Michelle, I experienced something like this last night, while eating dinner with other Christian ladies. But it was about gay people. One of the gals was describing an incident she had encountered where 2 young gay men had been a bit too boisterous in their celebration, at a concert she attended. They weren’t openly affectionate, just loud and distracting. Everyone but me laughed at her descriptions and joined in with their own stories. I wondered, “Don’t these ladies have any loved ones who are gay?” . I definitely do and I think most people do. Whether you agree with their lifestyle or not, they still deserve our love and respect. Not our ridicule. And we, as Christians, should set an example of love. Always.
Dawn Ferguson-Little says
You know it bring me back to the kids song. Jesus loves all the Children of the world Red and Yellow Black and White. You can get on Youtube. We as as Christian Gods people are to do the same. No matter where someone in the world lives or what skin color they have. As I have a cousin she is not saved. She has skin that is light brown. She was born that way. I don’t see her any difference than me her Mum is white. As her Mum is my Dads Sister. I never met my cousin Dad and probably never will. I love my cousin her skin color all through her life has never bothered me. God would not want to judge people because of their skin color religion or where they live in the world or what why they dress. God would want us to do what that kids song says. Jesus loves all Children of the world Red and Yellow Black and White. Love them and show them his love. Not judge them. As Jesus still loves them. Just as he still loves us. We are still his Children. Jesus would never judge us because of where we live or what way we dress or what color our skin is. He still love us is there for us. Let us do the same. Plus think before we speak. Because our words can hurt alot. Instead why don’t we pray for all people of the world Red Yellow Black and White all to like either. Plus those not saved get saved. Loved Dawn Ferguson-Little xxx excellent reading again.
These hurtful words happen all the time to neighbors that are experiencing disability in their families too. Each of us was knit together beautifully in our Mother’s womb by a loving creator and we need to be mindful of that so we encourage rather than discourage.
Amen sister!! I pray for a world where love and compassion overcome prejudice.
Lauren Griesmeyer says
Amen! To your words! I’m so sorry this happened! Lauren G.
Becky Keife says
Our words have power. So much. Michelle, I’m so sorry that you were the recipient of those thoughtless, biased words. But I love your response — that you love living where you do! We all need to see the beauty and value and richness of all people in all types of communities, even if different than our own.
Nancy Ruegg says
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your story. I’m adding another sentence to my morning prayers–Ephesians 4:29!
I am the culmination of two different cultures and skin colours connecting. My mother Indian, my father Australian. On one grandparents side my Nana was Irish and her husband my Poppa was Scottish. I myself married a New Zealander and my children are part Māori and Australian. We are all a mix of different cultures and I wouldn’t have it any other way!! I loved my juxtaposition of life. It’s my life and I have been blessed to see the beauty and visit the countries of all of my heritage. I’ve also been privy to the comments and ignorance. You are right words have power and even more as christians we need to be careful what we say. I’m guilty of this, we all are. We are human and live of sin. God made us all unique and he loved us all – it’s our duty to do the same.
I hate seeing discrimination played out in the news, from well meaning people and from those that are mean spirited. It hurts. It hurts us all no matter man to women, one ethnicity to another it’s in our societies worldwide and it needs to be stamped out especially from our churches. Jesus died for us all. One is not better than another. Coloniser and indigenous, black and white, We are all human and the same in our humanness. The best thing to do is stop those in their tracts when these things are said, correct, educate. Or quietly later educate the ignorant- it’s hard uncomfortable and scary to do …
Your article is pretty much the story of my life. I live in Orange County, CA. Right off the bat when people hear Orange County, they automatically think rich. Then I tell them what city. “Oh”. Is generally all I get. I live in a predominately Hispanic city. I’ve grown and raised here. My husband and I chose to stay here to raise our own family and I love it here. Despite what people think about my city, we also have our areas of wealthy people too. Our church is on the border of my city and the next city and I often times find that people will refer to our church being the in the next city over. It’s not. You’re in my city. And I gently correct. It’s hurtful when people look down their noises as to where you live. I live here. I chose to live here because I love it here.
Beth Williams says
Hurtful words come out of ignorance. People have no idea how or why others live where & how they do. That doesn’t get us out of loving everyone everywhere. Jesus said “love thy neighbor as thy self”. He meant the whole world. People need to stop & think before they speak. James has a lot to say about taming the tongue. James 3:5-6, 9-10 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. There will be plenty of surprises in Heaven. Those we speak ill of will be there because God loves everyone & so should we!!
Julia Bridgewater says
Thank you so much Michelle for sharing your story. To speak that way about other’s is so unlike a Christian. I believe we need to be more
Christ like and lift people up and not put them down. I Pray the Lord will Bless you and strengthen you in your walk with him.
Love and Prayers
Thank you for sharing this. I am sorry that you have to face such insensitive comments about where you live. My family moved cross country into a little home that we love in a quiet neighborhood. So many people ask where we live and then say “Ohhh you live in the OTHER part of town”. It really surprised me for a while and hurt me. After a natural disaster destroyed our community, our “other side of town” neighbors banded together and helped each other like nothing I have ever seen before. I am so thankful for the neighborhood God placed us in. I am so glad that God led you to share your story. I needed to hear it today.