~This essay previously appeared in Relief (2012).
The measure of a man is what he does with power.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
The dishes stare at me, covering every available surface, piled high like acrobats balanced on one another, the aftermath of a dinner and a breakfast in a home overflowing with visitors. Dishes seem low on the list of priorities since my friend will walk down the aisle later this week, but my hands are searching for ways to help ease the stress of a busy week, searching for ways to somehow earn my keep as a visitor in this family’s house.
Here in this African nation where the overseas missionaries dedicate their lives to reaching out to the locals, I awkwardly attempt to find a comfortable place in the landscape of existence. My role is missionary, like the rest of the expatriates I know, and yet not quite like the rest, as I look, outwardly, remarkably similar to the people who call this country home. At first glance, people often mistake me for a local, but when I open my mouth to speak, the words cannot mask the truth. My unique background perfectly positions me to walk the tightrope between two worlds. Not fully outsider or insider, simply other.
In this country, in this missionary home, in this in-between life, I cautiously inquire about ways I might help my hosts. Now I stand in a kitchen that breathes chaos. Washing dishes in this house is an eminently unsatisfying task. By the time the sink empties and order returns to the shelves, the next meal beckons. But it was my desire to help my friend, coupled with long-ingrained feelings of obligation to contribute, that brought me here. Reluctantly, I plug the sink drain and set to work.
It is a solitary job, away from the main traffic of the house. In the background, my friend’s laughter mixes with the giggles of her mother and sisters. From the occasional phrases I catch, I know the conversation surrounds upcoming wedding details. I want to be there, to be a part of the conversation and the planning. I remind myself I asked for ways to help. A voice in my head whispers, But you didn’t want to be shuffled to a far-off room away from all the fun. I created the situation, but this isolation feels nonetheless unfair. If I were family, I would leave the dirty dishwater behind and join the fun. I’m not family, though, so I continue scrubbing dirty plates and flicking rice grains off pots.
I sense someone’s presence and look up with pleasant expectation of some conversation with my friend or one of her sisters. But it’s only my friend’s father, standing in the kitchen door’s frame. Glancing at him reminds me of the day a group of us played that silly game where players needed to identify things they had never done. He looked around the circle, his eyes landing on me, and said he’d never had brown skin. He smiled at his clever little comment, oblivious of the thick, uncomfortable fog that I suddenly felt lingering in the room. And then there was the time I mentioned I wanted to sit in the sun. He overheard me and implied I should be concerned about getting too dark. For reasons I don’t understand, conversations with him often contain awkward references to the reality that my skin is a darker hue than his.
As if the information might somehow have escaped my notice.
Although he has a perpetual tan the color of roasted cashews, although he has spent decades church planting, teaching, and preaching in a language not his own, no one would ever confuse him with a local. His hair, his accent, and, most obviously, the color of his skin point to a life originating in the cooler climate of North America. His official title reads pastor and missionary. I know he is both of those things, but I have a difficult time reconciling his vocation with his conversation. I often wonder if he really believes in equality of all people like our faith proclaims. If he really believes everyone is created in the image of God. Maybe his embarrassingly bold statements stem from a generation of work with people culturally and racially different from himself. Likely, he thinks his life demonstrates cultural savviness or, even worse, a racial hipness, some kind of earned immunity from the pesky problems of racism.
“Thanks so much for all the help,” he starts the uninvited conversation. A safe enough beginning, but I’m still anxious to move through this exercise as quickly as possible. Surely an uncomfortable moment waits in secret like another pile of dirty silverware.
“You’re welcome. I told your daughter I wanted to help in any way I could. I’m just here to help.” A quick grin flashes across my face as if to say, This was pleasant, talk to you later.
He snickers a bit, and against my better judgment I say, “What? What’s so funny?”
“Oh, just a joke. But you probably wouldn’t think it was funny.” His dancing eyes remind me of a preschool child eager to show you the spider they just found.
“No, probably not,” I say, realizing my mistake.
“I was just thinking you’re here to help us. It’s like you’re our slave.”
Like you’re our slave. I open my mouth to respond. The words Not funny hover behind my lips but my throat calls them back. They are true but dangerous words. Dangerous because I am a guest in his house. Because my skin is different than his. Because some unknown force, some unseen imbalance of power exists enabling him to speak his insensitive words while immobilizing my truthful ones. Maybe speaking the truth will knock the balance of power off its fulcrum. Maybe the truth really would set me free. But no one likes ungrateful people who shake invisible shackles.
Instead, I utter a weak solitary Oh. It never reaches his ears, however; his departing footsteps and self-satisfied chuckles already echo in the long hallway.
I look back to the dishes, formerly an act of service, now tainted with the indignity of forced servitude. My fingers continue soaping a plate long since clean. My hands scrub and scrub, wishing I could clean this feeling within me. My wrists begin to ache as though they bear some mighty burden. I look down for the source and only find the thin film of dishwater covering my hands and wrists. The pressure and heaviness seem to reach my ankles, and my eyes turn downward half-expecting that somehow the weight of the dishwater leaked out of the sink, flooding the space around my feet. My feet shuffle a bit to reposition my body more comfortably under this new reality.
It’s a strange thing, him being a missionary and a pastor and yet possessing such a refined, unconscious ability to make another person feel so dirty and unclean. It makes me wonder if we both really serve the same God. But perhaps he too groans under the weight of history’s imbalances, even if they favor him. His distasteful jokes might mask an awkward effort to bridge the distance that persists. His obsession with skin color might just reveal a misguided and backwards attempt to make light of differences, poke fun at the absurdity of past injustices, and link proverbial arms in a real desire to move forward.
But maybe the horrible truth is with the voice within me that says, Impossible. This rationalizing logic can’t explain why my skin color means more to this man than our shared faith. This compassionate logic fails to justify his belief that a life of crossing cultures permits him to trivialize humanity’s shameful past—a past, in my belief, that grieves the God I serve. Ultimately, this logic can’t tell me why my hands feel compelled to wash his dirty dishes while his laughter echoes in the hallway. Yes, it’s much easier, after all, to believe we cannot possibly both serve the same God.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
“The Same God” began with a conversation I had with a white American man involved with development work in another country. He mentioned his perception of the inability of that country’s citizens to bring about government reform he believed was necessary. His solution was for foreigners to take responsibility for pursuing change. Later I wondered how this man had the audacity to believe he knew the needs of another country better than its own people coupled with the power to act on that belief. The conversation reminded me of the incident that became this essay. As I wrote, I kept returning to the way power imbalances can elevate certain voices while silencing others. In the end all I could think of was how these power imbalances wreak havoc in our individual relationships but ultimately within broader society.
ABOUT PATRICE GOPO