I have always been fascinated by people of other cultures, languages and traditions. I suppose this interest began in college when my father took a sabbatical in Germany and invited me to join him for the summer in West Berlin before the Berlin wall came down. In addition to spending a concentrated time in Germany, we traveled into East Berlin and East Germany several times. This was a huge eye opener to the terrible conditions for people behind the iron curtain. In Seminary I traveled to Egypt and the Holy Land which exposed me to another culture, language and the terrific poverty of 3rd world countries. And of course, three summers ago I traveled extensively in Europe, Greece in particular. I find experiences with people of other cultures to be broadening, challenging my assumptions and values and inviting me to think in new ways.
We do not, however, have to travel far to interact with different life experiences from ours and different cultures. Tonight we have a terrific opportunity to hear from two respected men in our congregation who are very American, but have a different story to tell from mine, to be sure. Rudy Gourdine and Jim Pyles have experienced America as black men. They have stories they want to tell. They are inviting us to consider what it might mean to walk a mile in their shoes. I’m ready to listen though I think it unlikely I will ever know fully what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
That phrase, “Walk a mile in my shoes” actually comes from a poem written by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895. Mary was a temperance reformer, a suffragist and a licensed preacher in the Methodist Episcopal church. The original poem was entitled, “Judge Softly” and the “walk a mile” phrase actually concludes “walk a mile in his moccasins. The poem reads as is Mary Lathrap was heavily influenced by the poor conditions of Native Americans both on and off the Indian Reservations at the time. She urges the reader to try to listen and understand the experiences of those who are different from you, rather than to judge harshly.
I think the phrase “walk a mile in my shoes” actually describes quite well what God did when he became incarnate in Jesus. We celebrate at Christmas the amazing gift of grace that God would choose to come among us and live as a human being in Jesus. God effectively walked in our shoes for miles upon miles, which is why we say we can turn to Jesus to understand every pain we suffer and every human struggle. He has walked in our shoes.
I think it is the length God has gone to live among us and understand our human experience that inspires me to want to try to listen and understand others – especially those who have experience challenges with which I do not have to contend. I hope Jim and Rudy will help me understand the experience of black Americans a little more tonight. I hope you join us at 7:00 PM. Check my earlier email for the zoom link.
Here’s the link for Mary Lathrap’s poem, Judge Softly:
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