Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To: Spirituality without Stereotypes, Religion without Ranting
by Lillian Daniel
Faith Words, September 2016, 208 pp.
In this excerpt from her latest book, Lillian Daniel describes an encounter where she ends up apologizing on behalf of the Christian Church to a stranger in the checkout line at Marshall’s.
When a stranger started talking to me in the long checkout line at Marshall’s, I welcomed the distraction. We commiserated about the inefficiencies of the system and both swore we wouldn’t be coming back to this store again. In other words, we exchanged pleasantries and lied to each other.
But as the time passed, both of us standing there with nothing to do, he started to talk about real things. It was one of those strangely intimate meetings. He wanted to talk, I was ready to listen, and the lady in front of us was processing a massive return from an earlier bad shopping day.
Before we started talking, I had noticed that he was wearing a turban, a sign of Sikh religion. But we weren’t talking about religion, thank God. Standing in line in the suburbs of Chicago, he told me he had been raised in India, moved to Chicago as an adult, but now most of his family lived in London. That included his favorite elderly aunt, a woman who was dearer to him than any living relative. Now she was dying, across the ocean in London, and he was trying to ﬁgure out whether to purchase an incredibly expensive airline ticket right away so that he could go to his aunt’s dying bedside before she passed away, or whether he should wait and ﬂy to London later, for her inevitable funeral.
“What would you do?” he asked me with a catch in his throat.
His emotion and openness startled me, so I deflected by asking more questions, heading straight to the land of logistics, where I was more comfortable. Could he make two trips? What were the family’s expectations? Was his aunt alone or did she have others by her side? Had he heard about the various discount air travel websites? Why not make both trips? What exactly was his financial situation?
“Well, I’m shopping at Marshall’s!” he replied, and that made us both laugh. He knew he could not afford to go to London twice. He could barely afford to go once. Last minute airline travel is expensive. Like most people, he was on a budget, hence his presence at an understaffed discount store. He had to make a choice.
Should he break the bank to buy the last minute ticket that would get him to her dying bedside in twenty-four hours and say good-bye to his aunt in person? Or should he save the money and plan ahead, to go to London for the funeral, when the rest of the family would be there? He was really wrestling with this, trying to make a decision.
Once I realized I couldn’t solve his problem with obvious answers and travel tips, we talked more deeply. Knowing he could make only one trip, he was leaning toward making the trip the next day, to be in her presence, despite the enormous expense. I told him about all the times I had visited my mother when she was dying, when it felt like I was using the airplane like a bus, racking up credit card bills, never knowing if this visit would be the last. At least she and I had been in the same country. His situation was harder. But I told him I was glad I had gone.
Then, in the interest of honesty, I felt I should tell him about the other times when I had chosen not to do something. Looking back, there were plenty of things I had missed – weddings, funerals, celebrations, crises – all for good reasons like money, work, and family. Even though I had my sensible reasons for missing those things, when I look back today, I can’t remember what exactly they were. Whatever the reasons, they weren’t important enough to withstand the test of time.
What I do recall are the feelings of regret that remain with me to this day. Work deadlines and family sports schedules that seemed so urgent at the time fade, but those big things are the bright lights that stay turned on in our memories and remind us we were alive. I should have gone to most of them. He nodded as if he had been right there with me, and said, “I want to see my aunt while she is still alive. I want to remember.”
Suddenly a flashing light above the cashier’s head broke our connection. “I can help you down here at number five, sir,” she called, and with that, we were separated, he to his payment station and me to mine. It seemed too abrupt but we moved as instructed. My cart was full of items that looked unfamiliar to me. Why did I think I needed these things? They were useless, cold, and plastic. I was having trouble remembering why I thought I needed them in the first place. As I picked up my receipt, I knew it was time to leave, but I didn’t want to go without saying something to this man whose story hung between us. As he collected his receipt, I tapped his shoulder and said, “Hey, I’m going to pray for you, and for your aunt.”
I wish I could tell you that his eyes lit up with joy at our powerful connection but it was quite different. He pulled back almost in horror, and backed away from me. I felt terrible, as if I had poisoned this beautiful moment. But what poisoned it? I knew it was my announcement that I would pray for him. I was mad at myself. I had to introduce that religion thing, right?
Besides, I could have just prayed for him without an accompanying announcement. Prayers still work when you don’t brag about performing them. In fact, if you take Jesus’ word for it, they work better that way. I didn’t have to blow the whole moment. I made this poor man uncomfortable. My words were like a roll call at the dentist’s office; no one wants to be in line for what’s next. My prayer plans made him back away from me.
He was out in the parking lot before I was, no doubt rushing to his phone to tell someone in India that yet another obnoxious American had tried to convert him.
He probably associated the phrase “I’ll pray for you” with other Christians who had said that to him and judged him for his Sikh religion.
Was I saying, “I’ll pray for you,” because I wanted to convert him? Was I saying, “I’ll pray for you,” because I was judging him in some way? Was I praying for him in a condescending way, as if my prayers would work better than his, so he could relax now that a professional was on it? He had every right to say, “Wait a second, lady, don’t you assume that we believe the same thing.” And that could well have been true, but I didn’t care. I wanted to pray for him to let him know that I valued him and the tender story he had told me. It had nothing to do with belief in my faith or his. But clearly that hadn’t come through. I pushed my cart full of crap to my car, and clicked open the trunk, only to discover it was already full of other things I didn’t need.
Just then I heard these running steps behind me, and a screech of a grocery cart pulled to a stop, and it was him. He’d run outside after me. “I wanted to say thank you,” he said.
“I wanted to apologize,” I said.
“For what?” he asked.
“For saying I’d pray for you, for the Christian Church, for whoever said that to you in your past and didn’t mean it, or for whoever said it and did mean it but wanted to convert you. I want to apologize for all the religious whack jobs out there in the world and for the disproportionate number of them who attend church in the western suburbs of Chicago. I want to apologize for how the Sikh people have been treated. I want to apologize for the high price of air travel, for the fact that your aunt is so terribly sick, and for the long line at Marshall’s, too.”
“That’s a lot to apologize for,” he said, looking rather stunned. “So you’re responsible for all of that?” And then we laughed.
Excerpted from Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To by Lillian Daniel. Used with permission from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.