I fell into a conversation with someone riding next to me on an exercise bike at our local Planet Fitness. I had my green First Parish church T-shirt on, which led to a conversation about being the minister of the big white church right on the common. Between our workout puffs and groans, the fact that ours was the church that had put up the Black Lives Matter sign came up.
He said, pretty cordially but not without intention that he believed that “All Lives Matter” would be a better sign for our times. Dissuading trouble I said, it certainly is an easier one to agree with. Having let that sit, a few moments later I said “The trouble with the “All Lives Matter” banners is that it is a statement so obvious as to be impossible to critique. Pedaling away I remembered thinking that I had almost forgotten about the drama of BLM signs.
Wanting to build a bridge where there could have been alienation, I assured my bike neighbor that part of what makes America unique is the right of all of us to disagree with any statement. I told them that even in our liberal church there has been some drama about the phrase and the sign. I added that the very phrase “Black Lives Matter” was obviously designed to be provocative enough to start conversations like the one we are in.”
At some point in this conversation, we both agreed that we are in the middle of the most significant national moment of race relations either of us could remember. We both wondered if there would ever be a time when we were not talking about race.
I told him that one of the things that I learned over the last few years was just how persistent the pattern of some cops harassing black people was before cell phones started capturing them. I had not realized that the death of black men, some at the hands of the police, was not so much a new news story, as it was a newly covered news story. I could feel that that hit home for him.
There was a period of silence that followed that statement before he told me that because of all the drama the local police departments were struggling to draw recruits.
I told him, that I don’t envy the police, it seems like in a way that felt new, every one of their moves must feel scrutinized. They are in a rough spot, where it must feel safer to do nothing than follow their instincts.
Huffing and puffing together, we were both making our points, without building any walls. I agreed that it must be frustrating and hard for cops to not always be in at least a little bit of danger, but usually the source of bad news. My fellow Planet Fitness friend had dropped the fact that his cousin is a cop.
We laughed about the fact that blue lights on a cop car are called “misery lights.”
We were in a dance. Both trying to share our opinion, and yet keep the tone pleasant.
We bonded on our dismay and disgust at the riots that followed the death of George Floyd. I told him about a friend in Santa Monica who sat up in his window one night and just watched looters run wild. I assured him that I thought that the looting was criminal, and hardly an acceptable form of protest.
I shared with him that I wished that they had more strongly prosecuted the looters. I said we shouldn’t let bad behavior from any group go unchecked. It sets a bad precedent.
Building up our sweat, we bonded about the number of guns being a problem, shared views that the internet and social media create echo chambers for the disturbed, and talked about some of the flaws in a two-party system.
He said that he almost always voted Republican and I said that I was a Democrat who often voted for the Green Party, but we joked about how appropriate the bumper sticker, “Any functional adult for president” felt.
There was a lovely warmth we both worked to sustain in what was a loaded conversation.
Feeling that we were in a good space I said “Part of what makes the phrase Black Lives Matter important, is the fact that for the century between the official end of slavery in the 1860s and the Civil Rights movement a century later our nation averaged about one lynching per week. I asked him to consider how long it would take for the white world to have put an end to lynching if blacks were committing an average of one very public, very intentional murder per week for a century.
“Not long” he said followed by some silence.
That was a strong thing to ask him to consider, so I told him that the truth is it was easy for someone like me who never had to arrest anyone to hold these positions.” I remember saying “that being a cop was a lot harder than what I do.”
He agreed, and said that his cousin says “Being a cop involves a lot of sitting around until you are doing something uncomfortable for you and the person you are dealing with.”
“Don’t envy them” I said, “It’s no wonder they stick together.”
On the other hand, I told him that “I” often thought about what it must be like to be the color of people and carry the heritage of people who were literally sold as property to white people. That was a long time ago, but that still has to mess with you.”
He agreed and said he didn’t envy always having to be a minority in a town like Billerica.
Watching the TVs hovering over our heads we joked about the fact that regardless of politics both Fox and MSNBC both had good-looking reporters.
Wanting to keep the bond, but push him on the racial issues a little, I asked my gym acquaintance if he knew that black households, even after more than 150 years after slavery officially ended, had only one-tenth the wealth of the average white family, and added that although black men make up only 6% of the nation population, they account for nearly half the number of people in prison.
He said he did not know it was that stark.
I said that is why at least for me “All Lives Matter” falls short.
He sent me what felt like an olive branch when he kind of out of nowhere mentioned that “it must be hard to be a black guy in America.” which I appreciated, and said looking up at the TVs in front of us, as evidence of the inequality that surrounds us “that I was always struck by how few black people were the focus of crime dramas.”
Feeling like he had opened himself up to listening, I remember closing our conversation with a fist bump saying “You win! You’re younger and fitter than me, I’m hitting the showers.
I don’t think this person will visit us at church. I will likely never see him again. All I know is that we both walked away heartened that we could have a civil conversation that I didn’t want to quickly forget. I walked away feeling that this small encounter although hardly perfect was exactly what needs to happen. I bet he did too.
I suppose my desire to document this little encounter in modern America between a left-leaning pastor and a right-leaning small business owner needs a purpose and that purpose is simple enough to be boring to write. We all need to be as willing to listen as we are to speak.
Talking honestly but carefully building bridges between us allowed for us that softening magic that can happen when people share hard truths in a safe context. We obviously need the same kind of sharing and listening at the national level. So, I am asking you to pause, right here, take a 10-second break to stop, and ask yourself if you are as willing to listen, as you are to share your truth.
I know the request to listen is old news. It's boring and too simple and cliché for an editorial like this, but I have faith that our willingness to put down our proverbial microphones and listen is the missing ingredient in healing our nation.
We need bridges, not walls.
Bridges not walls.