Bayview/Hunter’s Point was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Francisco and it was the only place I could afford to buy a home. Living there, I learned to be alert, lock my doors, and generally be smart about when and where I walked. But I had yet to learn the most important lesson.
Walking down the street one day with my dad, I noticed two men ahead of us whose appearance raised all sorts of alarms in me. Before I could nudge my dad to cross the street and avoid getting mugged, he had jovially greeted them; “Hello there! Beautiful afternoon, huh?” The two men looked us up and down, smiled and said, “Sure is.” My dad and I then stopped and chatted with them.
Oh, what a lesson I learned that day! My dad reached out to these men with kindness. His assumption was not that they were dangerous strangers but that they were just like us; plain old normal people. I learned that day that the smartest thing I could do when I felt afraid of someone was to look that person in the eye, and say hello as a preemptive strike toward acknowledging each other’s humanity.
I am not naive. In my 20’s, I was a woman living alone, often in really bad neighborhoods. For four years, I lived in Santa Ana, Calif., in the middle of a neighborhood ruled by a powerful, drug dealing gang called F Troop. The irony here is that because I was surrounded by a violent gang, no one messed with this neighborhood and I felt safe. I learned to treat my neighbors as just that: neighbors.
All around us we can find people or situations that scare us and we can easily become mired in fear. Or we can try to see the stranger as just another plain old human being. Marie Curie writes: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
But understanding takes a lot more effort than knee jerk fear and loathing. Fear mongers use scare tactics to deliberately arouse public alarm about particular issues. This is increasingly popular both on the national and local front. Maureen Dowd writes; “the only thing we have to fear is fear mongering itself.” Once you recognize these hateful tactics being thrown at you, use your common sense to form your own opinion. The second step toward understanding may be as simple as stopping to greet the stranger.
“Scared and sacred are spelled with the same letters.” (Alan Cohen) We each choose how we approach our world. We can be scared or we can seek the sacred. We can live in fear or we can open our hearts. It is time to dial down the fear and dial up the compassion in our community. After all, 1 Peter 3:13 asks us, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?”
Corby Varness is a lay preacher at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Montesano.