I am afraid for my family. I am afraid for my community. I am afraid for my country.
Several weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my wife and I were eating our dinner at the Chinese buffet in our community. I heard a commotion over by the cash register.
At first, I thought it was an overly excited softball team after a big win. Then, I heard “do any of you have jobs,” followed by “you’re all probably on welfare.”
The increasingly loud voice shouted, “Go back where you came from.” Some racial slurs, the most offensive kind, filled the air.
I went over to the cash register. Eight young women of color in Muslim garb were standing there, ranging from maybe 8 years old to 20 or so.
I asked what was going on and was told that a woman was calling them n—— and telling them to get out of the country.
She then asked me, looking a bit confused, if the woman doing the shouting realized she was in a Chinese restaurant.
I went out to the sidewalk where the restaurant manager was talking with the disruptive woman and her male companion. I got my phone out in case I needed to call the police; she was quite agitated.
The woman looked at me and asked if I were calling the police.
I replied, “Not yet,” explaining that I was there to provide safe passage for any of the young women who wished to leave the restaurant.
Finally, the woman and her male companion walked to their SUV. As she got into her vehicle, she shouted – to no one in particular – for whom she thought people should vote in the upcoming election.
Why did this scare me?
I was not surprised there are people like her in my community. There always have been and always will be; this is nothing new. This is not what scared me.
I was concerned because she felt free, unprovoked by anything more than the color of these young women’s skin and their religious garb, to shout ugly and foul-mouthed things at them in a crowded restaurant on a Sunday evening in my community.
She felt she had license to verbally assault strangers young enough to be her daughters and granddaughters in a restaurant without any consequences. I found that unsettling.
Reflecting upon this, I realized what really scared me: She was right.
She was free to do this without any consequences. No one intervened. Everyone else sat at their tables, enjoying their meal, doing nothing.
For this woman, there were no consequences except a request from the manager that they move outside.
That restaurant should have emptied out. Everyone should have been on the sidewalk forming a corridor of safety for these young and shaken women.
The foul-mouthed woman did not scare me; the passivity of everyone else scared me.
As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
That woman had a restaurant full of co-conspirators that Sunday evening in August.
William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming:”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” and the center gives way. Jesus was concerned about what happens when the “best lack all conviction.”
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot,” Jesus said.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
It is time for some salt and light because I am getting truly concerned.
Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.