Less than one week after the terrorist shooting in San Bernadino left 14 people dead and untold lives forever changed, a mundane act of civility illustrated for me how on-edge many of us are.
I was exiting a Speedway in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb known for its diversity and cultural inclusion. Walking a few feet behind me were two men, probably in their mid-30s, definitely on their way to work. Real work: they were dressed in tough but well worn jeans, tan Carhartt jackets and boots that had seen many miles of action. Both carried presumably full coffee thermoses; one had a Cleveland Browns sticker on it.
As I approached the door, two women dressed in full burqas were walking toward the entrance. On reflex, I held the door open and waited for them to step inside. Neither of them spoke or made direct eye contact with me but both women nodded their heads slightly in thanks.
My mind was far ahead on my morning commute and work schedule as I headed to my car, so it took a few steps before I realized the two men in Carhartt jackets were walking beside me.
“Hey, man, why’d you hold the door for them?” the shorter one asked.
It took a second to register he was speaking to me and what he was referencing.
“Back there?” I said. “Habit, I guess. I’d have held it for you.”
At no point did the two men block my progress or threaten me, but they kept pace as I closed the short distance to my car.
“Yeah, but we’re not shouting, “’Praise Allah’ and ‘I’m going to blow you up,’” the taller, slightly older-looking man said.
I stopped and faced them, my car just feet behind me.
“I didn’t hear them shout that,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” the shorter one said. “They’re Muslim. They could be planning just about anything. They’re certainly not worried about your safety.”
I stepped back, and tried to nonchalantly unlock my car door with the key fob.
“I don’t get the feeling you guys are all that invested in my safety right now,” I said, with far less confidence than I was going for. “You’re not trying to make me feel bad for being polite to two women, are you?”
“You’d regret it if they turned around and blew you up,” the taller man said.
“I can’t argue with you there,” I said. “I would regret that.” Trying to close the conversation, I reached for my car door and said, “Well, Merry Christmas, guys.”
They smirked and the shorter one said, “Yeah, and happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and whatever.”
I hurriedly slipped behind the wheel of my car and sat for a minute, rattled by the exchange. It occurred to me that I felt more threatened by the two men in Carhartts than I had been by the two women in burqas. The realization hit me: that’s exactly what the anti-American terrorists want, isn’t it? Division, fear, mistrust; all the seeds of conflict and hatred. I can refuse to participate, but that doesn’t mean I can stay out of the swirling emotions that overwhelm us all.
No one is untouched by the mass shooting epidemic America is experiencing; sadness, anger and fear dominate our headlines and conversations, regardless of each shooter’s motivations. And while the cultural and political conversation is too complicated for this discussion, I am sharing this story to direct you to a resource that can help you deal with those emotions. United Way’s 2-1-1 service can connect you to sources for mental health and counseling, including pastoral and religious counseling. If you or someone you know is struggling with the impact of current events, 2-1-1 can help you find someone to talk to. It’s a door held open for anyone, anytime.
As I started to drive away, I saw the two women in burqas leaving the store. A younger man, wearing jeans and a worn construction coat, held the door for them. And I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes were caused by relief, gratitude, or dust stirred by the car’s heater fan.