FROM "F*** OFF!" TO FRIENDS (July 27, 2017)

I love the Ohio State Fair for two reasons: the vanilla ice cream cone covered in sprinkles… and the second time I go to get the exact same thing.

Last summer I attended the fair twice, obviously. The first time my wonderful fiancée (now wife) came with me to see one of my favorite rappers, Lecrae, perform. The second time I went with two of my roommates.

As we were heading towards the exit we walked past two men near a souvenir stand. One was wearing a shirt that said “BLACKS COMMIT HATE CRIMES AND SAY RACIAL SLURS TOO.” A younger guy next to him had a red “Make America Great Again” hat on. We walked about ten steps past them, and my roommates nodded as soon as I began to say, “Let’s go back and talk to those guys.”

In the wake of recent police shootings, nationwide racial tension, and US vs. THEM screams from every direction, I felt like silently judging the “racist asshole” in my own mind did us both a disservice. As you can tell by my immediate thought towards him as I walked by… my heart needed some softening as well. I didn’t know that’s exactly what was going to happen. I'm not sure I cared.

I asked the man what he was hoping to accomplish by wearing that shirt. I truly think I wanted to engage in a productive conversation. After about 30 seconds of telling us “Hippie, Obama-lovers” to “F*** off,” it seemed clear that he wasn’t quite sure what he was hoping to accomplish either. Other than… “It’s only fair that white people should be able to use the ‘N word,’” too. He stormed off angrily.

When our focus is on being right rather than connecting, there is no room for love. When we don’t search for common ground and when we don’t listen, there’s no chance for unity. When our goal is to prove our point or “win,” nobody is heard. Nobody is validated. We all lose. In those few moments of arguing and talking loudly over each other... it felt like we all lost. Nobody was heard; nobody was united. We moved backwards, and the man walked away angry. Everybody lost.

Then things got way cooler.

The other guy standing by him in the hat was a lot younger. I distinctly remember his defined jawline and large blue eyes. As weird as that may sound, it was necessary for me to really see him. He had large and kind of rugged hands. It made sense later when he shared about his childhood being full of fights and his young adult life being filled with working long days to try to make enough money to get by.

Here’s where I was wrong. I immediately transferred my frustration from the other man towards this guy. My first question came with a raised voice probably had the words “racist” or “bigot” in it. This was before I heard his story. Before I listened to his sincere voice. Before I truly saw him or gave him a chance.

It was about one minute into our new conversation I realized this guy didn’t even know the other man with the unfortunate shirt. The older man happened to see this guy’s hat and strike up a conversation with him. The younger guy, Derek, was actually working one of the stands at the fair. He was selling toys and knickknacks, trying to make a living. He was getting ready to get married. I so quickly associated Derek with the angry old man that he almost didn’t have a chance to tell his story. I almost let my desire for justice and “being right” get in the way of ever truly hearing this guy or connecting with him. We laughed as we both determined the older man was sort of a lunatic.

Within minutes we were smiling and sharing childhood stories. Derek didn’t seem like an angry racist anymore. He seemed more like a potential friend with a journey, a story I wanted to hear and understand.

We actually grew up in the same suburb of Columbus and had mutual friends. I began to hear his heart and he began to hear mine. We laughed quite a bit and challenged each other’s views as we shared them. We talked about race, policing, prison, the upcoming election, God, childhood stories, and probably even the Buckeyes, the whole time engaged in one another’s ideas.

I actually really liked Derek and gained an understanding of how his convictions and worldviews came to be. Many of mine were different than his, but we had way different stories. Our 24-year journeys leading to the Ohio State Fair that muggy summer night had very different twists and turns. Neither of which were any more “right” than the other.

Have you ever been in a conversation where the goal was so much more about connecting than being right that it was safe to say absolutely anything? Me either… until that night. At one point I actually stared him in the eyes, laughing, and said, “Man, you don’t actually believe what you’re saying. In your heart, you don’t even believe it.” He paused and smiled real big. Maybe he was taking a little deeper look at what he really believed. I think we both were.

One of the most tangible expressions of love we can ever receive is a listening ear. I don’t think at any point Derek had the goal of proving me wrong. Rather, I think he was truly interested in hearing my story and sharing his. I think in many ways his story needed to be validated. There were years of pain and life experiences that led him to his views and understanding of the world around him. Who am I to dispute that? How could I tell him how his life experiences ought to make him feel?

There were certainly moments where I disagreed so sharply with him that I couldn't refrain from offering a different idea. To be honest we disagreed about many of the things we discussed. But the beautiful thing was... the space for challenging one another lovingly and patiently had already been created. Patience and grace led the way. There was unity. There was common ground. There was a listening ear.

I left the fair for the second and final time that night feeling like my life had been changed. I was grateful to have met Derek. We became Facebook friends and chat from time to time. We may never vote the same, dress the same, or share many core convictions. But we do share in something way more defining than any of those things... we are human beings in need of love. In need of being seen. Being understood. Being heard. Thank you, Derek, for hearing me. I hope you read this; I hope we cross paths again.

cw