We were running late as we hurried into the big historic red brick church in downtown Wilmington. The sanctuary went dark as soon as we entered the foyer. I turned around to find one-year-old John, his hand on the wall switch, wriggling from my husband’s arms. Tom wrestled him to his other hip and flipped the switch to restore the light. We were a few minutes late to the service— worshippers in fancy array were already settled in their pews. I shielded my face and glanced down, hoping no one would look at me. Ben walked alongside me as I tugged on Dawn, our special needs daughter, to keep her moving.
We were the only white people in the church.
We’d just sat down when colorful fabric caught Dawn’s notice. A woman in front of us wore a beautiful, bright patterned dress. Dawn reached out for a closer look at the fabric she admired and at the same second, Tom reached out to grab Dawn’s hand. At the commotion, the lady turned around to see Tom’s hand in mid-air, one inch away from the backside of her dress. Tom whispered an apology and we slunk down lower into our seats.
I took a deep breath, hoping to model calm and quiet for our crew. With a smirk, Tom leaned into me and whispered, “Touch your hair.” I melted. In my haste, I’d forgotten to remove all my sponge rollers.
Surely no one would invite us weirdos back.
Our friend Retha had asked us to join her that Sunday for the choir’s anniversary celebration. She and her mother, with scores of singers, clad in matching long white robes, walked in step as they sang. After the presentation, the minister gave an impactful clear message from Scripture.
Not only did Retha invite us to her church, she also invited us into her heart. We came to know her while she was a student intern at the paper mill with Tom, and we grew to love her deeply. I often invited Retha and other single friends over for meals because there was always room for one more. We spent lots of time around that little kitchen table; it was one of the best ways to get to know people. We’d hold hands in prayer, share food and laugh at the same stories. There were no barriers or influences to keep us apart. Retha also loved our kids and helped us with them long before she married and became a mama herself.
After graduation she flew off to Florida to begin her new life. It was hard to see her go. When she came back to marry Stan, none of the celebrators cheered more heartily than us. Our friendship deepened over the years and miles. We talked about everything.
I’ve often wished we lived closer to each other. When you care about a relationship, you find ways to keep it strong. You pray for each other and stay current. We’ve cried on the phone together as we’ve shared our painful experiences. I can’t imagine not having her in my life— she’s one of my closest friends.
Although we had our own unique church traditions, our friendship centered around our shared faith in Jesus.
I’ll admit, one of Retha’s traditions I experienced while visiting her family in Florida, was difficult to accept. I woke up Sunday morning to heavenly smells wafting down the hall from the kitchen. My mouth watered as I pulled up to the table and stared at the most glorious breakfast I’d ever seen. “You’ll need to eat a lot; it will be a long time before lunch,” she advised. I said I thought I’d be fine.
I enjoyed the church service that morning; especially its customs that were new to me. First was Sunday School, then we transitioned into various veins of ministry. After we’d been there several hours, it seemed the service was winding down. I enjoyed it all, but my stomach was growling. Just as I glanced at my watch, the singing started all over again. That was the longest Sunday service I’ve ever attended. I remembered the admonition to eat a big breakfast and I wished I’d stuck leftovers in my purse. I couldn’t wait to get back to Retha’s table to experience her cooking—a taste of heaven.
More recently, I was worried about the increased racial tension in 2020 and I wanted to know Retha’s opinion. On social media, people were wagging fingers in my face, as if I were guilty because of my skin color. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. What was my responsibility? “They’re not talking about you,” she said.
I can’t walk in someone else’s shoes. I’ve realized in the last year, how easy it is to make judgments about other people and about experiences I haven’t had. I’ll never know how Retha felt when she was assumed to be a landscaper in her own yard, while cleaning up after a devastating hurricane. Or when Retha’s neighbor asked if her son was visiting, after he’d spotted a black young man running in the neighborhood. I can’t walk in her shoes, but I’ve merged with her as a sister and a friend, enough to know we’re more alike than different. It’s our relationship with the Lord, love for family and affection for each other that draws us together. The freedom to be ourselves and to care enough to listen to each other. Those are the things that matter in all friendships.
I don’t think of Retha as my black friend and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t say, “Myra, my white friend.” I just say, “My dear friend Retha.” I remember my close friends by their names and how I feel when we’re together. I forget what hue their skin happens to be.
Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it.Joni Eareckson Tada