My sixteen-month-old granddaughter Charlee is a slow-to-get-to-know-ya kind of person. She’s suspicious and slow-to-trust anyone with whom she has no previous experiences. This discomfort with strangers is quite natural and common even in adults. It is the byproduct of our social evolution as a species, but it is learning to get past this distrust of others who do not look, act, think, or believe like us that speaks to our better angels and reveals our best selves.
I was thinking about this recently after a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who, like my wife and I, has been taking regular advantage of the various concerts occuring weekly in downtown Sandusky, on the Jackson Street Pier, featuring an eclectic selection of musical genres. While discussing the various performers we had witnessed this summer, I mentioned how much we enjoyed the hip-hop concert headlined by The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, especially because the audience was a true representation of the city’s population. He shared that he briefly attended that particular show as well, but it got “too dark” for him. I’m pretty sure you understand that by “dark” he was referring to our fellow concertgoers, not nightfall.
I was so disappointed and saddened by his response. I wanted him to be better than that.
I have not lived within the city limits for over twenty-five years now, but growing up on Sandusky’s east side in the sixties and seventies, my experience was of a very segregated city. Even as a child, I knew which were “white” neighborhoods and which were “black” neighborhoods. Because I attended Catholic school, sports provided my only exposure to African American kids. After getting married, my wife and I started our family in a house also on the east side of town and lived there for ten years; however, when we were selling our home and moving out of town due to a job change, I had a couple neighbors all-but-plead with me not to sell our home to a black family.
I was so disappointed and saddened by their response. I wanted Sandusky to be better than that.
In my life, it has been my experience that my moments of greatest growth as an individual and moments of real connection with my community as a whole have occurred when I stepped outside of my comfort zone — even to the point of actively seeking out groups of people and environments that make me uncomfortable. In college, I regularly attended dances sponsored by the African American Student Association. A friend and I were often the only white boys in the room. Also in college, I befriended a professor who happened to be the pastor at local African Methodist Episcopal church, and I attended several of his charismatic services much unlike the staid Catholic mass I knew. Although I’m a straight man, I’ve gone to gay bars, drag shows, gay parades, and LGBTQ Pride events.
Currently, my wife and I volunteer with OhGo, serving some of the needy of the Sandusky community every other Thursday by helping with OhGo’s mobile food pantry. Although, as I already mentioned, I grew up in Sandusky, the food pantry has taken me into neighborhoods I had never and would never have visited were it not for volunteering.
Each of these situations began awkwardly. I was a stranger to the folks whose comfort zones I was invading. Like Charlee, they were not sure if they could trust me, and I was leery of how they might respond to my presence. The reality with Charlee, however, is if you give her a little bit of time to get used to you, and especially if you keep coming back, she starts to feel comfortable with you and to enjoy your company. The same has been the case for me in each of my taking of social risks.
The still-to-be-fully-tapped-into beauty and strength of the Sandusky community should be its diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, etc.), but to fully realize that beauty and strength will require the majority of us to be willing to visit places, attend events, and seek out and to welcome folks unlike ourselves with open minds and open hearts. To their great credit, our civic leaders clearly understand and promote this philosophy of inclusiveness, and it has been a primary driver of the renaissance Sandusky is currently experiencing. I only hope that the citizens of the greater Sandusky area will do their part to embrace and be part of the diversity that makes us special.
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