The Man at the Well
About a week after the tragic death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, I pulled up to the Watermill Express in town to fill my water jugs. Both dispensers were occupied, so I sat in the car until one was available. A young black woman got into her vehicle, and as she started to back out, another SUV pulled in between her and the building, essentially cutting line. The woman looked at me as she passed, like she was watching to see my reaction. I was in no hurry, though. I smiled and waved at her that everything was fine. I watched an older black man get out of his vehicle to start filling his water jugs.
When the other water dispenser opened up, I drove around and backed my car in and carried around the first of the jugs to fill, along with a bleach cloth to wipe down everything I would be touching. The older man was wearing a mask, which reminded me that I had left mine on the dash. I told him, “Good morning!” And he responded likewise.
While I was filling up my jugs, I felt impressed to start up a conversation with the gentlemen, but the introvert part of me began arguing that I didn’t know what to say or talk about. The thought of doing something out of my comfort zone is often a sign that God is involved. I realized this conversation might be more for this man rather than me, so that was the impetus for me to open my mouth.
As he started filling up his last jug, I asked him if he was from Taylor. He said, “No, I’m from Bartlett.”
I asked if I could ask him a personal question. He said, “Yes.”
I knew the answer before I started talking, but I asked if he had experienced racism. He said, “Every day of my life, and I’m 77 years old.”
I told him I was so sorry that he had gone through that. We began talking about all the marches and protests going on, and he said, “Maybe something will change this time since the marches are still happening.”
I told him that my son was a federal law enforcement officer, and that I had always defended law enforcement because of my son's character and because of my friends and my friend’s kids that were in law enforcement. They’re good people, and I applied that to all law enforcement. I told the man that my son, though, was the one who first told me about the systemic racism among a number of police departments around the country. And I told him he had also been marching in the Washington, D.C. protests this week to try to change that.
We talked for several more minutes, and laughed as we gave each other air elbow bumps, and went on our way.
Okay, Lord, I think that conversation was as much for me as for him.
The Woman at the Well
For the past decade and longer, the Lord has been putting thoughts in my head that we all need to get to know each other better, but we have to make the effort to connect and especially to listen, and to change, if need be, if we want racial disparities to become a thing of the past.
I was raised in a community not far from the border of Mexico where 85 percent of the population was Hispanic. The civil rights movement for blacks was a world away. But my town and much of South Texas went through a Hispanic civil rights movement in the late sixties and seventies when things started to shift from a majority of white leadership in local government, law enforcement, education, and even segregated churches to more demographically-represented leadership and participation in all of these areas. And that needed to happen.
My parents raised my siblings and me with the belief that we are all equal in the eyes of our Creator, and we were taught to treat everyone with respect. I refused to admit this for years, but I realize that even in my home, there were still threads of inherent racism passed down to us, as unintentional as they were. Otherwise, why weren’t some of my best friends Hispanic? Things began changing for the better, especially with my children's generation, but it was a painful process for many to get to that point.
I wrote about the hyphenated descriptors over 20 years ago, but I still hear the term ‘Mexican-American’ or 'African-American' being used for people even though many of their ancestors may have been here long before a lot of ‘European-Americans’ arrived. That latter term is rarely used— like that group belonged and the others didn’t. Lord, help us. I’m looking forward to the day when we stop using assumed country/continent-of-origin modifiers for certain Americans. They are Americans. Period.
I’ve also been hearing the term ‘white supremacy’ being batted around lately, and some are using it as a blanket label for all whites. Personally, I associate that term with the highly offensive Ku Klux Klan and their legacy of hatred, vigilanteism, and murder, so I cannot and will not accept that label to describe me and my family and most of the people I know. I think ‘white privilege’ is the more accurate term, and speaking for myself, I didn’t have a clue how I benefited from that compared to my brothers and sisters of color. But I understand that better now. And we all should be attempting to understand that better instead of deflecting the conversation away from the core issue.
In 1996, my husband and I were invited to a graduation party of a friend of my son’s when he was a junior in high school. This friend’s mother, Marissa Martinez Garcia, was one of my classmates in school, and we were friends, but not the kind of friends that hang out in each other’s home or take trips with. At her daughter’s party, I remember sitting there watching Marissa laughing and interacting with her sisters and other family members, and regretting that we didn’t know each other better. And I feel the same about Becky Garcia Guitar, Hilda Avila, Hilda Rodriguez, Anna Adams, Hilda Castor Benavidez, Elia Del Toro, and others. I’m so sorry, my friends. I definitely missed out.
Around fourteen years ago in the city in which I lived prior to my current community, I became friends with a woman of color in my neighborhood. I joined her and her visiting family and friends at a get together at her home for some event. I was surprised when I heard her tell her son he needed to get back to Austin before dark. She told me it wasn't safe for him to be driving after dark in case he got pulled over by the police. That made no sense to me at the time; I thought she was just being an over protective mother. I realize now that I raised my children in a whole different world.
Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. ~Trevor Noah in Born a Crime
The second half of this article mentions little of the actual Samaritan ‘woman at the well’ that Jesus met one day (as told in John, chapter 4 of the Bible). But I love that story. At that time women were chattel with little or no rights, and Samaritans were hated and looked down on by the Jews because they had intermarried with non-Jews. But Jesus elevated both the Samaritan woman’s gender and her race to a level on par with everyone else. He KNEW her and her less-than-stellar history, and yet He accepted her and offered her a better way of living.
I know that throughout Christian history people have used the Bible to justify horrendous wrongs, including slavery and racism, and I believe people are going to have to answer to God about that one day. The same can be said of too many people today putting words in God’s mouth to justify wrong actions and attitudes. Lord, help us.
Let’s look for opportunities for dialogue with people outside our comfortable circles and practice:
listening more than speaking,
understanding instead of judging,
offering compassion rather than criticism, and
responding in love instead of anger.
Jesus called it ‘living water’, and I, too, am a woman at the well in need of it daily.
Donna Van Cleve
Faith, Social Issues
Modern day water well
Tommie Adams, Jr. snapped this photo of my sons, Jack Van Cleve & Blake Huffman (and I claim Tommie, too!) after 6 hours and 9.5 miles of peaceful protest marching in Washington, D.C. in early June.
Tommie, Jack and Blake unmasked at Jack and Blake's wedding in October 2019
My family and I got to know Tommie during the weekend of my sons' wedding where Tommie played the cello, accompanied by my granddaughter, Audrie. I messaged him about a week after George Floyd's murder, and I asked if he had ever been targeted by the police during his life. He said police have stopped him a number of times for no reason, but it wasn't until he was in college and listening to his fellow Black classmates talk about similar experiences, that he realized he had been targeted because of his skin color.
On one particular stop, he was told he fit the description of a person who had committed a crime in the area.
He said, "Weeks later when the actual assailant was apprehended, and the story was aired on TV, the only thing we had in common was that we were both Black.
"Sadly this continued to happen, and I realized that it might have been my Midwestern demeanor from growing up in Nebraska that often saved me. Or I was just pulled over or approached in public settings where there were many people around. The thing that was constant was the eeriness of most times not receiving an answer to why I was stopped.
"When you realize you are only seen and defined by the color of your skin vs. your character, it definitely changes you and your perspective on how you walk through life."
Tommie ended the conversation with, "I know you understand more than you know. Trust that voice that speaks in your heart that says something is not right here. I have learned to listen to it. And when you see or hear something unjust towards another human being, say something as you are called to as a human. Have conversations and take the action to really listen as well as look at oneself. Ask yourself how you can contribute to positive change for everyone. The opportunity is now to start to change our old narrative. And not just as allies but as humanitarians, leaders and teachers.”
I think we all would do well to remember Tommie's words.
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Cotulla High School
Yearbook - 1972
L to R from top:
Hilda Castor Benavidez
Elia Del Toro
Becky Garcia Guitar
Donna Casey Van Cleve