Sitting with Another

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor. . . , [rather,] go sit down at the lowest place. . . .” Luke 14:8-10


            Ann Atwater was a poor, black woman, born in a small town in North Carolina in 1935. Married at the age of fourteen, she followed her husband to Durham, where they had two children. Ann’s husband, however, abandoned the family shortly thereafter and she became a single mom, struggling to make ends meet. She nearly lost her home when she fell behind in her rent, but housing activists in Durham came to her rescue. As a result of the experience, Ann became a housing activist herself, and in the mid-1960s, she joined and then led Operation Breakthrough, a nonprofit committed to battling economic inequality, poverty, and racial strife. Her notoriety in Durham eventually resulted in her becoming the vice president of the local Democratic Party and the first female deacon in her church.

            Claiborne Ellis was a poor, white man, born in Durham to a millworker and his wife. Claiborne grew up in a racist household, one where his parents blamed blacks for their problems. Claiborne eventually married, and he and his wife started a family. Sadly, their son was born blind and deaf, with intellectual disabilities. Claiborne owned a gas station, which did not earn him enough to provide adequately for his wife and disabled son. Claiborne continued to cultivate his racist ideology by joining the local Ku Klux Klan, where he eventually became the Grand Cyclops of the local chapter, and a prominent spokesperson in Durham politics against integration.

            Ann Atwater and Claiborne Ellis were about as unlikely a pair of people to come together as you could possibly imagine, and yet that is exactly what happened in 1971, when local leaders in Durham selected Atwater and Ellis to co-chair a charrette to discuss how the city might go about integrating its schools in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education. A charrette is a decision-making and planning process by which people of different perspectives on an issue or problem are required to come together and sit down for intense face-to-face conversations to try to reach common ground. In this case, the Durham charrette was over a 10-day period, with 12-hour working sessions each day.

            Atwater and Ellis were both reluctant to serve as leaders of the process and, initially, refused even to sit next to one another at the meeting, much less collaborate as co-chairs. In a word, they hated each other. Over the course of the ten-day period, however, their mutual hostility gradually softened, and they began listening to one another, and appreciated that the social and economic circumstances of poor black and poor white communities in Durham were not that different. But it wasn’t until the end of the charrette, when they brought in kids from both black and white communities to speak at the meeting, and heard the children express a willingness to go to school together, that the animosity between Atwater and Ellis finally broke down and they saw the common ground upon which they stood.

            At the conclusion of their meetings, Atwater and Ellis together presented a joint proposal to the Durham City Council in favor of integrating the city schools, and Ellis publicly renounced his membership in the KKK. As Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies documents, Atwater and Ellis also became life-long friends from that day forward.

            The Durham charrette is an example of what can happen when people are pushed to look at the world from another’s vantage point. Too often we remain siloed, choosing to be in community only with people who look like us, talk like us, and share our own narrow experience of the world. It can be threatening to sit down with someone who is different, whose personal history, appearance, culture, language, politics and social networks seem alien. Most of us, if we’re honest, are fearful in such settings, anxious about having our own worldview challenged, worried about not being accepted, nervous that ‘the other’ will disturb the safety of our comfortable existence. It therefore takes a certain amount of courage and faith to sit down at the table with somebody different, and to look at things from their point of view; but such an exercise, while challenging and painful, almost always results in growth.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus arrives for a sabbath dinner at the home of some Pharisees, and he notices that all the guests immediately scramble for the best seats around the table. Everyone wants to sit near the head of the table, with the host and among the honored guests; no one wants to sit at the far end of the table with the outcasts. Likewise, Jesus observes, when we throw our own dinner party, we do the same: we usually invite only those people who are like us, friends, neighbors and family; and we forget about everyone else.

This is all wrong, Jesus says. When you’re at someone else’s party, you should sit among the lowly, those people you would not ordinarily choose as a dinner companion. And when you host your own party, don’t just invite those people closest to you, but entertain all the people you usually avoid, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Part of Jesus’ point obviously is about the dangers of pride and the importance of humility. We shouldn’t think so much of ourselves that we ignore those around us who we perceive to be less worthy of our company. “For all who exalt themselves,” Jesus warns, “will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But there is more going on here: Jesus’ admonition to encounter those people we would rather avoid is not just an exercise in simple humility; it is also the first step toward achieving real empathy. As Christian writer Sue Monk Kidd describes it:  “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify with another, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world through another’s eyes.” 

            The point of Jesus’ parable is not to deny us the company of friends and family, but rather to provoke us to go beyond them, so that we begin to recognize that we share more with ‘the other’ than first meets the eye. Before we are male or female, white or black, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, we belong to God; and too often we allow the partisan claims of family, tribe, or class to obscure the truth of a common human dignity that is God’s good creation. To be a follower of Jesus is thus, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and to be empathetic to the cares and concerns of every human being.

George Washington Carver put it this way:  “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong; for sometime in life you will have been all of these.”

When we meet someone who is truly empathetic, we rarely forget them and, if we’re smart, we hold on to them as dear friends. They tend to be people who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, are content instead merely to be by our side, to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay patiently with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and instead sit calmly with us in our weakness, that is a true and holy friend.

Which brings me back to Ann Atwater and Claiborne Ellis. After the 1971 Durham charrette, Atwater and Ellis remained friends, but pursued separate careers in community organizing. In 2005, Ellis died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. His memorial service was held in a local funeral home. Atwater was the first to arrive and she found a seat in the front row, near the make-shift altar. As she waited there for the service to begin, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Woman,” said a white man’s voice behind her, “you must be in the wrong place. This is Claiborne Ellis’ funeral.” “I know whose funeral it is,” replied Atwater. “It is family only,” the white man said, not to be deterred. At which point, Ann Atwater rose and turned to face the man, and as everyone there looked on, she said quietly but firmly: “Claiborne Ellis was my brother. Who was he to you?” She then slowly walked to the lectern, and began the service, as Claiborne Ellis’ dying wish was that Ann Atwater be the one and only person to give his eulogy.  

            As we conclude our summer season together, may we too learn from this unlikely pair how genuine empathy can turn even the hardest of hearts. Let us pray: “O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Help us to make room at our tables and in our hearts for all your people; give us the grace to look upon one another in genuine empathy; take away the arrogance and pride which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all peoples may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ. Amen.”