by Renee Edington
I’m Renee Edington, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and a summer intern* with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) Student.Go program working with a team of CBF field personnel and interns on a social media campaign to encourage a welcoming attitude toward immigrants. I’m in the middle of a career change — leaving a lifetime of working in the behavioral health field to pursue a call to ministry.
I’m also working part time at a large pharmacy chain this summer. My particular store is a small homey neighborhood place where we have regular customers. They’re a fun mix of affluent homeowners, staff from nearby businesses picking up lunch, ballerinas from the school of dance, groups of preteen boys picking up their favorite bags of colorful candy, teen girls in search of the perfect nail polish, moms and their children making a quick trip in for sunscreen before they head to the pool.
There’s the gay couple who come in every so often and I have to suppress the desire to say “I affirm you! You’re awesome!” because that’s about me and my needs, not about them.
Then there’s the Door Dash delivery regulars who always ask me for help finding the items on their pickup order. One of them frequently seems lost, speaks with a thick accent and I wonder if he’s an immigrant.
There’s the guy who comes in weekly to buy two large bottles of vodka. His hands shake. Every week it’s the same- he carefully concentrates as he counts out his cash and hands it to me, saying “You count that and make sure it’s right.” As I’m bagging his purchase, he reminds me to double bag each bottle because he’s walking. I wonder if he’s walking by choice or if he lost his license because of drinking. I wonder if he counts the minutes until he gets home so he can drink and shake off the beginnings of withdrawal. I smile and we have a brief conversation before he heads out the door.
There’s the young woman who comes in for emergency contraception. Is it for her? Is she buying it for a friend? What’s her backstory? How about the man who is the same age as my father (I know this because I’m required to check the ID of anyone purchasing liquor or cigarettes) who tells me he’s buying the cigarettes for his wife and how he hates secondhand smoke and how he wishes she would stop and how it’s really hard to talk to her sometimes.
In my required training prior to working with customers, one of the sessions focused on treating everyone equally — no judgement or assumptions. We were encouraged to treat everyone the same, regardless of color, dress, appearance, nationality, etc.
Guess what? It’s hard. I find myself making assumptions about all our customers based on how they talk, how they dress, how they pay, what they buy. I let my imagination take over and before I know it, I’ve created an entire storyline for each customer.
I’ve been judging people I don’t even know. There are customers I feel compelled to give extra help. I feel sorry for some customers. I feel empathy for others. There are customers I hope leave quickly. There are customers I hope return often.
What’s all this got to do with my summer internship? Several years ago (in my previous career path), a colleague said something that has stayed with me. We were talking about who was eligible to participate in the program we coordinated. I was being picky and listing all kinds of reasons why someone couldn’t participate because I was trying to follow guidelines from our funding source. She got frustrated with me and said “Why don’t we find ways to include people instead of finding reasons to exclude?” That was a truth I hadn’t seen before.
That was the beginning of a change in my thinking, both in that work setting and in Christianity. My understanding of God has evolved. God is big. Christians don’t have a claim on God. God is inclusive. I thought I was inclusive. I thought I was nonjudgmental.
Then I started this internship working with a team of amazing women to develop a social media campaign aimed at encouraging others to welcome immigrants. I find myself almost surrounded by immigrants- through research and reading or serving and interacting with people I believe to be immigrants at work or walking down the sidewalk to find our neighbor from West Africa on his front porch. He immigrated to the U.S. decades ago. He owns a thriving restaurant. Why do I inwardly react positively to him and his story and negatively toward other immigrants? Why can’t I be welcoming and inclusive of all people?
It’s time I acknowledge my own misperceptions and biases I hold about immigrants. Sure, I’m nice on the surface, but beneath I’m struggling with judgmental thoughts that I’ve pushed far away. Now that I’ve said that out loud, I can’t go back.
Looks like this is the summer I take one more step toward being a true follower of Christ. It’s time I address these biases and move toward full open inclusivity of others in my faith and my world in general. Actually, the two can’t be separated.
*Part of our work at LUCHA Ministries, Inc., is to encourage and mentor students, giving them opportunities to learn more about migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or asylees, and other newcomers in our communities.