A few years ago, back when I was serving as interim pastor of a church in a rural southwest Georgia town, I will never forget a night when my wife sent me to the grocery store.
Before I go any further, I want to give you a glimpse of this town. It was like stepping back in time 50 years. The owner of the gas station pumped your gas for you. The owner of the drug store would be not be upset at all if you called him at home in the middle of the night if you needed your prescription filled.
If the police department ever heard gun shots coming from your property, officers would stop by, NOT to send you to jail but to join you for target practice. If you think I am kidding, I will tell you my son was out shooting his pellet gun (that looked like an AR-15) one afternoon, and the police chief drove by and smiled at my son and waved as he drove by in a squad car.
It was an agricultural community, so we were surrounded by peanut farms and cotton fields.
The grocery store closed every evening at 6 o’clock. So if you were at home at 6:30 p.m. or afterward and had the munchies, you were out of luck. Needless to say, there were many times my wife sent me out for a 5:45 p.m. run to the grocery store.
But this particular run to the grocery store left a profound impact on me.
I got to the store and found the items that my wife told me to get. I got to the front to check out and saw that the two cashiers were stressed out with the major crowd of people in the store. To offer full disclosure, any more than 10 people in the place at one time was their version of Black Friday at Edinburgh Premium Outlets. Have I painted a good enough picture? This was a SMALL town.
I was the third person in line in the second lane. In lane No. 1, there were three — one was in the process of checking out, and the other two were patiently waiting.
Among the two who were waiting, one was white and the other was black. The black lady kept a buggy-length distance from the white lady, and the white lady was grateful.
From time to time, the two ladies would look at each other with something less than a smile or a pleasing face. It was quite a sight. It was obvious that they did not want to be in line together.
I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Yes, even growing up in Atlanta, which is a city which embraces diversity, racism was part of the embedded culture.
However, I was now serving as a pastor in a very prejudiced area of the state. Even though I grew up in the deep South, I had never seen racism so blatant in my life as I saw it in this particular community. As the community perceived it, everyone should “know their place.”
An added view: we could be nice to one another on the surface as long as we know we live, worship and play on the particular side of the tracks that we happen to belong on.
However, on this particular night at the grocery store, I continued to watch. I saw both of these mothers take intense glances toward the front window, as if they were looking for something specific. I was wishing there were more people in line so I could watch this a little longer.
That’s when I saw the real problem.
Up at the front, just in front of the window, were six gum and toy machines. There were two children there, both about 6 years old — a black girl and a white boy.
That’s when I remembered the look on the mothers’ faces. I had seen it before in the chicken house at my grandparents’ house in the actions of an ol’ mother hen who fears danger for her chicks. Both of these parents looked like mother hens protecting their babies.
In my 39 years, I had never seen a gumball machine attack anyone. But it was obvious that these two women were not concerned about the gumball machines; they were wrestling with their prejudice.
As I watched the children, they went round and round the machines together. Sounds of joy came from their young, innocent lips as they eyed the toys and different goodies in the machines. They drew no boundaries, nor did they even notice the color difference in their skin.
Neither of the children had a cent to put in the machines, and their mothers were not about to give them anything. I wanted to give them a coin apiece, but I knew better than to fuel that fire, so I watched patiently and learned.
Both of the women were wise enough to not create a scene. As I watched further, I figured out what they were trying to do. They both wanted the children to look up so they could give them one of those mama looks that says “Get yourself over here and do it NOW!” It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing.
Finally, one of the ladies checked out her groceries, went to the car and the problem, as they saw it, was over.
About that time, I checked out, went to my car, and studied what I had witnessed. For some, it might have only been the boring task of buying groceries. But for me, it was a learning experience.
I have a bachelor’s of arts in counseling, a master’s of sacred literature in counseling from Louisville Bible College, a graduate certificate in ministry and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master’s of Divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary and I am working on my doctoral studies at Columbia Seminary.
But I got more of an education during that experience than all of my formal education combined. I saw something in those little children that was the answer to prejudice all over the world.
We need a common goal. These children had a common goal that was more important to them than color or economic status.
I know readers of this newspaper have different political and theological views, so I do my best to leave my own personal worldview at the door. However, I have to say this: prejudice is sinful. There is no way around it.
We were all created from one blood and some way, somehow, are kin to each other. It is inconsistent to dislike someone because of color or economic status, but it happens.
Yet if we would just sit in the floor and “ooh, ahh” over the things that can unite us the way these children did over the gum and the toys, we might just find out that prejudice will disappear forever.
The Rev. Scott Murphy is pastor of Columbus’ Memorial Baptist Church.