“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”
Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
“And it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”
“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.
“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”
“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.
“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”
And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.
I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”
“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”
To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”
To which I added, “Amen.”
“And his mercy never ends,” she said.
“Amen,” I responded again.
And this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.
“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”
And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.
To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.
“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”
“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”