I’ll always remember where I was on Election Day 2016 because 2016 was the year I spent most of my Tuesdays with refugees.
Election Day was no different. Before I’d even had a chance to cast my vote, I was sitting in a Catholic church in a room full of Cuban and Haitian people, in a class that was conducted entirely in Spanish for their benefit. I was the only one who spoke only English, and for an hour I understood the confusion of trying to learn about your new community when the person speaking does not use your language. At one point, the teacher turned to me and asked me a question in Spanish. I knew what topic she had just covered, but I didn’t understand what she said. I stared at her without answering until she spoke the question in English.
But I don’t want you to use this as evidence that we have lost something in America. We have always been a melting pot; sometimes we just forget. And the immigrants who often came to this country in decades and centuries past were probably less outwardly identifiable. (I’m thinking of Irish immigrants as one example.)
We took a short walk to market, then I took a short walk through the city to the ATM and back to market while I waited for my husband to finish with a dental appointment and come pick me up. I bought a roasted veggie pie from the Middle Eastern stand from the man who always smiles when he hands me back my change. I don’t know his name. I need to correct that. Then I bought a salad at the stand that sells African food and uses some of its proceeds to help children in Kenya. It was still a bit cool but nice enough to sit outside, so I took up a bench and watched the world pass by as I ate.
A young-looking girl approached two well-dressed men standing nearby. They were talking to each other and one of them held a bouquet of flowers. She asked for a dollar and the man holding the flowers told her he didn’t have any. The other man decided he could spare a dollar and made a big show of handing it over while the man with the flowers quizzed her about what she needed a dollar for. I didn’t hear her reply, but they watched her as she walked away, first rounding the corner of the building and disappearing for a moment, then changing directions and crossing the square.
For the next five minutes, the two men talked about her. I couldn’t hear everything they said but when I did pick up pieces of their conversation it was evident they didn’t trust her and were concerned about where that money had gone. I wanted to run after the girl and tell her some truths about her life and worth and beauty. I would have given her a dollar without question, and it wouldn’t have been the first time.
I do not love my dollars so much that I will withhold them from people who ask. (And I do not have that many dollars to begin with.)
I came home from the city to find that my neighbor had turned her yard into a Donald Trump shrine overnight. Large signs hung from her fence, a handmade sign declaring that Trump was the “only right choice for all Americans.” A life-size mannequin of Trump stood next to a tree where another sign hung. At night, the whole display is lit, and when it rained the day after the election, she gave him a patriotic umbrella.
She is my literal neighbor. She buys our kids Christmas presents and is disappointed when they don’t show up at her house for Halloween. She is friendly and waves enthusiastically and engages the children in conversation whenever we are all outside at the same time.
I will not stop loving her. Even if I have to tell myself the same thing I told my children: “She is our friend. We don’t agree with her politics, but she is still our friend and we don’t have to say anything about her yard.”
Although if she had asked to put a sign in my yard, I would have had to politely decline
“Which bus goes to downtown?”
The Haitian man had called me over to ask the question before we left for market. I attempted to clarify where he wanted to go because bus schedules are something I’m not familiar with yet. I live in the ‘burbs and have a mini-van. But riding the bus is on my list of skills to acquire. Along with learning some conversational Arabic. Or Spanish. Or Swahili. Or all three.
“To Philadelphia,” he replied.
I told him I didn’t think a bus went to Philadelphia but I knew the train did.
“What is in Philadelphia? Family? Or friends?”
He shook his head “no.”
“I just want to see all of this new country,” he said. “So when people ask me questions, I can tell them what it is like.”
I told him that Philadelphia is full of American history, places like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. It felt right, and also weird, to be talking about the place where our nation was born on Election Day with a man who was not born here.
Later that night I would think of him as the kids and I sorted through puzzle pieces. The puzzle depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The faces in the puzzle are all white men, and they declared all men equal. But they would not have been thinking about my Haitian friend and his right to equality.
The country we live in has changed, for sure, but I don’t think we have lost anything. I think we have gained a great deal.
And this is where I have trouble processing Election Day and the days after.
I don’t understand how a white man, a rural farmer from the Midwest, can say that he voted for Trump because people like him “lost their voices over the last eight years.” Not to be flippant, but I think the previous 200 years were pretty good for white males, in particular.
Giving others a voice they never had does not mean you have lost yours. In fact those of us with a voice have a responsibility to lend our voices to the voiceless. We can debate all day about who the voiceless are. I don’t want to do that. I just want to ask you if there’s someone in your life who needs your voice because they don’t have one.
Exit polls show that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump and this, too, I have trouble with because some of these same people are the ones I see posting on Facebook, “God is on the throne!” and “Jesus is still King!” I believe that is true, but I’m concerned because I don’t see the marginalized or oppressed posting those words.
I can honestly say that a Donald Trump presidency concerns me, but I don’t fear for my life. I am a white woman with a husband and two kids. I live in the suburbs in a good school district. I shop at Costco. (I do not enjoy pumpkin spice anything, though.) I’m woefully out of touch with culture. When my kids come home and show me some new dance move they learned, I have to google “dab” to find out what it is.
But I also attend an evangelical church and I did not vote for Trump. And that has me wondering if it’s time to part ways with the only branch of Christianity I’ve known for almost 20 years.
I have walked around in a bit of daze since Tuesday. I cried on Wednesday and spent most of the day working on the novel I’m writing just so I could escape from reality. On Wednesday night, we watched a Jim Gaffigan special on Netflix because we needed to laugh.
Today, I had errands to run and when I saw a man with a “Make America Great Again” hat at my first stop, I had to take a deep breath and keep walking.
I don’t want to fight. I want to love. And I don’t want my heart to become hard. I want it to be tender, and this tenderness is what I will have to work towards, today and in the days to come.
I was reading my book on the bench outside the market when a woman sat down next to me. I’m an introvert, as you probably know, and I do not often make small talk with strangers. But I did that day.
“Hi, how are you today?” I said, looking up from my book and seeing her.
We talked briefly about the book I was reading and what a beautiful day it was. We didn’t say a word about politics. And when she left I felt a little less alone in the world.
Here is how I will fight for a tender heart: I will talk to people. Real-life, walking, talking, breathing human beings. All of them:
The girl begging for money.
The homeless man on the bench.
The refugee from Haiti.
The businessman who couldn’t be bothered for a dollar.
The guy with the Trump hat.
My neighbor with her shrine.
Humanity is our common denominator.
I don’t want to forget.