Christian leaders don’t have to fill the air with words to be effective.
Seeking silence from the first day of a busy summer internship, I found myself in the sanctuary of a once-Catholic church now turned Assemblies of God. “Just 20 minutes of quiet,” I thought. I sat on a pew anticipating the travel, the work, and the sights I would see in Chicago. The sun shone through the beautiful stained glass of this 19th century sanctuary. The warmth felt good so I sat with my head buried in my arms from a migraine.
"Are you okay?" A voice called out to me.
It was William, one of the janitors working at the church and for the kid’s summer camp, dressed in blue jeans and red polo shirt.
"Yes, sir, I just have a bit of a migraine."
"They don't have kids like this where you're from, do they?"
He caught a glimpse of my face. "I can tell you're not from around here. You speak different."
I said nothing, but the puzzled look on my face gave away the confusion I felt.
"I didn't mean to offend you ma'am. I just noticed you talk different."
"I guess you're right, but you have an accent too," I said with a half smile, half leave-me-alone look.
Earlier that day, I found myself at this church volunteering with their kids. 40 of them sat in the foyer of the church with sandwiches and fruit cups spread over foldable tables. “This might be the only balanced meal they get today," a woman told me. Every hour moves like molasses when adults are drastically outnumbered by kids. Yet being short-handed only made me more excited to serve and grateful to be present.
Three hours passed and I was reminded how sensitive my hearing really is. Bouncing basketballs, "don't touch me's," "stop it’s," and the high energy of children gave me that migraine.
So I found refuge in the sanctuary where I met William. He sat next to me on the pew and told me of his many adventures across the United States and his perceptions of the world. I listened.
He explained how different Chicago neighborhoods are and how he felt white folks were trying to kick blacks out of their homes. He told me about his family, schooling, and even his views on religion.
We talked for over an hour.
William grew up on the Westside and likes the “ghetto.” He took the job working in the church because he would "rather be a gatekeeper in the house of the Lord,” as the psalmist says, than dwell in the tents of the wicked. William affirmed who he is in Christ: “I don't talk like you and I didn't finish the eighth grade, but I'm somebody and God is a God of second chances.”
William said this was the first time in a long time someone had sat down to hear his story. The act of listening gave William the space to be honest. He confessed that he was a felon who was released daily to work at the church, but returned to his cell in the evening. Since his conviction, no one had wanted to get close to him or hear his story.
I don’t particularly like silence. I am actually the one who enjoys filling it at any given moment. As a visitor in this city, I anticipated the action, the lights, and even shows of Chicago. I did not know that on my first day in Chicago I would be met by a reminder of the art of listening.
While my accent gave away my somewhat southern identity, my listening bore witness to the space the Jesus creates for us to enter into God’s presence. Being still is not passive, but an act of humility. Christian leaders don’t have to fill the air with words to be effective. They can create the silences where others can enter. As Christians we must be slow to speak and quick to listen, since listening is about loving your neighbor.
I don't know if or when I'll see William again, but on my first day as a church intern, he taught me the rewards of listening.
Charlene Brown is a rising senior at Duke Divinity School.