Guest post by Mike Croghan
A few weeks ago, my friend Jen was in town for an event at the White House with the US bisexual community. Jen arrived on a Saturday evening, and my wife Tina and I were excited to bring Jen to church on Sunday to meet our friends there. Tina and I are part of a small, independent, progressive, non-hierarchical Christian church community that meets in a coffee shop and concert venue. The community has a long-established track record of welcoming and including all kinds of people, regardless of religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or sexual or gender identity. The community does not have much history with people with disabilities, but it never occurred to me that this would be an obstacle to welcoming Jen. (As you probably know if you’re a reader of this blog, Jen is blind and has an adorable guide dog named Camille.)
We got a little bit of a late start, and showed for the customary post-church lunch gathering at the Chipotle next to the coffee shop. The folks from church had taken over all of the outdoor tables on the patio. Jen and Camille and Tina and I came up to the closest table to the entrance, which was occupied by a gaggle of kids. We said hi, and some of the kids (who were done eating) got up and went to play elsewhere, so Tina and Jen and Camille sat down, and I went into the restaurant to get us food.
When I came out, the three of them were moving to the table at the far end of the patio, where our friends Maranda and Heidi and Ryan were sitting. Tina later told me that this was because nobody was talking to them at the other table. Heidi was just leaving for an appointment, and Ryan was done eating, so there were available chairs. We sat down and ate, and Maranda chatted with us, but no-one else came over except for Lydia, a middle-school girl who came up and talked to all of us. When I was done eating, I got up and talked to some other folks, and I noticed that Leigh, our former church intern, came over to the far table at one point, and Tina told me that another person came over and spoke to everyone at our table except Jen. But apart from that, I don’t think any of the 25 or so of our friends on that patio talked to Jen – or even to Tina or me when we were with her.
There was no single, individual lack of interaction that felt at all rude or hard to explain. People were absorbed with their own families and friends. Folks had visitors in from out of town that they rarely got to talk with. There were little circles discussing church business, or the service that had just concluded, or recent movies. There was no particular individual that I would fault with failing to welcome Jen – but in the aggregate, the group’s silence boomed loud. I was pretty disappointed in my community, but talking to Jen about it later, it seems like it was all too typical of her everyday experience.
It’s hard for me to say for sure what led to this uncharacteristically rude group behavior. I can’t know what motivated anyone without talking to them, and it’s hard to single out anyone to talk to. Because, as I said, it seemed to me that the group behavior, not any individual’s behavior, was problematic. But if I had to guess, I would guess that my friends didn’t approach Jen (or us) because talking to a blind woman was unfamiliar territory for them. They were afraid that if they tried, they would do something wrong – so they chose the “safer” route and didn’t try. And in their concern to avoid screwing it up…they screwed it up. So, if I’m right, the underlying problem was a lack of knowledge and experience – things that could only be gained by a conscious effort to explore territory beyond the communal comfort zone. Which is an opportunity that they had, and missed out on, on a sunny Sunday morning in September.