Okay, maybe not love them, but at least hang out with them.
This all began with my son Isaac’s Christmas list that included a BB gun. I know, know, spare me the “Christmas Story” references. After getting his new camouflaged Daisy and spending a few days plinking soda cans in the backyard (which by the way is huge amounts of fun!), I started doing some web searches. I discovered a fun Olympic sport called 10-meter air rifle shooting and began looking for a nearby range for him to learn the basics.
Every Monday night for the past five months, I bring Isaac to a local NRA gun club for junior rifle practice. While it’s been fun for him (he’s getting his Sharpshooter pin) it has been illuminating for me. The night is led by a wonderful old man the kids call “Mr. M”. Mr. M is recovering from bypass surgery and walks with a cane. When he arrives, it takes him a painful amount of time to walk from his friend’s minivan to the door of the cinderblock building. He has more difficulty shuffling across the firing range to take a seat behind his scope.
Clearly, Mr. M’s life would be much easier if he stayed at home Monday nights. But he doesn’t. For decades, his passion has been introducing boys and girls to this sport and his deteriorating health has not diminished that passion. He teaches the kids patience, focus and one of the most pragmatic bits of coaching advice I have ever heard. When Isaac gets a 10, Mr. M counsels him, “Whatever you did on that last shot, just do it again.”
While Pam and I are always writing out two and three digit checks for our kids’ other activities, the rifle club only runs me one dollar a week. As such, most of the other kids in the club are not well-off kids from my town driven to the range by soccer moms, but city kids from single-parent households. One night, I spoke with another man who brings his grandson each week. The man was white. His grandson was black. “The great thing about this sport is that anyone can excel at it,” he said proudly. “They can be any size or shape and do well.” It almost sounded like a speech on equal opportunity.
Look, I know what I’m supposed to think of the NRA. I went to art school for four years and have worn enough black in my lifetime to give Johnny Cash a run for his money. If I were any kind of “enlightened” person, I would know these gun guys were supposed to be bigoted ignorant rednecks, right? But reality has shattered that stereotype for me.
Whether it’s political or theological issues, we forget that the people with whom we may disagree are actually people. They are not cartoons. As a pastor, I am always preaching that we love those who are different than us or, when I’m really feeling pretentious, that we encounter God in the “Other.” The “Other” conjures up images of exotic foreigner in another religious tradition. But sometimes the “Other” is a white guy who likes his guns. I don't mean to romanticize my experience. Some of the fliers hung on the gun club's bulletin board make me cringe a little bit. Then again, there's something about everyone, including me, that makes me cringe a bit.
Last week one of my blog posts inspired a conservative reader to entreat me that “It’s not too late Don! Turn to Jesus!” This week I’m sure my liberal friends will exclaim, “It’s not too late Don! Turn to Michael Moore!”
I am no expert about the issues surrounding gun rights vs. gun control and have no intention on starting a discussion about them. However, I would like to know if any of you have had similar experiences. Have you ever had your stereotype of the “other” transformed by an encounter with a real human being? In particular, are churches capable of being a space where this can happen? Or are churches doomed to being a series of clubs where we choose sides, or pre-packaged views on issues and defend them? How is your church seeking to create relationships with those with whom you may disagree?