Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something.
It was a weird time for me. My mother had passed away in May 2017, and I was shocked every time I realized that I would never see her again. It still shocks me to this day. In the days and weeks immediately after her passing, there was a strange sensation as I lived my life day-to-day. It was like I was living in a cloud, some weird alternate universe that looked like my life but was missing a key part of it. How did everything else in the world just keep on going like nothing had ever happened? It didn’t feel right somehow, but nevertheless you have to keep on going with groceries and bills and work all of those things that don’t wait up when personal hardships happen.
Less than two weeks after my mom died, I got an email from my friend Danny, sharing a heartbreaking story of a man who had recently died in a car accident. The man wasn’t much older than me, and he left behind a young daughter. His sister and the family were holding a car wash at the church to raise money for the funeral. I instantly thought back to being at the hospital, my family’s grief, and all of the stress of funeral arrangements, and my heart went out to this family. There had been fundraising car washes at the church before, but with my mom’s death so fresh on my mind contributing to this one was of deep importance to me. Though I didn’t know this family personally, I understood in a realistic way what they were going through. This time when I went, I wouldn’t just be sympathizing with loss, I’d be empathizing with it.
I pulled up to the car wash early and a few cars were there as things started to get rolling for the day. I got out of the car and said "hi" to Danny, who shared his condolences for my mom and thanked me for coming. He always made it a point at the car washes to give a quick lay of the land and point out the family members and friends of the deceased, to give context to who was there and why. He gestured to a young woman over at the entrance to the parking lot, mentioning that she was the deceased man’s sister. She looked about my age, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a big sign in her hands that she held up high trying to bring people in to the car wash.
I knew in my heart that I wanted to talk to her specifically. I wanted her to know that I had lost someone, too, that I knew how much it hurt, and that I was so sorry for her loss. I was sure that she had received so many condolences lately that those of a stranger might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Still, it seemed important to say.
I walked up to her and she lowered her big sign as she noticed me approaching. I gave her a modest smile and said, “Hi, I’m Ashley. I lost my mom a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to say…”
I hadn’t even finished my sentence before she set her sign on the ground and threw her arms around me. She hugged me like we were old friends, and we embraced for a moment without saying a word. All we knew were each other’s first names, and that we had shared pain from a deep loss. That was all it took. She knew that I needed that hug as much as she did. When we came apart, she was first to speak to express condolences for my mom. I thanked her, told her I was so sorry for her loss, and that I would be praying for her. She said she appreciated it, and just like that someone called to me to let me know that my car was finished. She picked up her sign and went back to the parking lot entrance, eager to wave her hands and bring more people in.
At the time, I was still in that inconvenient frazzled brain fog that hangs over you after traumatic events. I didn’t think to get her phone number or anything, some way of contacting her to offer to talk more. It would have been so great to have a conversation with her about life and Jesus and the eternal hope that he offers, and the removal of the sting of death that comes with His victory. In retrospect though, I know I couldn’t have had that conversation anyway. My mind wasn’t in a place to be able to hold long conversations period, let alone eloquently share the gospel.
I thought back to that verse in 2 Corinthians 1: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Though that verse does speak to sharing the hope of the gospel, I don’t think it means less than sharing a hug. Than sharing a smile. Than sharing that you’re not alone in your pain, that I see you and you matter to me, and that you and your pain matter to God, too.
Sometimes we see people in our community enduring hardships that are so unlike our own. Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something. Financial hardships, trials in parenting, loss of loved ones - these things transcend lifestyles for many of us. With open eyes and open hearts, making connections and giving comfort do not have to be as complicated as we might think. When we put personal connection first, the bridge to cross the gap becomes much more navigable. May we see those bridges and walk across them, however briefly or imperfectly.
Ashley Ross is a member of Cornerstone Church West LA. Ashley is the Instructional Design and Training Manager for Ylopo, LLC, a Santa Monica based marketing platform. She and her husband Dave enjoy time together eating homemade bread.