The Power of “I Believe You” – By Kelsey Henderson
(This piece was inspired by a gift I was given to hear a Zimbabwean woman’s experience of racism.)
Remember when Lucy wandered into the wardrobe and discovered Narnia? She roamed a new world, meeting Mr. Tumnus the faun. He welcomed Lucy into his hut while he shared stories of the land as she sipped hot tea. Captivated by Mr. Tumnus’ flute playing she fell into a deep sleep. When Lucy returned home, excited about this very real experience she had, she was eager to tell her siblings. As she began to speak of Narnia her brothers and sister immediately called her a liar, thus, dismissing Lucy’s very real story.
I have always been the intuitive type; picking up on slight expressions, tones, and behaviors, that many often miss; mindful of motives, and even of the subtlest emotions. In addition to being sensitive to slight behavioral details, I am bound in such a way that is quick to detect and diagnose injustice. While these seem like virtuous traits, my need to correct or point out problems has actually gotten me in a substantial amount of trouble over the years. In fact, it has come at a great cost.
As a child, I can recall times when I would attempt “telling my side of the story” and being met with phrases like “Go ahead and live in your own world” while being walked away from. If it was not that statement, it was substituted with a sardonic snigger or a roll of the eyes. While the intent may have been harmless, the impact was nothing short of feeling disregarded and devalued. I think most people have felt this way at one time or another.
These traits carried over into adulthood. I quickly learned that I was far more comfortable addressing the distorted and messy ways of this world than most. While I was quick to identify injustices in the world around me, I was even more quickly hushed and redirected to more pleasant narratives. Over time I began to quiet my voice, convinced that my insight into shadowed places was not welcomed. I just didn’t fit. I grew tired of being depicted as “self-righteous”, or a “Negative Nelly”. I went dormmate as a means to self-protect.
In 2019 MVC hosted a series of discussions addressing women in ministry. As a woman in ministry, I chose to be a silent presence among the women who shared their stories. Each story touched my heart deeply. Each felt like a thread plucked from a place I had denied myself access to. This process was hard. It was messy. It was painful. Even so, I grew in love and respect for my church as we listened and were willing to do the hard work of learning what it means to love thy neighbor more deeply. Still, I stayed silent, fearful that my story would be rejected.
The first time I met with a spiritual director she asked me to tell her my life story. I started from the beginning and vulnerably shared the beauty alongside the ash; from most victorious of times to my most defeated of times. When I reached the end, I felt as though I was going to throw up. (I believe this is known as a vulnerability hangover). I took in a deep breath that rested high in my chest, my mouth went dry, my face was beet red, and I waited for a reaction.
She looked me in the eyes and said: “I believe you”.
I was undone.
The Holy Spirit had placed those words perfectly on her tongue. God knew I needed to hear them to begin a healing process in my story. What she said was “I believe you” and what I heard was “I see you”. If God is “The God who Sees” and we need all of God, then don’t we also need to be seen? (Genesis 16:13) Likewise, if God lives in and through me, then am I not also called to see? I had a need for someone to acknowledge my very real experiences, my very real aches, my very real interpretations, and my very real-life story.
As our world has been quaked by sickness and sin, we are dividing. We cannot be for one another if we chose to not believe the stories of those who are different from us. I have to be willing to listen to the fear a mother has because her child has a low immune system during a global pandemic. Regardless of whether or not I hold the same fear, her fear is very real to her. I believe her. I have to listen to the stories of those who have been victims of gender inequality and racism. While my story may differ, I believe them.
As a church, we often preach about empathy. Empathy is the ability to mentally put yourself in someone else’s story. It is an inward practice. We cannot place ourselves in a false reality. Therefore, if we do not believe in our neighbor’s story, we cannot exercise empathy. While empathy is important, we must also not allow ourselves to be satisfied with empathy alone. Empathy is the vehicle that drives our expressions and acts of compassion. While empathy is an inward practice, compassion is an outward practice. The story of the good Samaritan demonstrates the power that stems from the integration of both empathy and compassion. Empathy was what made the Samaritan notice the injured man. Luke 10:33 states that Samaritan “took pity on the man”. Pity is synonymous with sympathy and compassion. Compassion is what happened when the Samaritan acted on the injured man’s behalf. Jesus reveals that the Samaritan covered the cost of the inn where the injured man stayed as he recovered! Compassion is to suffer with those who suffer. Compassion costs us something; time, energy, money, etc. Empathy grows our hearts. Compassion is an extension of our hearts. Christ in us, Christ through us.
So, how can we love thy neighbor when we are dismissing their very real understandings? (Proverbs 2:2).
Compassion is a derivative of empathy. Empathy is a byproduct of belief.
Many have asked me where I stand in these rigid places. I hold a position for building God’s Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matt. 6:10). Every time we listen, care, and love our neighbor, a brick in God’s Kingdom is laid (James 1:19). Anytime we lovingly reject injustice, a brick is laid (Micha 6:8). When we quiet our anger so we can open our ears, a brick is laid (Proverbs 18:2). Each moment that we humbly welcome messy and uncomfortable as a means to love well, a brick is laid (Luke 10:25-37). Imagine if we were to lay down our defenses on the alter and reconcile with our enemies? (Matt. 5:24). Would a fountain of living water spring up? Friends, this is the only fight worthy of my passion, time, and energy (1 Timothy 6:12). Is it worthy of yours? I want to hear about Narnia no matter how unfathomable it seems. Do you? Let us not neglect the healing power of believing one another’s stories.
For you who is hurting, I believe you.
For you who is sad, I believe you.
For you who is weary, I believe you.
For you who is oppressed, I believe you.
For you who is suffering, I believe you.