While pastoring a congregation, I’m usually up before sunrise on Sundays and at my desk finishing the morning’s sermon and pulling together whatever else is needed for worship. I don’t have much of an appetite at that time of day so have just a piece of toast and some coffee. As you can imagine, by the time worship is over I’m very hungry.
When I was serving a church in Salt Lake City, I’d stop after services at a popular vegan café not far from my house. Over the months I’d been going there I’d gotten to know the servers. I would always sit at the counter so we could talk and have a few laughs. They lifted my spirits. People who wait tables are by necessity outgoing and usually interesting, too, as they often are artists or students. I should know, because for nearly twenty years I was one of them.
One Sunday the place was nearly deserted. Only two booths were occupied; one by a couple working on their laptops; the other by a couple with a little girl seated in a highchair. As usual I sat at the counter and even though I’d brought a couple of magazines to read I never opened them because at least one of the servers was always on the other side of the counter bantering with me or catching me up on what was going on in their life. In a way, I was their pastor, too.
At one point the couple with the child got up to leave. The girl was a toddler; couldn’t have been more than a year old, but was walking—walking in such a way that you knew it was still new to her and the novelty and excitement hadn’t yet worn off. I said something like, “Oh, look at you walk!” The little girl grinned and then started to come toward me, but stopped abruptly when her mother said, “Stranger danger!”
Stranger danger? The six of us guests had been sitting, sharing a space, and eating for more than half an hour. She said it like I wasn’t a real person, that I wasn’t actually sitting there right in front of her. Did she not think of how her command would sound to me? How I would feel or how I’d react?
What are some parents being taught? That everyone other than a family member or a teacher is a threat to their kid’s safety? What exactly did that kid’s mother think I might do there in the café? What is she teaching her child? To trust no one? That anyone who is unfamiliar is to be avoided? That anything outside your known world is dangerous? I understand the concerns parents have about child abduction, but do they not know how rare it is and when it does occur the perpetrator is usually a family member? And wasn’t the cozy, sunlit cafe where we’d all been having brunch (eating vegan food, for God’s sake!) a safe, public space?
The mystics teach that babies and children can see through the veil of illusion into Ultimate Reality, something that is slowly forgotten as they’re forced through socialization and education to identify with the three-dimensional reality, just as the ancestors slowly forgot they were one with God and began to live in a limited reality defined by separation from the Creator and from the fact that we are all One and of the same Spirit. And when that happened, became subject to the laws of this physical plane: gravity, hunger, heat, cold, and, ultimately, death.
That little girl was seeing something around me that compelled her to walk toward me. Perhaps she was seeing my Spirit and was drawn to it by her own True Nature which still was very much present in her daily existence.
As a clergy person—one who has been called by God to serve God—and also just by who I am and where I am on my spiritual journey, the Divine Presence or the Holy Spirit often “catches a ride” with me. As I go about my business those who are more attuned to the unseen world, especially children, feel the presence of the Holy One and are drawn to that, and hence, to me.
I know that parents, especially new ones, want to keep their children from being harmed and are genetically predisposed to protecting them, but by instilling in their children the idea that everyone and everything is a possible source of danger closes those children off from avenues of exploration and revelation that might help them become who and what God created them to be. It might make them extremely wary and fearful so that they become narrowly focused on themselves and then unable to engage with the world of the Spirit.
“Stranger danger!” When I heard those words that Sunday, I was so taken aback that I didn’t respond. Before I realized what had occurred, the mother had lifted the little girl up into her arms and exited the cafe. As the door closed I looked up and watched out the window as the woman and her partner put the child into a car and drive away.
So, I blessed them and prayed that the child would find a way to maintain an awareness of the place from which she came and would be able to continue to see the Light of the Spirit in and around her, in all things, and in other people, for as long as she lives. Amen.