Here in the shade

When I finally noticed her, she didn’t glance away. Her stance gave me the impression that she had been glaring at me for a while.

You see, the crammed In-N-Out didn’t have bathrooms; none of the restaurants did. They relied upon public restrooms located in an alley next to a segue rental, which spilled wide-eyed tourists into the alleyway, rolling around at the speed of newborn turtles.

We had deftly dodged the segues and keyed-in the code to the bathroom as a haggard voice in waders sing-songed the numbers to us like some boardwalk siren. He sat there and smoked and offered everyone the secret combination, irrespective of their patron status. I thought it funny he waited in waders.

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I looked up and saw her casting serious shade.

I can’t be too sure of her reason, but I assume it had something to do with me, a large adult male, walking two middle school girls to the bathroom.

We had spent the weekend learning, serving, and getting to know some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities in the Castro and Tenderloin districts. This led to a stop for fries and burgers and shakes, which our students consumed like angry badgers, and sent them in search of restroom-respite.

I smiled at the woman. For a fraction of a second her scowl led me inward: what had I done? Was it wrong to walk them to the bathroom? She didn’t know me. She didn’t know that I, with three other adults, took care of these students. Why should she regard me with suspicion?

But my offended posture vanished immediately. I smiled, she glared, and I sensed a kind of kinship with her — I am one of the millions of adults who devote their time to caring for kids. I know what they face. I know the families whose children have been pulled into trafficking. I know the track record of abuse and dehumanization.

Only one of the girls needed to use the bathroom, but I asked a second to go along. Because I know. Because I’m her — a woman in an alleyway, looking through a forest of segues.

I returned to my lunch and thought little of the interaction. Dudes don’t spend twelve years in ministry, the majority of them as a youth pastor, without accumulating at least a few of these. I mean, the church of my childhood debated whether male students could serve in its childcare like their female counterparts. Maleness as threat. That whole thing. I chewed on a fry and mentioned the exchange to a fellow minister across the table. She said we have a long way to go in overcoming stereotypes.

I agreed, but told her I didn’t care.

I care more about social conscientiousness (especially when it comes to children) than fragile ego. Too many people who look like me are offended when suspected of racism or impropriety and too few concerned with the reasons these suspicions exist in the first place.

Banning certain genders from working with children at church is awful and prejudicial suspicion isn’t exactly commendable, yet I couldn’t help celebrating the fact that someone was observing, aware, and looking out for the kids around them. I raised – and would raise – a soggy paper cup in cheers to that any day.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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