I pulled the car out of the white-water rush of traffic, parked and jumped out. I was in search of last minute potatoes in the middle of down town Kingston rush hour. Traffic fumes assaulted the senses at every turn, traffic noise beat at ear drums, a cacophony of chaos. The small street stall had caught my eye through the onslaught. A large weary looking lady sat on the curb with boxes of vegetables around her legs an and a sour, aloof expression on her face. People walked by her hollering over the sound of the car horns and engines ‘ow much for two banana?”, “ow much for ripe plantain?”, She grunted back at them, “take ‘em up, $50 each, $100 for two”. I waited, white-person-style, for my turn,“How much for the potatoes?” I said eventually without looking up. “120 a pound” she hollered. “Okay, I’ll take two pounds” I said after checking my cash. Eying the mangos I added some to my order before paying her. She handed me the bags without an upward glance and checked the change.
About to turn, I stopped, not sure why. I’m an introvert, but I am learning. Slowly.
“Thank you” I said, “what is your name?”.
Simple words, few in number, I wasn’t expecting anything in return. She stopped, looked at me for a moment and then suddenly, like light streaming from window shutters flung wide warmth shone out of her in the form of a big toothy smile, “Melva” she beamed in surprise.
“Hello Melva, I’m Liz”, I said stretching out my hand, likewise in surprise. Nothing grand, no great feat of altruism, barely a breath of kindness, yet her smile stayed with me long as I drove through the unforgiving streets of headlights and horns. Her name. When I asked her name, she had lit up like a lighthouse in the stormy seas of traffic. It had, quite honestly surprised me. The difference in her demeanour, the light in her eyes, contrasted against the onslaught of our surroundings. Her smile had encouraged me, somehow reached my own heart with the light it projected. It was her name, the asking for it and the calling of it that opened the door, that allowed light in and released light out, beaming, blazing, streaming out.
Her name, it was the key that turned the lock. There is gravity in a name, that holds us to earth, keeping our feet anchored in the weight of our own existence. The onslaught of this world makes us forget who we are too easily, too quickly, until someone calls us by our name and sees the us behind it.
We, all of us are too used to wearing labels rather than names, too used to numbers and categories… or no names at all. We are not used to being seen or to seeing. We forget our name because we are so used to numbers, labels, roles, rants and well, to nothing. To being nothing, to seeing nothing and to having nothing seen in us. And in our nothingness and numbing blindness we see nothing in others around us. It’s never personal, just business. Business and busyness. We busily build walls instead of bridges. We live unknown in our own skin, forgotten and forgetting every day who we are and what on earth we are here for.
Donald Trump doesn’t need to build a wall around America. The wall is already there deeply, tangibly, outside and around, inside and within; A wall between races, a wall between political camps, a wall between blacks and whites, haves and have nots, them and us. These walls exist not just in America, but on every continent we human beings reside on.
Yes, that day last week I did ask Melva her name and I saw with my own eyes the power of such a simple moment. Yet there are beggars on the street here every day, and I struggle. I struggle to see past my own fear, my own comfort, to see them, to wind down my window, to ask their name. Because laying sledge hammer to wall takes muscle, emotional muscle, spiritual muscle, will.
We are adept at the art of the hash tag, bumper sticker labelling of life because it is easier to label than to take the time to know. “Them” is not a name. It is a statement about the heart of the speaker of it. The truth is, there is no them, there is only we, we the human race, and each one of us is different and complex and made after the image of the divine. It is impossible to capture the human being in a label.The difference between a label and a name is that a name captures wholly, sees deeply and holds fully. We are given a name as a child and then we grow our life into this name, we become our name and to all around us our name means who we are.
In South Africa when I was there I was surprised at how many of the people we met introduced themselves not just with their name, but also with an explanation of their name’s meaning, “My name is Cahiso and it means peace, my name is Induduzo and it means comfort”.
Similarly for the ancient Hebrew people, the name of a thing or a person was intended to capture the essential nature or essence of that person or thing. They would wait eight days before naming child so they could observe the child and give them the name that captured the essence of their nature best.
Our name sets no limitations, but instead recognises and describes who we are. It helps others see us and helps us know we are seen.
Her name, it was the key that turned the lock, unlocking everything, undoing the wall.
In South Africa there is a Zulu greeting, ‘Sawubona’. It is used as a greeting but actually means “I see you” (or we see you). There is a weight to the meaning, to the seeing with eyes the person. When I see you, when I speak your name, I recognise and affirm the valuable human being that you are. The answer to this greeting “I see You” is ‘Ngikhona’ which means “I am here”
Speaker and author Peter de Jager captures the heart of this weighty greeting well,
‘Inherent in the Zulu greeting and traditional response, is the sense that until you saw me, I didn’t exist. By recognizing me, you bring me into existence. “Ngikhona” isn’t only a response; it’s almost a personal revelation. “I must be here! He sees me!” A Zulu folk saying reinforces this concept of personal existence being a joint effort, “Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu”, meaning “A person is a person because of other people”. To put yet another spin on this? It takes a village to be a whole person.’
When you see me, you humanise me and make me whole. When you call my name, you acknowledge the weight of my existence.
On the side of the curb in merciless traffic in an engulfing blanket of fumes, that is where I not just heard Melva’s name, but began to catch a glimpse of the reality of it, the reality of who she was.
Colliding at Curb sides and meeting at cross roads. It was the name that unlocked the door and put cracks in her defensive wall..in my defensive wall.
Has it not always been so?
Many years ago, On the side of another merciless road, wandering in an all-engulfing desert another woman at a crossroads met God. Hagar, She was running, when God called her name. She was running away, and ran right into God, right into his messenger. “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”. As if he didn’t know, but it was she who needed to locate herself. She was called by name, called to account, called to say “I am here, this is where I am; lost”
But the seeing restores, the seeing and the calling of the name, her name, restored her own sight of herself.
It was her name, the calling of it that opened the door, that allowed light in and released light out, light that showed her that she was seen and in being seen by God she caught a glimpse of herself anchoring her in the weight of her own existence. ”I’m here”,
“You are the God who sees me” she responded. Sawubona. I am here. I am here because he sees me. I am seen, I exist, I am seen, I am here. I am not nothing.
‘She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”’ (Genesis 6:6-15)
God sees. So we are here.
But do we see like God?
Most of us, either with a faith or without, spend a lot of our time behind walls, buried under bricks and mortar of fear, mistrust and doubt. We build our walls high and our expectations low.
When someone calls us by name they remind us who we are, our essential self. By locating us, they help us locate ourselves; the anchoring core of our own existence. Ah! I am here. The real me breaks out like light streaming from window shutters flung wide. I am here!
As the dust settles after terrorist attacks in Europe, bombing in the Middle East, an ugly brawling US election and a bewildering Brexit vote in the UK, we have become accustomed to fear, accustomed to an ‘us and them’ ghetto mentality.
Bumper sticker slogans like ‘build that wall’ have torn the membranes of our hearts, leaving us to pump our lives through scar tissue, numb to feeling, numb to the seeing of persons and the naming by names.
But the answer is a simple one; Opening our eyes. Opening our eyes to see the person before us, opening our ears to hear their name and opening our heart to know them and to affirm their existence “I see You”.
Because the beggar on the street has a name, his name is George, and Anton and Dwayne; The Muslim in our town has a name, her name is Nida, and Rada, and Aamir. The black man on our road has a name, it is Kemar, and Dushan and Leighton, the policeman has a name, it is Rick, it is John it is Andy… we all of us have names. Names that anchor our souls, carry our histories and hold us to earth. Our names are not just labels, but are the tips of the icebergs of us, and asking a person their name is building a bridge between two souls, a ‘sawubona’ bridge, a sacred bridge, a bridge to humanity; A bridge to the divine. The divine in us, reflecting the love of God; the God who sees. Because seeing builds bridges instead of walls.
Suwabona. I see you.
I am here.