by Jose Hobday, osfs
In the Southwest, where I grew up, certain places didn’t serve Native Americans. One day my mother — who was a beautiful, full-blooded Indian with lovely, long, black hair — and I were shopping. We decided to take a break and go into a restaurant and get something to drink. We sat down in a booth, with a formica tabletop and nice green leather seats. I’ll never forget that booth. I’ll always remember the name of the restaurant, too, though I won’t mention it here. Mom sat on one side of the booth, I on the other. She ordered a cup of coffee and I, a glass of milk.
The waitress brought my milk, but she didn’t bring my mother’s coffee. Instead, she went over near the cash register and stood. I walked over to her and said, “You forgot my mother’s coffee.” She just looked at me, didn’t say anything, but didn’t bring the coffee either.
We waited a bit. Then my mother said, “Jo, I think this is one of those places that won’t serve Indian people. I don’t think she’s going to bring my coffee.” I remember sitting there looking at my mother, thinking how beautiful she was and wondering how anyone could do this. I was half-Indian myself, though I didn’t look it because I was fairer and had brown hair. And because of that, I got served and my mother didn’t. I got very angry.
My mother said she thought we should go. We got up. As we did, I took my glass of milk — in those days when you ordered a glass of milk you got a real glass and big glass — and slowly poured it all over the back of the booth, across the seats, over the tabletop, and all over the floor. I did as much damage with one glass of milk as I could. Then I picked up the water glasses and did the same thing with them.
My mother didn’t say anything. She didn’t correct me. She didn’t stop me. She just stood a little distance away and watched. When I had emptied all the glasses and such as big a mess as I could, she said, “Well now, Jo, you have proven yourself to be just as stupid as they are.”
That stumped me at the time. But in thinking about it later, I realized she had taught me a lesson. I knew I was angry and knew I had a right to be. But my mother’s response taught me this: Even when you might feel you are justified, don’t respond in kind when violence has been done to you. She was saying that there are other ways to respond. It isn’t always an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Vengeance is not the way.
Since then I have experienced discrimination many times — as a Native American, as a woman, as a woman in the church. I have tried, on each occasion, to remember my mother’s lesson. She was calling me to a different kind of response, a peaceful, nonviolent one. It’s a response, by the way, that is at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean you don’t fight for what you believe in. It doesn’t mean you stand back and let people walk all over you. But to take on the tactics of ignorance, discrimination and prejudice poisons you, sours your heart and embitters your life.
We have had many wonderful spiritual leaders in the Native American tradition. Their message has always been the same: Even though you have experienced injustice, even though your land has been taken away and your way of life destroyed, even though there have been efforts to actually wipe you out as a people, do not let your heart become sour and respond in kind, for if you do, those who made you turn sour will win in the end.
My mother passed that message on to me that day. Spilled milk can do nothing but turn sour. An angry, vengeful heart will too. Keep your heart sweet, she was saying, the way milk in a glass is.
Read one or all of the Sunday scriptures. Do you see any connection between the scripture and the life situation described by Jose Hobday?
* This reflection is from Advent 1991: Waiting with the Poor. For reflections for everyday of Advent and the holy days of the Christmas season, you can purchase and download an e-reader version of The Promise of Light: Reflections for Advent 2015 by clicking here.