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Advent Part III: The Call to Be Open to Others

Advent Part III: The Call to Be Open to Others

December 11, 2022

Matthew 11:3. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

One of my most memorable conversations happened in a chance encounter with a fellow traveler. I was returning home from a trip to New York City, and the southbound train leaving Penn Station was full. My first seat mate, an elderly man (that is, a man about my age), was rather taciturn. Though we exchanged a few polite words as we settled in for the ride and again several hours later when he got off, no real conversation emerged between us.

At the New Carrollton, MD, station, a younger and more exuberant man took the first one’s place. Within minutes, I knew my new seatmate’s name (Leon), occupation (he’s a rapper with a day job in retail), and destination (Norfolk, VA). By outward appearances (age, race, tattoos), he and I had far less in common than my first seatmate and me. Even the one thing we had in common—a love of music—took us on different paths. In NYC the night before, I’d been to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in my life. A ticket to Philip Glass’s Akhnaten had been a splurge, my 75th birthday present to myself. Still playing in my head was Anthony Roth Costanzo’s dazzling performance of “Hymn to the Sun,” followed by the chorus’s offstage singing, in Hebrew, verses from Psalm 104.

By contrast, Leon (not his real name) was traveling to Norfolk with a different musical goal. He wasn’t going there to watch a performance; he was going there to be one. He was going there to tape a video of rap music he had written and would perform.

I don’t listen to rap, and I’d never before had occasion to speak with a rapper. Likewise, he doesn’t listen to opera, and I doubt he’d ever talked seriously to anyone about it. Nevertheless, we were each open to hearing what the other had to say. Over the course of the next few hours, we fell into a rhythm of sharing YouTube videos when we had an internet connection and simply talking when we did not. He introduced me to two rap videos he had previously made. I played for him a clip from Akhnaten. He showed me videos by several artists he admires, not necessarily rappers but nevertheless musicians I don’t typically listen to. I introduced him to a couple of spirituals recorded by baritone opera singer Will Liverman and an anthem for which I had written the text. In between watching the music videos, we exchanged ideas about a wide range of topics—racism, white privilege, politics, parenting, shopping, partying, generational differences, faith, and the writing and editing of lyrics. When the train reached my stop at Williamsburg, we parted with him promising to let me know when his newest video is released.

But even if I never hear from Leon again, his willingness to engage with me opened my heart in a new way. It is unlikely that I’ll ever become a fan of rap or that he will become an opera buff. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to spend a little time asking and answering the question, “Who are you?” To listen, and to be listened to, is a profound way of loving our neighbor. It is one of the greatest gifts we humans can give one another. During this third week of Advent, is there someone with whom you might exchange that gift?

—Angier Brock


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