An invitation to ride

Guest Column

In 2014, a 60-year-old, white woman boarded a bus in Des Moines, Iowa, bound for Chicago, Ill. She was terrified at the prospect of having to travel on a bus full of “scary” strangers to a crowded, even scarier place. She had spent the last 20 years, leading a sheltered life in a small Midwest town.

Reassurances from her two sons did little to calm her nerves. However, she didn’t want them to think she was so dependent on her family and familiar surroundings that she couldn’t make the trip. So she pushed through the fear, motivated by something stronger, a love for her other son that she had not seen in years. Left alone in the station late that night, she avoided eye contact with the “questionable characters” waiting along side her.

Once on board, trying to find a seat was daunting, not being able to choose who might sit next to her. Some people were very big. Some had different skin colors than hers. Some looked mean, or frail, maybe ill. She took a window seat and a young gal sat next to her. By her dress, the older woman assumed she might be a bit odd, and noted the way some of the others on board were dressed seemed intimidating.

She could feel herself holding her breath, as she began counting down the eight hours and 10 minutes until her son would pick her up in downtown Chicago.

For a few hours, people tried sleeping, shifting a lot in their small seats. By the time sunrise was upon the horizon, everyone had begun moving about the bus, changing seats, using the restroom and their cell phones.

The nervous woman began to think how much alike each person on that bus was. Despite all of her assumptions, they were all, just like her, trying to get somewhere. Their needs, desires, relationships, concerns, and conversations were much like hers. It was the overheard cell phone communications that offered the most insight into who her fellow travelers were.

“Don’t worry mom, I’ll be there in time for the wedding,” she heard from across the isle.

“How’s dad holding up?” said a worried son.

“I can’t wait to see you, I love you too,” was coming from behind her.

“Thank you for sending me the money to come home,” said the girl beside her.

“She’s so beautiful, wait till you see her,” gushed one mom with a new baby, from three seats up.

“She’s doing well, I brought her a movie to watch,” said a caretaker of a woman who laughed throughout the whole trip.

Maybe it was those snippets of conversation that eased my fears, hearing our shared humanity in each of their voices. Maybe it was the morning sun, shedding light on things that can be misunderstood when looked at in a light too dim, and not trying hard enough to understand what we think we see.

The rewards

By the end of the trip, many of us had shared our names, our stories, and some of us, even held a new baby. There was lots of chatter amongst us all for the rest of the trip. And I sat close enough to witness a man whom I had a few hours earlier, thought was a “suspicious looking” person, give return bus fare to a grieving young person, trying to make it home before someone she love was gone.

I felt moved by the humanity in that “Good Samaritan” gesture, and ashamed at the same time. Had I not been reminded of the unseen things that make us more alike than different, I would have missed the rich rewards I experienced during that trip. I was reminded that only love, and courage to overcome what is believed to be a part of our base instinct, to identify with those who we believe are most like us.

There are a lot of things that separate us as people. It has been due to our customs and mannerisms. Sometimes it’s language, even our physical characteristics. It may be our religion, or an opinion, an attitude. Too often, it is unfounded fear, misinterpreting what we don’t take time to understand.

So how do we get from there to a better place? This community of Webster City has an outstanding facility that, in many ways has put us ahead of the curve in overcoming “scary rides,” and the things that can injure and scar communities.

ACE Community Center (All Cultures Equal) is the only organization of its kind in North Central Iowa and is something other communities wish they had. It is not a government agency. It is a place that exists because people believe in the power of communication and education. It’s about the things that unite us as people and helps us overcome the fears that keep us in our separate, disconnected places.

ACE is a place for people to learn how to connect and helps build communities by helping us help each other. The benefits are not only intended for those from other countries with different cultures. The rewards to the community are enormous.

The work that ACE does to facilitate the assimilation of people from as many as 23 countries, with language and other classes, is matched by their efforts to enhance the social and economic well being of the community. By helping people become productive workers and good neighbors it makes our communities stronger. ACE brings people together over things like food, language and other classes, the food pantry, gardening, celebrations and festivals that are intended for everyone.

ACE is a non-profit, public charity, built by North Central Iowa neighbors to help each other. They depend heavily on donations for operational expenses. It is funded by donations from businesses, organizations and individuals, grants, class fees, and proceeds from events. And yet the struggle continues, the need for support is critical.

Local churches and individuals have come up with ways to help ACE “love thy neighbor.” Partnering with ACE to deliver needed programs that neither churches or ACE could do on their own is just one of the ideas that has been put into action. Asbury Methodist Church partners with ACE providing leadership, volunteers and financial assistance to run the ACE and Asbury Food Pantry.

“Stay-missions” have been planned, the first one already held by Faith United Methodist Church and ACE volunteers. Future stay-missions will help with additional needed improvement projects that will open new opportunities for people of all ages.

ACE stocks its kitchen, Marketplace, offices and classrooms with items donated. ACE is always in need of volunteers, supplies, food pantry donations and other in-kind donations. Many donations are tax-deductible. Volunteer hours can be used on grants to show support for the grant project.

An Invitation

On Wednesday, September 6, a potluck dinner will be held at ACE, 1440 East Second Street, Webster City, at 6 p.m. with a program to follow. Leaders and decision makers of 67 area churches have been invited to come together to meet people who represent 23 different countries and now live, work and go to school in this area. It is a starting point that ACE and churches hope will lead to many more such occasions, each intended to strengthen and unite the community.

Most churches have at the core of their missions, bringing people together no matter their background. They, along with organizations or individuals that serve families and share that same sense of mission are also invited to attend this potluck.

Fear of the unknown and assumptions based on perceptions keep many of us hunkered down in our bus seats strategically looking only at our cell phones and out the window or pretending to sleep just to avoid contact with other people that seem different than us. Those actions keep others from fully engaging and feeling accepted in our society. Whatever the motivation that makes us do what we do, treating others as we want to be treated is a worthy objective that will make lives better, a goal passionately pursued through the programs and staff at ACE and for churches and non-profit organizations throughout the area.

For more information please contact your church or ACE Community Center at 832-4153,