by Japhet De Oliveira—
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ESV).
I had booked a flight from Denver to Sacramento in the middle of the Super Bowl. Passengers were bumping into one another, their eyes fixed on their cell phones as they tried to follow the game. Crowds huddled around tables in restaurants offering a live broadcast of the game. I sat in a corner, just out of earshot of the game, waiting for my flight and working on my laptop to create a presentation for later that week. I enjoyed the occasional noisy distraction when one of the teams had clearly scored or had a near miss. I felt closer to the other 102 million viewers just by being in the airport. I felt I belonged.
The last professional American football game I had seen was with my friend, Terry Swenson, a lifelong fan of the 49ers. We sat in BJ’s Brewhouse, ordered too many fries, caught up on life, and watched the game (49ers vs. Saints) on multiple big screens. It was easy to see which of our fellow patrons were 49ers fans and which were Saints fans. They cheered, laughed, and applauded the tension. One group of eight adults sitting next to us was made up of fans from both sides who were still friends at the end of that game.
This feeling of community was quite different from what I observed in the office the week following Super Bowl LIV. Bob—a fake name I use in all my stories when anonymity is required—was passing by my desk when we struck up a conversation. Bob’s partner is a really keen 49ers fan, so Bob has also become a 49ers fan. The week before the Super Bowl, Bob decided to wear a 49ers jersey in support. As Bob moved around the building, there were all sorts of wonderful comments by fans of other teams. But there were also some genuinely hostile comments. These took Bob by surprise. Some people physically turned away in disdain or made snide remarks under their breath. If not for the fact that there was work to do, Bob would have avoided certain areas. The week after the Super Bowl was even harder because the 49ers lost, and the comments from the “winners” were sometimes hostile and hurtful.
I am from England, where football (soccer) is also a passionate sport. Some fans, often known as “football hooligans,” have started riots and perpetuated all kinds of violence. When you buy a ticket for a game, you want to make sure you are sitting on the side of the team you support. Once, when I was in Australia, I attended a State of Origin rugby match with the NSW Blues against the QLD Maroons. Good idea to keep the correct colors on in your seating area! The culture of the fans (excluding some of those sitting near me) seemed to dictate tense slanderous teasing. Yet, I also saw fans congratulate the winning competition after the match was over. I felt I belonged.
This is not always the case. There are people who take competition too far and don’t understand what they are doing. They make other people feel as if they don’t belong. What happened to Bob happens to all of us at some point. Others may think they are only teasing, or they may very well be being intentionally hurtful—either way, the effect is the same. It cuts to the core of who we are. We feel we do not belong, as if the same jokes are made about us all the time. We remember what it was like to be the last one to be asked to join a sports team during recess at kindergarten. This feeling weighs us down.
What do we do? What should we tell Bob? What should we tell the little kid who gets picked last every time? What should we tell the friend who feels they are the butt of all the jokes? Grow a thick skin. Give as good as you get. Just ignore them. Or could there be a better way for us to live God’s love? Could we pause and listen more? Could we grow our capacity for empathy? Could we, like Jesus, see the potential in others and make space for everyone to belong?
My friend, Lisa Clark Diller, shared a phenomenal reflection at the One project gathering in Boulder, Colorado, in mid-February. The entire message was groundbreaking, but there was a single thought that I need to share with you today. In addition to all that the Incarnation was, it was also Jesus taking on a disabled body. Because every single human is disabled in some shape or form. We all need help. Listening to her speak, with hundreds of other people, I felt I belonged.
When I read John 1:14, I see that Jesus chose to live among us so that we would understand what it is to live love. Try it today. Live God’s love by lifting up the person next to you instead of tearing them down.
Japhet De Oliveira is administrative director for the Center for Mission at Adventist Health in Roseville, California.