In light of recent events, I asked my friend Jim Mullins to share his story on this site. Jim is the co-lead pastor at Redemption Tempe Church. I previously introduced his book Symphony of Mission, which he co-wrote with Mike Goheen.
Being the forgetful man that I am, I found myself locked out of my hotel room…again. This happens more often than I’d like to admit. However, I know the drill. I just need to go to the front desk and explain what happened. They will give me a new key. They always do.
Sure enough, without asking for any identification, the person working at the front desk asked me what room I was in. I told him it was Room 207. He pounded the keyboard and gave me a new key card within seconds.
With my mind preoccupied, I hopped out of the elevator, walked up to Room #207, used the key, and walked right into the room. I was startled when I looked over and saw a man lying on the bed.
Adrenaline rushed through my body and I was ready to fight until I realized it was a friend who was speaking at the same conference I was speaking at. He wasn’t in my room; I was in his.
I was actually staying in #206. I went back downstairs and told the manager I had given him the wrong room number. I explained the situation and we had a good laugh about it. He probably would have given me a key to any hotel room just based on trust.
Once I got to my hotel room, I decided to take a nap until my friend arrived. He was my roommate during the trip, a good friend, and another speaker at the conference. This guy has more degrees than I have college credits and usually dresses like he’s ready for a spontaneous board meeting to start at any moment.
My friend arrives at the hotel
However, he is a young, large, black man. And he did not have the same experience with the front desk that I had.
Entering the hotel lobby, he headed straight for the elevator. Before the doors opened, the front desk manager called out, “Sir, … um … where are you going?” My friend explained that he was going upstairs to his room where his roommate (me) would let him in.
The manager explained that he’d never seen my friend in the hotel before, insinuated that he looked suspicious. The manager said he would need to see some ID. My friend showed his driver’s license.
The manager checked his name and said it wasn’t in the system. The hotel had been reserved under the name of the organization that invited us to speak. Naming the organization allowed me to check-in. But the same strategy didn’t work for my friend. The front desk manager didn’t believe him.
The manager said, “Sir, I cannot ALLOW you to go upstairs until I hear from your roommate or the organization.”
Meanwhile, I was jolted from my sleep by the obnoxious sound of the hotel phone. The manager asked me the name of my roommate. When I confirmed that it was him, the manager ALLOWED my friend to come upstairs.
Why was I “allowed” to check-in but my friend was not?
Why was I “allowed” to ask for a key to basically any room in the hotel, but my friend wasn’t even allowed on the elevator?
Here’s the thing. I bet that the front desk manager is generally a nice guy. I enjoyed my interaction with him. I could see him being a good father, a competent manager, and a fun friend. I could see him having a Facebook wall filled with hashtags about justice. I bet he would be utterly shocked at the insinuation of racism.
However, embedded somewhere deep at a subconscious level was a bias that caused him to treat me like an esteemed guest yet regard my friend as a threat.
What if that man had been a police officer? A teacher? A policymaker? A potential employer? A pastor?
It’s easy to scoff at the man behind the desk, but what if we are the man behind the desk? What if I am the man behind the desk? How can I seek to renew my mind and my heart? How do I steward my influence and authority in a way that pursues justice and honors my neighbor?
Here’s the truth. I did nothing in that situation. I thought about talking to the manager, bringing this up with upper management, writing a letter, suggesting they do some sort of training, etc. However, after a reasonable dose of outrage in the conversation, I just turned on the TV and watched a meaningless NBA game.
In that hotel, I was unfaithful to my brother, my friend, my neighbor, my community, my country, Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd…… you, and the God who has created us in his image.