Mesa is a city in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Its population today exceeds a half million people, up from a mere 63,000 a half century ago. That makes it the largest suburban city in the United States—and larger than St. Louis, Miami, or Minneapolis.
Of the good people of Mesa, 62% are Anglo American, 27% are Latino, and less than 4% are African American. Which means, I suppose, that if you text at random any number in the 480 or 602 area codes, your chances of reaching an African American person is about four percent: in other words, not very good.
But that is precisely what happened to Wanda Dench. She sent the following text to her extended family in 2016:
“Thanksgiving dinner is at my house on November 24, at 3:00 pm. Let me know if you’re coming. Hope to see you all. Of course, that includes Amanda and Justin.”
Except Wanda had tapped in one wrong number.
That number belonged to Jamal Hinton. He was sitting in class in high school when he was suddenly included in this large group text exchange. “My phone started blowing up,” he said later, referring to the invitation and all the responses.
He texted back: “Who is this?” And got an answer: Your grandmother. Jamal did not recognize the number, so he asked for a picture. What he saw was a middle age white woman—a stranger to this 17-year-old black man.
Once the confusion was cleared, Jamal wrote Wanda: “Can I still get a plate?”
“Of course, you, can, “she replied. “That’s what grandmas do…feed everyone!”
And so he went to the house of this stranger-turned-hostess for that Thanksgiving; and the friendship formed so fast and so deep that double dates became the norm: Wanda and her husband Lonnie with Jamal and his girlfriend Mikaela.
This story was first reported in local media when it happened four years ago. And the story has been refreshed every year as the foursome renewed their holiday happiness around a Thanksgiving table. I heard the latest update on the CBS Evening News this week.
Then and now, it is touching, because two people embraced a random exchange and welcomed into their lives a person who brought with them a measure of grace that we all need.
Wanda and Jamal crossed a divide, a racial divide, and are the better for it. It is a parable, don’t you think, for what we need in America today—more people crossing the tracks that separate the rich from the poor, crossing the aisles that separate the liberal from the conservative, crossing the borders that separate the citizen from the refugee, crossing the streets that separate the neighbor from the stranger.
Sometimes we think these things protect us—the tracks, the aisles, the borders, the streets; but in truth they prevent us from knowing and growing, from learning and loving, from expunging our prejudices and expanding our potential. They keep us from seeing beyond ourselves into the wide, wonderful world that is all around is.
No Thanksgiving needs this story more than the one of 2020.
Most of us have postponed our family gatherings, preferring to err on the side of safety rather than run the risk of succumbing to the COVID. But even this break in our annual holiday pattern is one way to see the neighbor we never saw before and care for our neighbor we might never see again—to do our part in pushing back both the disease that is among us and the disease that is within us… and here I refer to that disease of the soul that refuses to see in the stranger the face of God and the spirit of Jesus.
Thank God for Wanda and Jamal. They are the most unlikely of heroes in our divided homeland. They are the surprising superstars of our society struggling to treat each other as people, as neighbors, as humans made in the image of God.
Good and gracious God, send us more people like Wanda and Jamal. Send somebody into my life this holiday season that will inspire me and others, and in this way bring a fresh infusion of healing to the soul of our nation.