As a human being in the globalized culture of the twenty-first century, I am very aware of my implicit biases.
I have two black sons and two wonderful black grandsons. To my sorrow I still show bias against black men on the Harvard University implicit bias test. But while I grieve the influence of implicit bias in my life, I have worked hard to overcome overt prejudice.
This past year, Jesus reached under my rug and pulled out the rhino of my prejudice against old people, especially old white people—my new neighbors. When my wife, Gayll, and I left the Bay Area because of the prohibitive rental prices, we chose beautiful, affordable, nearby Cambria.
Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo
I discovered it’s one thing to take regular retreats here, and quite another thing to move in and become part of the community. Four of our six immediate neighbors are seniors, two with serious health problems. When we went to church, the average age of attendees was seventy. People embraced Gayll and I (both age 58) as young, energetic new blood.
We joined the gym. I signed up for the most aggressive Tabata class on the menu. All the other students are women in their sixties. They still kick my butt, but I was expecting a few other fifty-year-olds.
For the first few months after our move, I thought we had made a big mistake. How could we live in a retirement community, even for a year? I turned to the Lord in prayer. “Why have you brought me here?” I asked. “I don’t fit in this town.”
He smiled that smile and said, “What if these are the people I want you to embrace right now? What do you see about yourself in your alienation? Just calm down and pay attention.”
First, I had to face that I am closer to 70 than I am to 45 (my inner age). I am headed in the direction of my new neighbors and the elderly brothers and sisters at church. Maybe I have lost out by spending my entire adult life mainly with people much younger than I am. Maybe I need to be around seventy-year-olds for my own sake. Perhaps they can teach me about the road ahead.
Second, I realized how American youth culture has brainwashed me about aging. I think that wrinkles and gray hair equal decay, and are something to hide, a problem to be solved. In the global south, a wrinkled, gray-haired person equals wisdom and maturity, and is considered a gift to be cherished by the younger generation. One of the main reasons Gayll and I have been so welcomed in Ethiopia as trainers and consultants is that we are older. Our long experience and broad perspective gives us credibility.
Third, as I have begun to get to know older people at church, seeing them as individuals and not just “the retiree voting block,” my stereotypes fall away. Each person embodies a storyline shaped by God in joy and grief. I have found humility, prayerfulness, and empathy in far greater measures in them than in younger Christ-followers, despite my lifelong preference for them. As Gayll and I have gone out on training trips, and as I have struggled for months with a troublesome gut illness, we have been upheld by rugged, faith-filled intercessors whose retirement years are being spent, to a large extent, on their knees.
Prejudice against any of God’s children is a terrible poverty. I thank God for this year in Cambria, which forced me to confront my prejudice against the elderly.
I realize that I have been impoverished because I have so few friends older than myself. What a strategy of the evil one to keep generations divided, to warehouse the generation of wisdom in retirement homes and lose the benefit of their faith stories, their perspective on our self-manufactured crises, and the daily reminder that we too will age. Our bodies too will fail us—one piece at a time, or all of a sudden.
What an unforeseen precious gift to me it has been to live among seniors this year.
Whom might you be prejudiced against through your ignorance and bias? How might you break through your stereotypes? What elderly people are in your life? How might you treasure them as a gift to you and your family/friends?
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty-two years. He has been enthralled by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students and eight years as The River’s staff director. He currently serves as a leadership trainer and coach, primarily among under-resourced leaders in the Global South.
Notable accomplishments include: clinging to Jesus while disabled for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves to see young people come alive to God and boldly follow their calling, communities living out the radical love of God, and families and churches thriving (including his own). He's a podcast addict: This American Life, Snap Judgement, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Radiolab are a few faves. He's certain that food in the age to come will be mainly Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican (not necessarily in that order). He has been led astray by dark chocolate.