I pushed opened the tinted glass front door and was welcomed into the empty room by a smiling banner which read “GRAND OPENING!” Three rows of undisturbed chairs sat peacefully. The barber shop had only been open for a week. Since it was a block away from my house, I thought I would give it a try.
A bell sounded as I stepped into the shop, followed by a deep voice from a room down the hall in front of me. “Come on back. We’re back here,” the voice rang. I walked down a short hallway into a larger space with five barber chairs. In the room were seven African-American men. The buzz of clippers vibrated in the air. Three different conversations created a light hum occasionally overpowered by laughter from a participant.
Not sure what to do I stood in the doorway watching. After a period of going unnoticed I said, “Hi.”
I was greeted with silent stares. I was clearly out of place. It was in the silence that it occurred to me that all the pictures in the windows out front were of African-American men. “Do black barbers learn how to cut white people hair?” I pondered silently. Not knowing what else to do, I continued to smile.
Finally one of the barbers said, “Uh…You want a cut?”
I sat down in his chair and he asked me how I wanted my hair done. I looked in the mirror across from me at the disaster on my head and tried to remember the last time I’d had a haircut. Two months? Three? Maybe four? I decided it had been at least three months. “Just take it all off,” I said.
The other three barbers burst into laughter. Deep relief came over my barber’s face. He started up his clippers and said, “Shit. I thought you were going to want me to feather this or some kind of shit like that. I mean I can do it and all. But it’s been a while and I’m not making guarantees.” The tension broke and conversation in the room slowly drifted back to normal levels. My barber introduced himself as Jamaal.
We launched into conversation. Jamaal asked me where I was from. I talked about growing up in New Orleans. He told me he had lived in Baltimore his whole life. I asked him about being a barber and why he opened a new shop. He asked me about the neighborhood and then shared some funny stories about weird people that walk up and down the street in front of the shop. We talked about the massive amount of prostitution happening in the neighborhood and how we were both surprised by it. He asked me about my kids and my wife.
Then I asked him, “So do you have kids?”
Jamaal replied, “Yeah. Two girls. Seven and four.”
“You don’t look near old enough to have a seven year old,” I said with a smile.
He laughed. “She’s not mine. She’s my girl’s. But we’ve been together for three years now, so I’m her dad, you know?”
“That’s awesome, man. Do y’all live together around here?”
Jamaal’s smile grew. “Yeah. And we’re gettin’ married in about a month,” he said proudly.
“Congratulations. That’s fantastic. Where are you getting married?”
The smile disappeared. “I don’t know. It’s all fucked up man. Jenny’s mom’s pastor was going to marry us in the church she grew up in, but just two weeks ago he said he wouldn’t do it and that we had to go find some other church.”
Jamaal stepped back visibly frustrated and said, “He said ’cause we weren’t members of the church that he couldn’t do it. But I told Jenny, that’s my fiancée, that I wasn’t about to join his shit.” Sizing up my hair, Jamaal put down the clippers and picked up a straight razor.
I thought about changing the subject. The straight razor plus his frustration with the church made me nervous. Wanting to hear the story, I swallowed my fear and pressed forward. “What was wrong with his church?”
“The first time I met him he was wearing three diamond rings and he drove a Mercedes. I mean nice rings, too. Super expensive. But everybody in the church is poor as shit. Then he said we had to do marriage counseling with him if he was going to marry us, but he didn’t even show up. It was some other dude. Some deacon or some shit. And they kept telling us we had to join the church and become members. But every time I went all they talked about was how they needed us to tithe and shit. Finally I asked the deacon why they were so desperate for money and he said that the pastor’s wife needed to get a new car.”
“No way!” I said astonished.
“Fucked up right? So he started telling Jenny and me that if we are going to get married we have to become members and members tithe and shit. Now I didn’t grow up in church. So all this is all new to me. But I told him that I’ve been reading the Bible and I don’t see any shit in there about giving money so the pastor’s wife can get a new Mercedes.”
“Wait. Wait. Wait. She used the tithe to get a new Mercedes.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.
“Fucked up isn’t it? So he started telling me about how I need to submit to the pastor and he’s my spiritual authority and shit.” Jamaal made exaggerated air quotes around the words “spiritual authority” which made me laugh. “And so Jenny told him that we didn’t need this shit. Then he started telling us that if we didn’t want our marriage to fail we had to be married in the eyes of God. I mean, I believe in Jesus and all. It’s all kinda new to me ya know. But I don’t need all that shit in my life. I hate church, bro. I ain’t goin’ back to that place.”
“I wouldn’t go back either, man,” one of the other barbers chimed in.
“Maybe, if they’re passin’ out free cars,” the man in the chair next to me laughed.
“It’s fucked up,” Jamaal replied with anger in his voice.
Then there was silence. Only the buzz of clippers continued as the room pondered Jamaal’s frustration.
“I know we just met and you don’t know me,” I said. “But I just want to encourage you. If you read the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — I think you will find that Jesus completely agrees with how you feel about what that church did to you. And, I just need to say that I’m sorry. That is not what following Jesus is all about. Following Jesus is about loving others. I’m really sorry that happened to you.”
Jamaal took a step back and looked me in the eye. I was afraid I had offended him in some way; but he relieved my fears with a nod of approval and a “Thanks bro.”
“So what are you going to do now?” the barber next to us asked.
“Jenny’s cousin works with homeless people downtown and he’s ordained and shit, so he said he would marry us. He’s cool. It should be a good day.” Jamaal finished his work with the razor and began to dust me off with a small brown brush. “All right bro,” he said removing the drape he had laid over me. “You’re done.” I stood and we moved toward the counter together.
“Thanks for coming in,” he said. “Tell your friends about us.”
“Yeah, sure.” I flashed a smile and retrieved my credit card from my wallet. “I’ll definitely be back for my next haircut. I just live around the corner.”
“So what do you do? Do you have a card or anything?” Jamaal asked as he rang me up.
I took my church’s business card from my wallet, handed it him, and sheepishly replied, “I’m a pastor.”
Jamaal looked at me dumbfounded, uncertain what to say, nervous I was offended by our conversation.
“Don’t worry,” I said breaking the tension. “My wife would never be caught dead in a Mercedes. She’s a Bentley girl.” The room erupted in laughter and I waved good bye.