Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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There is no such thing as small change

1922492_10153341394052228_6003546863571588601_nAround this time of year, I’m reminded of a story that showed me what a myth it is that people can’t change, that generations of behaving a certain way will only lead to more of the same.

A couple that we know made enormous efforts over the years to help their neighborhood be a better place for kids. Once a thriving, middle-class community to which the husband’s grandparents immigrated, it had fallen into decay with their city’s economic depression. Little by little, the couple’s home — that house his grandparents bought long ago — became a safe haven for the neighborhood’s kids, many of whom had little or nonexistent home life, or parents who just didn’t know how to get up from taking too many hits when they were already down.

11049450_931176180248396_9131258257236031369_nAs our friends and their own three children watched their home evolve into a de facto Boys and Girls Club, they decided to be intentional about it. They bought the house next door (an affordable prospect in a neighborhood where few choose to live) and invested in putting a pool in their backyard. Over the next decade of summers, a lot of kids gathered around that pool. The warm welcome they received there included rules, limits and a chance to develop self-discipline that most would find nowhere else, It was a chance to develop what Dr. King once called “the content of their character” — and to understand that this is the real purpose in life. Dozens of kids who passed through that house, and many of their parents, found possibilities in life they might never have known existed.

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Illustration by Leona Hosack

I thought I knew this couple’s story until, while I was visiting with them, the husband nodded toward a city bus stop as we drove past and said, “That’s where it all began. As they shared the story of their courtship and decision to marry shortly after high school, he described how, as they were standing at that bus stop one day, star-stuck with love and making big plans for their future together, he’d said something offhandedly. A car of men with faces as dark as most of their neighbors today had driven by, and without even thinking, he’d uttered a racial slur. It was something he’d heard fairly frequently among his peers.

“I’ll never forget the look on her face.” His own expression was somber in memory. “That look in her eyes, it was a combination of disbelief and anger, disappointment and sadness.”

That look, he said, had made the biggest impact on him of all, unleashing changes he could never have predicted.

His wife explained that she’d grown up with her family’s foster son, whom she truly loved like a brother, and who was black. The circle of her family’s African-American friends was also wide. Hearing her future husband say something like this seemed unthinkable, and unacceptable. As she turned to him with that look that day, she told him, “I don’t think I can be with you.” bruisenot10628403_896653373691808_2232318852909161472_n

At the time, her husband notes, any remorse on his part was motivated strictly by the desire not to lose her. “But I also didn’t want to lose the love and trust and respect for me that I saw leave her eyes when I’d said that,” he says. “And I knew that I wanted the mother of my children to be someone who had the strength of conviction that she had. It was brave to take a stand like that, because she really loved me, and what I did must have been a big disappointment to her.”

Like the efforts they later made to help their neighborhood’s children, nothing came easily, or overnight. But he did have a kind of epiphany that day, he says. “I realized that I had more choice about what I could do, and think, and believe, than I had understood. A lot of my actions and beliefs came out of the way my family and those who I’d grown up with saw things, and it was my responsibility to recognize where I’d been influenced by that, and to decide for myself.”

Standing at the bus stop that day, he couldn’t have imagined where such a willingness to change would lead him. Not only did that house of his grandparents eventually become an interracial community center, but his own circle of friends and family looks so much different than it might have had he chosen a different path that day at the bus stop.

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The kind of change that moves away from blind imitation of the past is nearly always an act of real moral courage, however small it may appear at first. The smallest action or decision to change based on principle or new understanding can often be overlooked by others, seemingly invisible at the time. But as my friends — and their many friends — can testify, it initiates a quietly powerful momentum that, like the lever of Archimedes, sometimes can move the world.

312q7DGYsbL._SL110_Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details:

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 


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The cheeseburger that beat out prejudice

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Prior to his deployment to Korea in the early 1950s, a friend named Bernie was on his way home one steamy Southern day. Just 19, he’d grown up in the North and had just completed basic training down South. He was eager to get home to see his family before shipping out overseas.

Dressed in his stiff khakis, he was waiting at a bus depot in South Carolina on a day of triple-digit temperatures. His starched collar was tight around his neck, and as he entered the depot, he looked longingly at the air-conditioned waiting room on one side of the building.

Then he turned toward the cramped, stifling room marked “Colored”, went in and politely ordered a cheeseburger at its small counter.

IMG_0608The members of his family, like many African-Americans, had a wide range of skin colors because of a heritage of African, Native American, and European ancestry. The options this gave him as a light-skinned man were quickly brought to his attention when the man behind the counter leaned over to talk. The older man lowered his voice and told Bernie, “Now look, son, there’s no reason for you to get that nice uniform all messed up in here where it’s too hot to breathe. You’re serving your country; you deserve a break. Nobody here’s gonna know the difference if you go over there with the white folks and have your lunch where it’s cool. Go get comfortable before you take that long ride home,” he urged.

The roomful of people grew quiet as Bernie thanked the man, then told him, “I’m happy to stay right here.” His reply drew warm smiles, nods, and “God bless yous” from around the room. He was enjoying the first few bites of his lunch when two white police officers strode into the room. The lively chatter instantly ceased as the two made their way toward Bernie.

He braced himself for whatever might be coming, then was completely surprised by the placating tone of the officer who did all of the talking. “Now son, you’ve obviously made a mistake. We know you’re probably not familiar with the way we do things around here. There’s no reason for you to stay here where you surely don’t belong. You just take your lunch there and come on over next door where you can be cool and comfortable.”

When Bernie started to explain that he was happy to stay where he was, the man behind the counter gave him a warning look. So Bernie stopped talking.

Then the police officer continued, “Now, we sure don’t want any trouble here, son. You’d best come with us and be with your kind, where you belong.” The policeman’s tone had grown much sterner, Bernie noticed, echoing through the complete silence in the room. IMG_3155

The young soldier shrugged and rose to comply with the policeman’s request.The one who had done the talking stooped to lift Bernie’s duffel bag to his shoulder, and the other policeman carried Bernie’s plate and glass of milk carefully. Every set of eyes in the room was watching as the officers escorted the young black soldier as deferentially as if he were a visiting dignitary.

The most memorable moment came after the room’s double doors closed behind the three men. There was another beat of silence, and then the entire room broke into a chorus of delighted cheers and applause. Bernie, now a grandfather, says that he imagined that a great many of his ancestors were cheering right along with them.

312q7DGYsbL._SL110_Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1385482351