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.
As 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.
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.”
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.
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.