“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.”
On February 1, 1960, Joseph, Franklin, Ezell, and David walked into the F.W.Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina after leaving their college campus. They proceeded to the “whites only” lunch counter, sat down and ordered coffee. The young men were not served, and were asked to leave. They, however, sat quietly at the counter until the store closed. In that moment of disobedience, four young African-Americans initiated the sit-in movement which spread across the nation eventually resulting in federal civil rights legislation and an end to segregation.
I was 13 years old in 1960, and, having lived in Yankee isolation from the horrors of segregation and racism, I knew nothing about the plight of southern blacks. My life centered around the bullying I encountered in school, the hardships of farm life, and the urgency of fitting into the “cool” crowd. As a member of a closely knit Germanic community, my school text books did not mention the recent Holocaust or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In my school of about 760 students there were 5 Catholic, no Jewish and no African-American kids. Everybody else was Aryan white. In many ways my agrarian, Pennsylvania Dutch enclave lived as if a nation unto itself. We were not challenged to consider the intolerance, racism, and xenophobia which existed in America. That’s who I was in 1960.
A stint in the military changed all that. Fortunately I had no preconceived prejudices when I entered the Navy. If anything, it could be said that I was indifferent. I had always been taught to mind my own business, keep my nose clean, don’t get involved in the problems of others. My folks always told me, “They will take care of their own.”
Today I have a better understanding of the motivators in my parents’ lives. They were poor, they were ridiculed for their German dialect, they were seen as 2nd class by the more affluent neighbors living in towns across the mountains. My grandparents did not learn English until they attended school. All of us in the household were bi-lingual. But, my generation was teased for speaking “dutchified” English. We were not part of the American tribe. Life was immeasurably easier when we passed through life unseen and unheard.
I can’t do that today. Other people’s’ lives are my business, their problems are mine; life tells me that together we must care for one another. Was there some miraculous transformation? Yes, of course. I found sobriety and I discovered that Larry was not the center of the Universe. For the first time in my life I saw my own brokenness. I cried out for fixing and for healing. The Higher Power of my recovery program put me on a path of renewal and reintegration into society. Just as importantly, it gave me a willingness to live compassionately shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow-man.
Accordingly, the scales were lifted off my eyes and I was able to see the devastating brokenness of the world. I saw hatred, racism, intolerance, and injustice infecting all creeds, all nationalities, all races with a soul sickness that can only be healed by a power beyond human capacities. Name that Power however I want, place it wherever I like, worship it as I desire; it is the center of my universe, the reason for living, the essence of life, and the voice in my heart which says come to me, learn from me for I will give you peace that surpasses all human understanding.
“The Lord …..gathers the outcasts……heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147: 2-3
I am the outcast; I am the brokenhearted; I am the wounded. So are you. When any among us are targeted and persecuted, when any are denied God-given rights, and when any are physically threatened, I must stand together with you against the tyranny and injustice which threatens human enlightenment. As the four young men in Greensboro did when sitting at that “whites only” lunch counter, I also need to approach my decisive moments in history with courage and determination. What would I have done if I, a white man, walked into F.W. Woolworth store on February 1, 1960 to witness four black men being threatened, being verbally abused, being spat upon? How about you?
Two thousand years ago they did the same to a man named Jesus. He also was advocating for the rights of his people to be treated with respect, tolerance, and kindness. They beat him, ridiculed him, placed a crown of thorns upon his head, and spat upon him. They hauled him up on his cross for all the people to see. His advocacy for justice, equality, and compassion covering all of mankind sentenced him to an excruciating death by crucifixion. And then he said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
They knew not what they were doing because they had scales covering their eyes and self-importance infecting their hearts. I can be like that too. All I can do is pray that God’s grace will fix me and lead me out of myself and into the brotherhood of suffering masses where truth and compassion rule.