Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Meet You, O Christ, in Many a Guise

a few days ago, i was listening to national public radio while driving around. a news story came on about a new deal program to support artists during the great depression. the story focused on the many works by african-american artists that might never have been created without the support of roosevelt's new deal. the subject matter of these works would have found little support in the market place, and an important commentary on the lives of african americans in a segregated society would never have found expression. in today's political climate, art works with no commercial value would be viewed as insignificant, and the idea of a government program that pays artists to create, especially with complete freedom of expression, would be decried as a "socialist" plot.

these art works documented aspects of african-american life that were completely unknown to the majority of americans, leading me to think about my own experiences and attitudes. i am fortunate to have grown up in close contact with african americans. my father was the manager of a saw mill that employed many african americans, and my mother's parents operated a "mom and pop" grocery on the fringe of a predominately black neighborhood where most of their custormers were african americans. i can't pretend to have had close friendships with any of the african americans with whom i came in contact growing up, but i did have the experience of having many black acquaintances, something that was unusal for most white children.

during the next several posts, i want to describe some of those acquaintances and their influence on my life. i wish that i had more sensitivity to the experiences of african americans in the segregated south during my formative years in the 1950s and 60s, but as a child such thinking was foreign to me as it would have been to most children. my grandfather operated a small farm outside of the town in which his grocery store was located, and he employed a black "hired man" named John to help him on the farm and to do a few odd jobs around the store and my grandparents' home. John would be what we now call a "day laborer." he didn't receive a weekly salary, but was employed from day to day as my grandfather needed him. To my knowledge, he had no other employment, so his income was meager.

two incidents stand out in my mind. one was awakening early one morning while staying with my grandparents. i jumped up in the bed when i realized my bed was off the floor and being rotated. my grandfather was holding up the head of the bed and john was holding up the foot. my grandmother had decided to rearrange the bedroom in which i slept, and, rather than waking me, was supervising the moving of the bed with me in it. when john saw how startled i was, he broke out in laughter, commenting on how they were scaring me. his laughter was infectious and soon my grandparents and i were laughing hysterically along with john. the room rearrangment had to stop while we all recovered. from that moment on, i had a deep affection for john.

a few summer's later while i was once more staying with my grandparents, as i always did in the summer from the age of six through my sophomore year in college, john was mowing my grandparents' yard with their gasoline-powered mower. as he pulled the mower back toward him, he lost control of it, and it backed onto his foot. in those days, there was no safety shut-off on gas mowers, so the blade continued turning, slicing through john's shoe and almost severing his big toe. his cries brought all of us out into the yard, where he sat on the ground, holding his foot and moaning. my grandmother ran to inspect the foot, and her soothing manner helped john regain control of his emotions. he asked for some kerosene to be poured over the cut and for bandanges to wrap his foot. both were supplied, and my grandmother dressed his wounded foot. i worried all day about john's injury, and at mid-afternoon i asked my grandmother if we could go check on john.

she and i walked to his house a few blocks away, knocked on the door, and were admitted. i don't remember who greeted us, but i do remember john sitting in the darkened front room in a big easy chair with his injured foot propped up. i was old enough to drive by this time and had my car there at my grandparents. i begged john to let me take him to the doctor. he assured me that he would be fine without assistance from the doctor, but he was profuse in his thanks for the offer and for our taking time to come check on him. i could sense that john was deeply touched by my concern for him. from that time on, john went out of his way to befriend me, always seeking me out when i came to visit my grandparents and asking about my welfare during the school year when i was back with my parents.

i wish i could say that i kept in touch with john, but after my grandfather died and my grandmother became too infirm to keep their store open, i lost contact with him. i will always remember how kind this man who was probably forty years my senior was to me. he sensed my affection for him, and, despite the ill treatment he received from many whites, he saw me, not as a representative of an oppressive race, but as a child who dared to reach out to and love a black man. i am grateful to have known john and to have enjoyed his gentle friendship with me.

my prayer today is that we learn to love others in spite of our prejudices and the limitations of the society in which we live, just as jesus loved the samaritans, greeks, and canaanites who came to him. shalom

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