Yesterday was just another Saturday around here. Greg and I are in the middle of a massive lawn renovation…because apparently simply enduring a massive home renovation wasn’t quite enough punishment a few years ago. And because we are just plain dumb at times, we are overhauling our massive yard in the middle of August…in Florida. It is unpleasant to say the least.
And yesterday was just like any other outdoor Saturday for us: dig up dirt, dump dirt, plant the new trees, pebble in the new path, stare at the yard for a while and wonder if it will ever really be done. Repeat. To break up this monotony every weekend, I swipe open my phone during water breaks. Just to remind myself that life is still happening outside my tiny window of the dirt colored world. And it was the same old stuff yesterday: kids’ birthday party photos, food pics from friends without kids who still do this crazy thing called “brunch”, twitter warnings of this year being “the big one” in regards to hurricanes this year and…wait, what in the world is happening in Virginia this weekend?! I watched videos of college kids with tiki torches storming the castle of the University of Virginia. And later in the day I watched police in riot gear attempt to stifle the startlingly large number of supporters that were showing up to this insane “demonstration of white supremacy”. And even more tragically as the day closed, I watched as a car literally ran over peace.
As I would return to my shoveling and scooping, wheelbarrowing and dumping, I would see all of those faces again in my mind. I would examine the anger, the arrogance, the excitement I perceived in them and I would feel flooded with emotion. I felt weak that this was allowed to happen in my country. I felt sad that people actually do really believe they are better than their fellow humans for any reason, really. I felt angry. I felt frustrated. I felt defeated. And deep down. Deep, deep down buried beneath denial and fear I found shame. I felt ashamed because I have sat through stories told by aunts and uncles and cousins, both of an older generation and even the younger where the young men with torches were heroes. I felt ashamed because I knew if I were to have called up some of those family members yesterday, there would have been traces of elation in their voices. Someone was finally standing up for the little guy! It’s America, right? Freedom of speech, right? Freedom to demonstrate, right? The left wing doesn’t even know what hit them!
Let me be clear in saying none of my family members would have supported what happened in the end. That car was one step too far. In fact, I believe very few people, even amongst the ones with torches this weekend, felt that car was the appropriate response. But it only takes a seed of dissent, a root of bitterness to cause the results of yesterday. And my family on both sides of the tree has racism running through its rings.
And yesterday was hard for me as I thought of those family members I love carrying even the smallest torch somewhere deep in their hearts. But then I remembered a story I heard this summer.
An aunt and uncle who I rarely see came to visit my parents one week this summer. They had brought a gaggle of grandkids with them and so my brother and sister and I made every effort to swing by my parents’ house during the week to say hello with our families. I know very little about these family members but I remembered they had spent most of their lives in small Southern towns in the middle of nowhere. I know they are the “salt of the earth” types. They work hard, they love their family and they are firmly entrenched on “the right” side of everything. So it was no surprise when my uncle began a story with this statement: “Well, Tommy, you’ll never believe it! We had a bonafide middle Eastern guy walking around the streets of the Park.”
My aunt and uncle currently live in an area of Savannah called Wilmington Park. It’s a nice little suburb of ranch houses and big weeping willows. It has long been known as the kind of place you want to raise a family, far away from the crime ridden streets of downtown Savannah. It’s a nice neighborhood. I grew up visiting my grandparents there every summer.
“Yes sir! I noticed him earlier this year, each night as I would sit on the porch. We would wave to him but he never really looked up. I started calling him “The Terrorist”.
Ugh. I felt my stomach sink. I wondered if it were still early enough in the story I could walk outside and pretend to check on the kids but my uncle was clearly just getting started and was looking around the room to make sure everyone was engaged with him. I was stuck. A quick glance around the room from my eyes also let me know that my dad and Greg were feeling just as uncomfortable and we were all sort of hoping this would be a quick story we could feebly laugh at and then change the topic to that pesky hurricane season we were all in for this year.
My uncle went on to explain he and my aunt noticed this guy almost every night riding his bike down their street and making his way every night towards the back corner of the Park. Every night my uncle would call out to him and every night the man would barely raise his head as an acknowledgment of the greeting. Then one night a few months in my uncle noticed the man wasn’t on his bike. He was walking.
At this point in the story my uncle leans forward in his chair as if this is where it gets really good. “So I sat there a little longer on the porch, wondering what in the world this guy was up to and I finally decided to take action! I got in the truck and I tracked him down!”
I held my breath, willing this story to take any turn but the one where my uncle harassed an innocent man walking while driving in a massive pick up truck.
“I finally caught up to him and leaned out the window and hollered ‘Hey! What happened to your bike?’ Well, don’t you know, he starts telling me how it broke the night before and he doesn’t have a car and he needed to get his groceries so he was just going to walk. Can you believe that?! He was going to walk, with groceries, clear to the other side of the island and back. Well, I told him that wasn’t going to happen and I offered him a ride to the store.”
The man graciously accepted and on their short ride to the store and back my uncle learned this man had recently accepted a job from the Chatham County Public School System to teach English as second language. He told my uncle the school system had agreed to put him up for the school year and he had been promised reliable transportation which had turned out to be an old bicycle. So he rode it everywhere. But now it was broken and he didn’t know how to fix it and he was afraid he would be fired and sent back to his family in Egypt if he couldn’t make it to his job. And his family desperately needed the money.
And you know all of those emotions I told you I felt yesterday as I watched Charlottesville unfold? My uncle felt them too as he listened to the man’s story. He felt shame at his city for treating a man with so little respect. He felt angry that it turned out the man responsible for this teacher’s well being was a prominent man in Savannah who could have provided him with better. He felt sad and he felt embarrassed and he felt compassion.
So after he dropped his new friend back at his home, my uncle returned to his and then went back out again with his toolbox and a new bike tube. He fixed the man’s bike and then he invited him over to dinner the next night. And from that point on, every week all year long my aunt and uncle had this man over for dinner. He became a part of the family. They learned about his family back home and about his religion and his culture. They shared their own stories and their own beliefs. They learned from one another and they shared with one another. They didn’t always agree but they treated one another with respect and love.
“The Terrorist” became a part of who they were.
At this point in the story, my jaw is on the floor. I felt tears spring to my eyes as I realize my uncle hasn’t told us this story for any sort of credit or pat on the back. He seemed just as shocked as us that his year has unfolded the way it had but he was also pleased as punch with his new friendship. They still communicate via email and in fact, his friend left them his very special prayer rug he had received from Mecca itself. It now hangs in my aunt and uncle’s home in Wilmington Park.
My uncle ended the story by saying when they said goodbye to their friend for the last time, the young man asked him what had made him stop to help him in the first place and my uncle said, “Well, Jesus told me to. So I did.”
What happened this weekend in Virginia was reprehensible. It was evil on proud display for the rest of the world to see. And evil is inevitable. It just is.
But it doesn’t win the war. It wins a whole lotta the battles but the war is won when a good ol’ boy from South Georgia hears Jesus telling him to check on that dark skinned boy walking down the street. And he listens.