Children can feel the tensions, prejudices, and injustices that can exist around them.
When my sister and I were about 6 and 7 Daddy pastored a church in a coastal town in Central California, where the parsonage was in a racially-mixed neighborhood. We thought nothing of the fact that we played with Black children. We went into each others’ homes and each others’ apron-clad mothers gave us drinks of water and fresh-baked cookies. I only remember feeling acceptance and friendliness.
Then we moved to a valley town where 2/3 of the student body in our elementary school were Black and Mexican-American, many the children of transient farm workers. In this school in the 1950s, I first experienced racial tension. There I first heard the “N” word used. We were naive little girls, unprepared for the sights of gangs fighting on the playing fields, busloads of kids shaking their fists and yelling out the windows. As insults and epithets flew, I thought, “What is this?!” At the age of 9 I didn’t know anything about the civil rights movement taking place in our country.
I do remember Daddy driving us to a farm workers camp and the shock and sadness I felt when I saw how some of my classmates lived. No sidewalks, no trees, no grass. Just dirt and squalid shacks that couldn’t really be called buildings. No indoor plumbing, out by the cotton fields, with no respite from the hot sun.
Some of our little friends at school bragged about how they didn’t have to go to school during the cotton harvest. They were going to pick cotton with their family and make lots of money! Bev and I went home and told our parents we wanted to pick cotton and make money and not have to go to school! Mother shook her head. “Girls, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s back-breaking work. The cotton plants cut your hands and make them bleed. And the farm workers get paid very little. Those children’s parents need the extra money their children make just to help them subsist.” I had a hard time believing my mother. When we drove by fields of ripe cotton, the bursting heads looked white and soft as cotton balls.
We were learning about divides between people groups that couldn’t be crossed.
My second-grade sister had a more personal learning experience. She got into an argument with another little girl on the playground, probably over the rules of a four-square game or something. It just happened that the other girl was Black. As the girls hurled insults at each other, the worst thing my sister could think to say was, “You’re nothing but a big chocolate sundae.” Understandably, the girl took offense. She could have yelled back: “Well, you’re just plain vanilla ice cream.” Instead she hit my sister pretty hard and by the time I showed up on the scene, there was my sister on the ground, crying. I got scared and ran home (we lived across the street from the school) to tell our parents Bev was hurt. Daddy came to the school, found that only Bev’s pride was wounded, and made her apologize to the girl.
Well, that was really hard for Bev to do. But later, she and the little Black girl became friends. When Bev had her 8th birthday party, she invited this girl. The picture above shows the two of them with me (age 9) in the middle.
If only reconciliation were always that simple.
Or maybe it is that simple:
Wise and caring authority figures who bring us together, don’t hide from suffering, help us face the truth about ourselves and each other, encourage asking for and receiving forgiveness, then give us opportunities to celebrate our common humanity.