I like stuff, especially nice stuff. Sometimes I focus on “stuff” or things, because inanimate objects can be subjected to scrutiny without rebuffing the scrutinizer. People, or society, do no such thing and not only despise scrutiny, but too often dish it out in inhumane ways. I may be guilty of this myself, but for today’s Christmas wish I’m ignoring my own faults and look at others.
For Christmas I wish people with money would stop complaining about those with less.
Even those of us, especially those of us, who work hard yet still struggle to almost hold on to middle class, should stop complaining or worse yet blaming poor people for the problems of the world.
I wish we, all of us, would stop that. It isn’t Christ like. This is Christmas.
Those in poverty are not without their faults, nor are the middle or the rich. What the poor are without is comfort and power. Why would those of us with something, no matter how little, resent those with less? The idea that the poor are the source of modern American troubles is not only false, but in my mind, a morally indefensible idea. WE, the collective we, including the rich and the middle are all guilty of moral corruption and I am tired of the demonization of those who inhabit the bottom rung of society.
I can think of nothing crueler, nothing as polar opposite of charity and kindness, than to abuse (in any way) those who suffer in poverty. For Christmas I wish we as a nation would be more Christ-like.
I received word that a member of the church was being held at the maximum security federal penitentiary in Philadelphia. This brother had received special permission from Salt Lake City to receive the sacrament, an ordinance not normally administered to people while imprisoned. This facility was within my congregation’s boundaries so the regional authorities asked me to make arrangements to minister to him. I submitted my ecclesiastical credentials to the prison, underwent a federal background check, and had my name submitted by the prisoner as a formal request for me to be listed as his minister of record. This process took more than a month.
When arriving at the facility for the first time, stopping by on a Sunday after church, I was asked to fill out additional paperwork. I turned over all my personal belongings, only being allowed to retain scriptures and any money on my person. I had none. My hand was stamped, my photo was taken, and a warden escorted me first to a waiting lobby, then into a large visiting room. I was there on the assigned women’s visiting day so all the inmates in the room were female, sitting in rows of plastic chairs on one side, with families in matching chairs facing them, and a series of low plastic end tables in between. I waited off to one side till another warden led in a smallish white man with glasses and graying hair. We shook hands, hugged, then were shown to a side room with two chairs and a desk, usually reserved for visits with lawyers. The chaplain, who had previously told us he would provide communion wafer and cup for the ordinance, was unreachable being engaged in worship services of his own, so we were denied the proper equipment to have the sacrament. We talked instead.
He explained to me the details of his white collar crime. He told me he had struck a deal that he did not know was illegal. Once he did know he backed out and returned all the funds previously exchanged.This didn’t stop the indictment. He was convicted by a judge this brother described as antagonistic, and has been locked away for a year. His case was pending appeal. We talked for quite a while and parted ways, intending to attempt the sacrament again the next week.
That next week I was denied access to the prison. I was told by the guards that I was only listed as a social visitor and could only visit on one pre-scheduled day per week, and this was not the day. Being rebuffed I again contacted the chaplain who apologized and said there was a misunderstanding and to try again. I tried again and was this time rebuffed saying I could only visit before 1:30 on any given day. Our church services ended at noon so I could not get to the prison before the prescribed time. It was 12:45. I haunted the waiting room till the chaplain was summoned. He informed me there was another misunderstanding and that I could in fact visit any day, but that it did need to be before 1:30. He reiterated that if contacted in advance he would provide supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. I thanked him and we parted ways.
The next day, Monday, I received an email from the imprisoned brother that his mother had passed away that morning and he was not in good spirits. He repeated his request to receive the sacrament. I emailed the chaplain that I would be at the prison by 9am the next morning and rearranged my schedule to be there.
Upon my arrival the next morning I was denied access. I argued with the warden who after several phone calls began the process to allow me access. I was brought back into the large waiting room with all the chairs while they processed the brother for visitation.
Every time an inmate receives a visitor they are strip searched both before and after the visit. On his arrival we found ourselves alone together in the large visitation room, being denied the private side rooms this time, and again were denied by the authorities any access to supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. By now it has been many months since this process had been initiated and this brother had yet to receive the bread and water.
We went to a far corner, I invited him to sit, then I went over to the vending machines and purchased a bottle of water and a “lunchable” package of crackers, cheese, and cold cuts. I also collected two white napkins and a white paper plate. We sat facing each other, me in my white shirt and tie, him in his prison jump suit, and I prepared this sad meal to be the sacrament.
He sat and watched as I filled the bottle’s cap with water, set it on one plate and covered it with a napkin. I then placed one cracker on the other plate and also covered it with a napkin. I invited him to say an opening prayer, which he did.
Afterwards I uncovered the cracker, broke it, knelt down and with a military issue of the Gospel Principals book I recited the blessing on the bread. I handed him the plate and as he took and ate the cracker he began to cry. No sobbing and sniffling, just a straight, sad, silent face. His tears continued on through the water and the conclusion of our small and humble service.
I cleaned away our setting and sat down. He could not speak at first. Here in this place filled with those who society has deemed dangerous and punishable, I felt the spirit.
As we parted this brother thanked me again and again. I accepted his thanks filled with the warmth that comes with service and a holy ordinance.
I have always wanted a Jeep Wrangler. Four slightly large but not huge tires, top down, and the doors removed from the hinges. Forest green, maybe black or midnight blue, not yellow. I have pictured myself driving it off road in the dirt, on the streets passing strip malls, and even pictured parallel parking it in Manhattan between a cab and a Smart car. It was never an obsession, not a top priority, but it was always there. In 8th grade, drifting off during math class-Jeep. College, sitting in a dorm room eating instant noodles-Jeep. I have always thought it the perfect vehicle for the person I wanted to be, the vehicular expression of the inner me. I may wear a suit and tie to work, but deep inside, I’m a Jeep.
Funny thing happened when I lived in Philadelphia’s inner city, the Jeep drove away. It was not buried under life’s cares, it wasn’t towed away by day-to-day practicality, it simply drove out of my consciousness.
I have since moved to another local and to my surprise, the Jeep, or rather a vacant parking space meant for a Jeep, has returned to my imagination. I can’t shake that stinking contraption, it’s there all the time. I suppose I could exorcise the demon by simply buying one. I can think of a million reasons not to do that, but none of those reasons can shake the fantasy. I’m doomed and the realization of this doom has caused me to reflect a little on why this is the case. I have also reflected a little on why Philadelphia somehow made me mentally Jeep-proof. I think I know the answer, and it makes me just a little afraid of myself. It makes me a little afraid of us all. I will explain.
Philadelphia was the first place I had ever lived, not visited, where there were a lot of poor people. Now I have never been wealthy, or even very stable (reason number one for lack of four wheel drive dream car), but in Philadelphia there were people, a lot of them, that were very visibly doing much, much, worse than I. The longer I lived there, the more I not only saw such folks, but I got to know them. Names. Situations. Humans. This familiarity and proximity provided for me a new opportunity; I was able to help. I didn’t help much. In fact it could easily be argued that the net effect of me living there nine years was zero. At least zero in the dent I made on poverty. But being there and working there made a huge dent in me. That dent came from a constant blow to my chest that eventually crushed by ribs and touched my heart. I felt it. It hurt. But it didn’t only hurt it also gave me this sort of zealous energy and joy. This trying, this being needed, and this involvement in something bigger and more important than my day to day life was invigorating despite the pains I picked up along the way. Not only was it not only painful, it was also not only poor people. This was the first place I met real life rich people.
When I say rich I’m not talking the “I own a car dealership” kind of rich, I’m talking the “My name is Henry Ford the 5th”, kind of rich. Now no, I never really met the heir to Model-T dynasty, but surely I now know players in that same league and I will admit there was excitement in such encounters. Some such folks were wonderful, and others not so much; just like the poor people. Some people were doing fascinating and wonderful things with their resources, and others were just minding their own business. Knowing these people and peeking into their world taught me a few things, but it didn’t hit my heart. Some of those folks bruised my eye a little, but nothing lasting.
In Philadelphia I saw these two worlds, the wealthy and the destitute, rub up against each other. Watching these two tectonic plates, these huge forces of nature that have to our knowledge always existed, grate and rub, I learned what humanity is. Humanity is people, you me, us them, rich and poor. Humanity, these individual and singular people are what are important. Not the money, not the lack of it, but the person is what is important and one person interacting with another can do big things. Huge things. Things that matter! Not matter in the way that getting the high score on Angry Birds matter, but matters in the life outcomes and eternity sort of way. I got to live in that world. I was one of those people getting ground up between these two forces of nature, poverty and power, and I got to do a few little tiny things that really mattered.
And none of those things required, or had anything to do with a Jeep. That gorgeous chariot and all it offers never even occurred to me while I was there.
I have since left that city. It is a hard place to be and my job sent me somewhere else. Where I live now is wonderful. No potholes. No abandoned houses, no panhandlers, and no rib crushing blows. My kids go to a great school where I never worry about their safety and my wife never complains about the weather. I like my job, my friends, most everything about the place. I love it here-but the Jeep is back. I see it driving down the sunny streets and parked right over on the other side of my desk where chairs should be. It no longer has chrome rims, but it’s still green or blue. My dream car has returned and my chest has started healing. That dent, that damage, doesn’t hurt quite the same way, and that, is what makes me afraid.
My daydreams are not the faces of the people struggling to make it day to day but rather a gas guzzling car. The pain of tragedy and struggle is being replaced for a desire to have a little fun. Now make no mistake, I never abandoned fun, but it’s becoming my default setting. I had for some time filled my thoughts with doing good for other people, but without even trying, my thoughts are drifting to Jeeps. In fact I’m trying really hard to focus on doing good stuff for other people but Jeeps are all-terrain and apparently so are my daydreams. I have learned that seeing struggles on television, or the radio, or even talking to struggling people on the phone, just doesn’t hit my heart quite the same way. There is too much meat and bone, perhaps a little flab, protecting my heart from the outside world and I have a new found appreciation for a wounded heart’s ability to heal. This makes me afraid for myself. It also makes me afraid for all of us. I’m afraid because I think I might just be a normal person. Not super special or unusual, and if this is the case, than what are the rest of us dreaming about when we could be dreaming about helping people? Mine is a Jeep, what is yours?
And this matters because the one thing I refuse to forget is that those others, the ones who need help, really do need help. They need help from other people… more than I need a Jeep.
I once spent a week in a Manhattan office as a sort of test drive for a possible new career. The staff were friendly and competent, the work was interesting, and the opportunities were sky high. I liked the company well enough and they liked me. They liked me quite a bit. I was exactly what they were looking for. I had met the founder/CEO of this top notch firm in church. We were both serving in leadership roles and had worked together in differing roles there. He liked how I went about things and asked if I would consider a career change that would include coming to work for him. It looked like a great opportunity.
The moment I stepped off the elevator I saw that this was not like any company I was used to. Everyone was Mormon. Not just Mormon, but graduates of BYU. It is not normal to find such a place on the East Coast where Latter-Day Saints are about as common as Panda Bears. At all my previous jobs I was forced to spend an abnormal proportion of my conversational time explaining why I wasn’t drinking like everyone else, why I was wearing an extra layer under my clothes, or why I never dropped the F-bomb like everyone else. I found this a bit frustrating as I would have rather spent my time talking about literature, movies, or maybe football. Rarely did I get a chance as my Mormonism trumped my other interests, or at least trumped anything else that may have been interesting about me. None of that would happen here. If I took this job those days would be over. I was intrigued.
“I like hiring Mormons. I understand them, they understand me, and we can have a work environment more in line with my values,” The boss told me. “I can start off at a level of trust with a new employee that I wouldn’t have otherwise and in this business there has to be trust.” I don’t think this employer was completely against working with non-Mormons, I know that nearly none of his clients were LDS, but he knew what he was looking for, knew where to find it, and he just did what he knew. He knew Mormons.
In the end I didn’t take the job. We just couldn’t get the numbers to work. That was years ago and they are still going strong. I don’t know everyone there but I can pretty much guess a thing or two about whomever it was that took the job that I did not. I’m pretty sure they were Mormon, went to BYU, and were extremely capable. I think about them, and my experience there, quite often. Strangely enough I think about it when I read in the paper about affirmative action, racial profiling, and income inequality. I thought about it during the Treyvon Martin trial, the Cliven Bundy showdown, and now during the Donald Sterling drama. In all these cases there is so much talk about racism, or false accusations of racism, or reverse racism. Everyone has an opinion, everyone knows what should be done, and everyone, no matter what side they take, is upset.
So many are upset in part because we, the collective we, do not really understand how racism works. We think racism is, or happens when, we hate someone who is different. We think it is when we act out on this hatred in some way. While this may be one way racism works, it is very much not THE way racism works. The truth is that today, and in years past, for the most part racism works just like that office in Manhattan.
Racism happens when we simply show a preference for our own.
Preference for our own is a precarious thing. It makes sense. It’s easy. It’s also very exclusive and insular. Not only is it those things but it is also the justification most all overtly racist policies or groups have used to justify blatant discrimination. Most of those who supported Jim Crow laws did not claim to hate black people, they simply wanted to “protect” their own. Real estate agents and neighborhood alliances didn’t say black people were horrible, they simply wanted to make sure white people could live amongst their own. Labor unions, employers, and colleges never had to say they hated minorities; they only had to say that they had a level of trust in the abilities of their own.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily calling that office full of Mormons racist. Nor am I calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints racist. But I will say that all the people in that office were white. There were also no Jews. There were plenty of women and during that week I never heard one person say anything negative about any group previously mentioned. But the level of niceness, affection, or broad respect for humanity possessed by those who worked there didn’t, and doesn’t matter to any black people; because they aren’t there. Unless something changes, they never will be either.
That is the problem with a racist past never being addressed by the “non-racist” present.
The group we belong to now, and what that group has or does, is a direct result of what the members of our group did before. So, if that office would like to stay Mormon forever, so be it. Who cares right? It is one company, one office, what’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of things there really aren’t that many Mormons, especially in New York, so why even bring it up? I bring it up because this office is how modern racism works. That office is Mormon not because the people there hate anyone; they simply have a set way of doing things. The same could be said for Ford, Bain Capital, Tiffany & Co., the United States Senate, NBC, CBS, ABC, Morgan Stanley, Stanford, any local police department, the carpenters union, and on and on and on. Wall street firms don’t have to hate black people, they only have to really like Wharton graduates. Wharton doesn’t have to hate black people, it only has to really like the children of alumni. Alums don’t have to hate anyone, they only have to really want their own children to get into a great school. It goes on and on, spirals down, down, down.
The only way things will ever change is if someone intentionally changes it. It really isn’t enough to simply not be racist. Not hating someone is not the same as giving them a chance. Really, what it will take, and I call out that Mormon office because my own personal bias tells me that Mormons, my people, should be great at this, is to think of someone other than themselves. Look at someone new and give them a chance. Do the uncomfortable thing. Open up and let someone new in. Realize that if people are people, then “strangers” deserve the same sort of favoritism we give the familiar.
I rode a bike every day for two years. I did it in the miserable Georgia heat. I did it while gallons upon gallons of water poured out of the sky and onto my head. I did it wearing a suit and tie. It was the sort of physical and practical challenge that seeps into every bit of your daily life no matter how menial. Like getting groceries; how do you plan to get them home? The Laundromat? How about an important presentation five miles away and dark storm clouds are gathering overhead? What about the winter when it gets dark at 5 o’clock? I lived with those questions, and the challenge of answering them, every day for two whole years. That was nearly twenty years ago. I will never forget it.
With all that in mind I recently started riding a bike every morning. I teach a class of high schoolers early in the morning and the idea of saving some gas money and spending some calories made sense. I didn’t make this decision flippantly; I put some real thought into it. I remembered what it was like to ride a bike to get somewhere, as opposed to riding for pure recreation. I knew what I was getting into.
But not really.
I remembered all sorts of little details, I could recount stories, I knew stuff. But it wasn’t till I began pedaling a fixed gear tank with all 250 lbs of me on top, up a giant hill, into a headwind, did I really remember riding a bike.
As my thighs swelled and tightened, and blood rushed to my face, true memory flooded my mind and soul. I remembered riding a bike. It hurt. A lot. Stashing my bike in the closet of the classroom with a sweaty shirt sticking to my arms, worrying that I was such a disgusting display of humanity that no one would ever listen to a thing I had to teach; I remembered riding a bike.
It gave me something to think about as I pedaled back home. How easily we forget.
I haven’t seen a homeless person in months.
Back where I used to live, there was this guy in a wheelchair that used to wheel down the middle of our small street collecting discarded scraps of metal. He was dirty. The kind of dirty you can’t fake with a one day roll in the dust, you have to compile this kind of dirt the hard way. It was a regular part of my day to sit in the car waiting for him to wheel his way across the street, or to the end of the block, so I could get my car to where I needed to go.
I used to spend hours on the phone with the local electric company, while a little old lady would sit on the couch next to me sobbing, a past due notice in her shaky hands. I do not have enough fingers to count the number of people I visited regularly that heated their homes by turning the oven on high and leaving the oven door open. It is the poor person’s version of a fireplace. Every day, at least for a moment, I would have to not only see poverty, but interact with it just a little. Sometimes a lot. It was as much a part of my life as that bike used to be.
Pedaling past palm trees on my way to the swimming pool, I wonder how much I have already forgotten.
I read a scripture today in which the resurrected Jesus took bread and wine, passed it to those who were with him, and instructed them to eat it in order to remember him. Remember him? Not only was he right there with them, but these people had just watched this resurrected man descend from the sky in a cloud of light. They had just gone up and touched the holes in his hands, feet, and side. This was God’s son in all his glory. How could they ever forget?
But he knew they would. We can’t help it. Even when we can recall what happened, feelings fade. There is something in the remembering that fades. Jesus, on the first day of this remarkable visit, told them he would be back tomorrow, then, before saying goodnight, set up the taking of bread and wine as a process by which we should remember him. He told them to repeat this ceremony often.
Because we forget.
How can I expect myself or anyone to remember what true poverty is like if we aren’t in it? How can anyone who hasn’t been in it ever really comprehend how hard it is? It is like riding that bike up the hill, remembering how hard it is, is nothing compared to feeling the tight burning in my legs. Many who have lived in it before, been raised in it, struggled to escape it, are going to at some level forget it. The memory will fade into stories, events, recollections, but not the same feelings.
Unless we do something. Not just remember, but do.
Unless we somehow eat the bread and drink the wine. Unless we sit on the couch and call the electric company. Unless we help wheelchair man pick up the pile of tin cans he just spilled all over the street. Not only will we forget, but the poor will be completely forgotten.
I remember Rose. I wish I could do more than remember but I don’t have a choice.
Rose was the perfect name for her.
I have no idea how old she was but she looked about ninety. She was just like any elderly black woman you might see in a movie; toothless, sappy sweet, with just a little touch of sass. She was once a nurse; had been for forty years. She was never married and had no children. She lived with her nephew and an assortment of other characters that I could never keep straight. Cousins, nieces, grand cousins, play cousins, but they all looked older than fifty and none of them spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.
I met Rose when some missionaries asked me to come along for a discussion. She lived in a row house in North Philadelphia. It was the grand kind of place I would have loved to have seen when it was new, but that would have been about 1850 and it had long since been subdivided into apartments and I doubt many had loved to see it for at least fifty years. There were two short sets of stairs leading up to her front porch which was a large cement slab surrounded by a crooked railing.
She spent her days sitting in the living room, sharing the space with an old TV, a ratty couch, and an upturned coffee can filled with cigarette butts. She never went anywhere. She never left the room. She didn’t wander because she only had one foot. She lost it to diabetes some years before and so now she sat in her wheelchair on the ground floor of a three-story apartment. The others in the house seemed to go up and down, in and out, passing Rose the same way they passed the ratty couch and the old TV. The coffee can wasn’t hers. She didn’t smoke.”Naw honey. Gave that up years ago. T’aint good for ya and I gots enough problems as it is. That can’s for everybody else in this house. I wished they’d smoke ’em out on the porch but I guess its cold out there. Anyways, at least when they’s smokin’ in here I can talk to ’em a little.”
Rose found the missionaries when they knocked on her door and she hollered for them to come inside. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to. Maybe she had been sitting there waiting for them. Whatever it was, they found each other and they called me to come along. “Miss Rose has lots of questions and has been reading quite a bit,” the Elder’s informed me. “Today we will be talking about church and baptism.” Now I knew why they really asked me to come along; my minivan.
I was happy to offer my services to help Rose attend church that upcoming Sunday. She was the only one in the house who had any interest in the gospel but it didn’t matter because none of them owned a car. “You sure that aint a problem? You sure you don’t mind coming all out your way to get me?” she asked. I did not mind at all. 8:30 that next Sunday Rose was waiting for me right on the other side of the screen door. She would have been on the porch but couldn’t get herself up over the door jamb. I wheeled her around backwards and we bump, bump, bumped our way down those two small sets of stairs and then I gallantly lifted her out of her chair and set her in the passenger seat of the van. “Hi Rose,” my daughter and wife called out to her. “Hello everybody,” she replied and we drove off to the chapel.
This became our regular Sunday pattern up through her baptism and a month or so after as well. But then my responsibilities changed and I was no longer available Sunday mornings. I couldn’t call to tell Rose because she had no phone. I stopped by on a Wednesday to tell her I couldn’t be there on Sunday and she apologized to me. She was sorry to be any trouble. I promised I would try to find someone else.
The only person I could find was Brother Berry.
I hadn’t really thought this through very well. Brother Berry was perhaps the only person I knew who was older than Rose. Despite his age Brother Berry would volunteer for anything and they were the only other people we knew with a van. That Sunday morning the Berry’s showed up without Rose. Sister Berry marched up to me and launched into some high decibel diatribe about Brother Berry’s back and stairs and wheelchairs, heart attacks, and another thing coming. I pled forgiveness. Looking back I guess it was my fault. I had assumed that Brother Berry had a plan or was simply more capable than I thought. He was not capable, just willing. After church I drove over to visit Rose and she apologized to me again.
After five months of asking for volunteers and organizing Rose had still never made it back to church. I refused to accept that I was the only solution. Besides, I had other things to worry about than just Rose. So I continued to try to find her rides and would swing by to visit her on weekdays as often as I could. I felt guilty I wasn’t able to be her taxi and was inspired by the addition of a blue book with gold print as the newest piece of living room furniture. It didn’t take long for that blue book to look as used and ratty as the sofa it sat next too.
Before too long our ward welcomed a set of senior missionaries. They weren’t all that old, they were full time, and best of all they had a car. I asked them to please go get Rose. And they did.
I was so happy when this good Elder wheeled Rose into the chapel. She reached out to give me a big hug repeatedly asking, “Where’s the baby?” till my two year old was eventually produced to be hugged as well. It was a great day till about four o’clock.
At four I got a phone call from this Elder’s wife telling me all about her husband’s back problems, his age, and the challenges of getting Rose back up those stinking stairs. I apologized. I often find myself in situations where this is appropriate. This senior Elder spent a day and a half resting hs back but had the bright idea of a deal moving forward. If I couldn’t be there to pick her up, and he couldn’t get her home, maybe we should work together. He would go get her if I would take her home.
That next Sunday the senior missionaries showed up without Rose. When they arrived at her home one of the others in the house told us she was in the hospital. Something about her diabetes and surgery. No one there seemed willing or able to tell us anything more than that. After church the senior couple began calling hospitals eventually tracking her down. That Tuesday I paid her a visit.
There she was, smiling her toothless grin. She had lost her other foot but not her smile. She chuckled and waved me into the room past an extra bed that looked to hold a large pile of pillows and sheets. “That’s Clara”, she said pointing to the other bed. “She upset because they won’t let her smoke and I keeps reading the Book of Mormon out loud.” With that she winked at me and pulled open a side drawer to show me her dog eared scriptures. I love that she had her scriptures and loved even more that she winked at me. How could anyone not like Rose?
The senior couple continued to visit Rose till she was moved to a convalescent home nearby. We all talked about how it would soon be time to start arranging for her to get rides to church again, there was some discussion about maybe perhaps bringing her the sacrament, but no one felt any urgency. Things were just moving along. It all began to feel quite normal. That is the right word for it; normal.
It was now normal for me to drive right past the home where Rose was staying as I went to and from wherever doing this and that. I would drive by on my way to pick up one of the youth for an activity, look over, and think to myself, “I should go visit Rose.” But I was on my way somewhere else, somewhere worthwhile, so I would vow to visit Rose later. I would pass by Rose’s center on my way to meet the missionaries somewhere, look over and be reminded I hadn’t yet been by to see Rose. “I should make a note to go see Rose”, I would tell myself, and then hurry off to meet the Elders. I recall one day driving past having finished my work for the day and thinking, “now is the time to go see Rose.” It was dark, it was late, and I was tired. I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal, I would get by to see her. She wasn’t going anywhere, besides, no one but me seems to be able to move her. I went home.
Sometime later the senior missionaries told me a story. It had been just a little too long since they had seen Rose so they scheduled some time to drop in and visit.
Rose wasn’t there.
Rose had passed away.
The people at the home had done their best to contact someone but Rose had listed no relatives and left no point of contact. With no one to contact Rose had been buried by the state. The employees at the home were only disclosing this information to the senior couple because they recognized the logo on the name tags as the same logo on Rose’s copy of the Book of Mormon.
Riddled with guilt I asked where she was buried.
“They don’t know. They said people buried by the state are put in unmarked graves. They have no idea where she is. Sorry.”
That was that. Rose was gone.
I know enough of the gospel to know that Rose is in a better place. It wouldn’t be hard to be better than an empty living room in a wheel chair. Yet when I think of Rose I mostly remember that I drove past her house, thought I should stop, and didn’t.
My little family was in the airport getting ready to board a plane when my little three year old yanked on my sleeve, “Look Dad, it’s Rose!” she said pointing to an old stranger in a wheel chair. “O yeah, that does look kinda like Rose.” I say in my best fatherly voice; encouraging and matter of fact. But it wasn’t Rose. Rose was gone.
Where Rose is now, she can smile with teeth. She can stand. When I knew her she couldn’t do either of those things. I should be happier about that. But I haven’t changed all that much, I’m thinking about my own guilt and failure to act. I’m trying hard to get better and I think I am making some progress. Slow progress. Rose didn’t have time to wait for me to get better. I couldn’t fix all Rose’s problems, but I could have helped more than I did.
How many Roses do we drive past every day without stopping? Let’s do a little better.
I am Mormon. I think most people I know, know this. It’s not so much that I wear it on my sleeve, but moreso it is just sort of who I am.
We could discuss the ins and outs of what exactly being a Mormon means, lets do that one day, but not today. Today I will indulge myself in just one little aspect of what being Mormon means.
Being Mormon is not so much what you believe, or where you sit on Sunday, but it is very much who sits next to you on Sunday. It is even more about who you hang out with on Wednesdays.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are no pastors or priests, at least not in the professional sense. There are plenty of people doing a lot of preaching, just not a whole lot of getting paid to do it. By not a whole lot I mean none.
But things still need to get done. Lessons to be taught, sick to be visited, Sunday sermons to be given. This is why Mormonism is about who sits next to you. Because that is who does these things. Better yet, you do too.
Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not, but that is how it works, and because this is how it works I have been forced to learn a few things.
I have not learned so much about what is in our books, which is important, but I have learned a little more about how the stuff in those books doesn’t matter a bit if I ignore the person in the chair sitting next to me. No matter who it is.
Some of the people who have sat next to me have been right, even more have been wrong, and better yet, I’ve been both of those things too. Some have been beautiful, some not so much. Some well educated, others not so much. Some have been nice, many more quite the opposite. On and on and on, and still things have to get done. And when it comes time to get those things done, you look around, and that is all you have.
The people sitting next to you.
And you learn to love.
A family kind of love. The kind of love where you want to strangle your cousin Larry, because he deserves to be strangled, but he is your cousin and always will be. So you have to love him. You don’t have a choice whether or not to be cousins, you only have the choice to learn to love him or be miserable.
It isn’t easy.
But thats the point.
This is simply how it is.
By “it” I mean reality.
This is reality.
Take a look at the people around you and this is how it is. It is like this now, and it will be like this in eternity.
It is not clouds and space,
it is faces.
This is not to say that all these faces are just or justified, including that one in the mirror.
But here we all are. In this together. And our charge is to get better.
A lot better.
Christianity, of which we are part, is based on the idea that this human persuit of perfection is impossible. We can’t do it and are doomed to be failures, hence the need for a Christ to redeem us from ourselves.
And that is Mormonism.
This role of Christ, is where one sacrificed and helped another get better, even though that “other” was deficient.
And we are charged with the task of becoming more Christ-like.
So we have to help the person in the chair next to us, even if they are no longer sitting in that chair, even if they don’t deserve it, even if they are horrible…
Or even if they are wonderful.
And we have to be helped too.
Because on any given day or in any one way, I am both horrible, or even wonderful.
And this role of Christ, this role of helping others strive for perfection, the role we are charged to take part in, has to be done with love.
Love must be the motivator.
Sometimes this is hard.
It takes practice.
So you go about trying to get stuff done; great lessons or boring ones, false doctrines or clear and simple ones, friendships or trials.
No matter what you get right or wrong, no matter how much you improve yourself or the others around you,
At the southern end of the Shenandoah valley, up on hill, sits a school. It was once called the Bowling Green Female Seminary, a girls school with a focus on equestrian training. That was 1867.
Fast forward to the 1990’s and the school has begun admitting boys. Interesting that when the doors were opened wider, people stopped going in the door. The school was dwindling, going, going, then gone. But not in the way you might think.
In the year 2000 Glade Knight and his associates were handed the reigns as a completely new board of trustees. They were new, had energy, had money (at least compared to the old board), and what set them apart above all else, was that they were Mormons. Maybe I should say they are Mormons.
Now note I did not say the Mormon church assumed control of the school, just that those who took control were Latter-Day Saints. This is an important distinction.
Today the school remains small, less than 1,000 students, but it is vibrant. It has the look, feel, and in reality is, a small liberal arts college with all that that entails or infers. Small class, lots of personal attention, broad educational focus with emphasis on arts and sciences. And it also has church.
Some locals where I live, and even sometimes those at SVU itself, might say Southern Virginia is a sort of BYU East Coast. It isn’t. They should be proud of this.
Now what they mean when they say this is that the two schools share a religo-cultural tie. The two schools both require students to sign the same honor code. A code that strictly forbids any use of alcohol, tobacco, premarital sex, and of course it requires strict academic integrity. Religion classes, taught from the same texts as BYU are part of the general curriculum. All the markers of a Mormon educational experience are well entrenched in the Virginia hills. If that is what you want, school and personal development devoid of debauchery and keg stands, both schools have that.
But BYU also has 34,000 students. It is a well entrenched research institution in the “heart of the beast” if you will. There are a lot of cracks in which an 18 year old can slip through. Sports are a glorified professional institution, not a general participatory student experience.
SVU has something different. It has romance.
Personal attention that leads to academic exploration and opportunity. It has that. A community of young scholars who can participate in a DIII athletic team, that too. A first class choir? A student advisor who knows not just your name but your aspirations and dreams? Yes, they have that.
They call it the beauty of small. I have been there and they are right.
I pondered this as I listened to a Sunday school teacher discuss first, the prophesy of Isiah which told of how the savior would be hated and despised, then of how the 12 year old Jesus went missing, only to be found teaching the rabbis in the temple.
I have often been told, and told others, of how Christ has felt all things and “descended beneath them all” empowering him with unmatched and perfect empathy for all of us. Somehow, before today, this little bit of rote teaching has always painted an image in my mind of some Teflon superhero; able to bear all hardships without any of them sticking. Isiah said he would be hated and despised. In his last days of mortality, one of his chosen twelve sold him to the executioners.
Today I thought of how it feels to be hated or just simply disliked. I have felt that. It hurts. I looked and found no scripture that said the Savior was unaffected by being hated. He has felt all tings and suffered all things, including the loss of friends.
How often have my actions and failings caused my God to feel these same emotions?
When the young boy Jesus was found in the temple his distressed parents asked why he had treated them thusly. In the past I had always thought his response to them was a bit snarky, “knew ye not I was about my Father’s business?” But that is me thinking, not Him talking. I think of how I have to tell my kids something three or more times before they listen, how they act out to try to get their way, or just be kids. They aren’t perfect, but HE was. His parents were not. I imagine the exchange between Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was more about freaked out adults being somewhat put in place by a patient and devoted child. It was likely something more along the lines of, “why would you waste time looking for me at Mikey’s house or at the candy store? I’m Me. This should have been the first place you looked. You know who I AM, you should have a little more faith.”
It was an exchange between a perfect child and mortal parents. Mortal parents who are surely heads and shoulders better parents than me. How often do I hear snark in others when really I am just a little bit wrong? How often do we lack faith and end up freaking out when things are going to be just fine. How often are we freaking out because we are looking in the wrong places?
But in the end, Mary and Joseph still had to go do the work to go find their child. That child grew up and went about doing good, and people despised him for it. They despised him and he still did the work of dying and rising again. He did the work so that our work would one day be worth it.
I have wondered where or how to start this story for quite some time now. There are so many ways and places but none seem quite right, so I will just go straight forward.
Matt Taylor is about 6’2”, maybe a buck fifty. He is blonde, as is his equally tall and slim wife. He is twenty eight, I did not ask how old his wife is, and the two of them live in Atlanta.
They live in Atlanta because Matt is a sophomore on the Morehouse College basketball team.
If you know of Morehouse this is the place where you do a double take and I answer again, yes, that Morehouse.
Morehouse is a historically Black college, founded in 1867, when little to no educational opportunities were open to African-Americans. Harvard hadn’t graduated any Black students, nor had many other schools for that matter, and with those ivory doors closed a population’s desire for learning and opportunity had to be created elsewhere. That is how schools like Morehouse, Fisk, or Howard began.
It is a story in American lore that in context makes sense, it can be understood, it fits in the times and time-lines.
It doesn’t explain Matt.
Matt grew up in Idaho Falls. If you haven’t been there, the place is whiter than the Winter Olympics. After high school Matt got right to work, he never planned on college. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for learning, he just didn’t see the value in it. What he did see value in was basketball.
We didn’t talk about it then, nor do I know for sure, but I don’t think the NBA was in his sights then or even now, but that’s the great thing about basketball; you don’t have to get paid to play it. So he played some ball. At the same time, even without a degree, Matt was smart enough to know it takes money to pay bills so he also got to work. He did all kinds of things, mostly working for himself. At his core, even more than being a ball player, Matt is an entrepreneur.
These two loves are how Matt found himself living out of a suitcase managing and promoting an “And 1” style exhibition basketball team. It was Hot Sauce, High Octane, Sik Wit It, all those video game style players. He went everywhere with the guys, as far as Hong Kong, learning along the way. He picked up a little business sense, some basketball skills, and something else he could have never planned on; perspective. He got to know the guys. At times he found himself couching it at their homes, doing what they did, eating what they ate. They also got to know him.
But you can’t live on someone’s couch, or in a Motel 8 forever, and Matt decided to sit still for a while. He hadn’t lived anywhere more than three months since high school (having also traveled to Argentina as a Mormon missionary), and finally unpacked his bags in Provo Utah. That’s where he met his wife.
Nice story right? So what?
In another part of the country, on another basketball court, is a coach who is wishing his college hoops squad had a little more “maturity”. He finds out about a 27 year old kid who has a lived on his own for years without getting in trouble, can ball, and hadn’t used up any eligibility. Who cares if he is white?
The school didn’t care and even more importantly, Matt didn’t care either. He and the Mrs. headed off to Morehouse.
He’s been there a little over a year now, I found myself in the area, so I took the opportunity meet up with him. We arranged a time and when I asked where on campus to look for him he said, “just ask anybody where the white boy is and they will tell you.” He was only partly joking.
It was obvious right from the start that he loves it there at school, and that he loves to talk. He really, really loves to talk. In fact he talks enough that though I have never sat in a class with him, I am willing to bet that after two sessions White is no longer his defining feature, but rather it is his mouth. Now I share this same condition, both conditions now that I think of it, and I have learned through sad experience that a willingness to speak is dangerous if your mouth isn’t backed up by a brain. He is fine, I am often in trouble. Back to him loving school.
He is not the only White guy on campus, there are seven, but he is the only Mormon. He is probably also the only married sophomore. I was possibly projecting a little but I would think that this would make for a lonely existence, or at least an isolating one, but he never expressed that, he is part of the team. “You don’t make it four years on this campus if your being here has anything to do with your being White… you either make it here and are a brother of Morehouse or you are not, bottom line. We are a family here on campus.” I believe he believes that. As I walked, sat, and talked with him I was listening to a guy who questions everything, has an opinion on most things, and has no fear at all in speaking his mind. He is also a guy who has no question as to whether he belongs at this school. Better yet, and possibly more surprising, is that he not only believes he belongs, but he has also felt welcome. He says his classmates make him feel that he belongs.
I think that is what would surprise most people. It isn’t just that there is a White boy playing ball at a school historically and traditionally meant for Black men, but that the school and Black males at that school welcome the White boy. There is more to the story, and more to the moral of the story than I will get to here, I’m sure Matt will write a book. When he does I will read it and I hope others will read it as well. He is learning things most people don’t ever learn in school but should. He is crossing lines most Americans do not, and so far its working out well.