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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Building Bridges To Today

I grew up in Ohio during the 1970s while neighborhoods were still somewhat segregated and some still showed scars from riots that occurred just a few years prior to my birth. Since my parents were separated I would spend time between them in some very separate worlds. My mother, who came over to the US from a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea called Mykonos as a small girl, lived with her mother in a very mixed neighborhood while my father lived in an almost exclusively white suburban neighborhood with his parents.

It was an odd existence for me, at least in the terms of race relations, since I never really grew up having any real prejudices that I can think of. I had friends of all different backgrounds from the time I spent with my mom, but when I lived with my father my friends there were all white… at least until Tim moved in a few blocks away from my father's house. Tim, as it was, happened to be part of one of the two sole African American families in my father’s town.

I never really thought much of it, Tim and I hit it off pretty well from the start for some reason and I spent a lot of time over his house, but he never really came over to visit me except for once, and never came over again… I wasn’t allowed to bring him into the house even though my other friends were welcomed there. But that didn't really seem to change our relationship, even though my father's and grandparent's attitudes confused and upset me at the time.

Tim was a good kid and his parents were always warm and welcoming to me, despite how my family might have treated him, I was always welcomed at his house and would spend the night from time to time even. I never really thought much of the arrangement back then, but I marvel at it now that I'm older, that they would welcome me even when they themselves weren't welcomed.

Tim, his older brother, and his parents would take me to the stores they go to on the side of town I never really knew about. The store was much different than the one my parents went to, and the neighborhood was much more similar to the one where my mother lived than my father’s… and I was the only lighter colored person there.

Same thing at the church where Tim’s family took me once, one of those Baptist churches, that more resembled a warehouse filled with folding chairs than anything else. It was one of those churches where everyone sang and jumped up to dance and shout at the drop of a hat, eager to bear witness loudly to their faith, and much different than the tame churches my mother would take me to from time to time.

Still, everyone was very nice and they did their best to make sure I understood what I was seeing and made me feel comfortable about joining in a bit… something hard for a shy kid like me to do back then. It’s one of the very few memories of my childhood that I’ve held onto all these years, one of the warmest ones among all those times that Tim and his family made me feel welcomed while my family would do their best to make Tim feel unwelcome.

Today, now, I’m watching as President elect Barack Obama is about to be inaugurated as president and I wonder what Tim is doing at this moment and what he thinks of all this. I lost contact with him many years ago after we both moved pretty far away…

But, I can’t help think of how his family sought to bring people together even while others still made efforts to push them apart… and I can’t help but think that, perhaps, this historical day is the result of people like Tim’s family, who quietly built bridges where those bridges weren’t wanted, and connected with people even when they didn’t want to be connected, and showed grace and forgiveness in the face of adversity and outright racism.

It’s easy to be angry in response to anger, respond to hate with more hate, and respond to racism with more racism. But they showed me that responding instead with reason, understanding, patience, and forgiveness, in the long run, bears much sweeter fruit… and that it is better to build bridges than to burn them down.

As I watch our new president being sworn in, I can't help think that a day like today is proof of that... proof of the bridges that people like Tim and his family built to today.

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