When I grew up in the 1960s, racial tensions, divisive tribalism, and protests over governmental action and inaction (including the Vietnam War) were at a seemingly all time high and infected with violence. Yet, that activist era included charismatic leaders working for fundamental change and equal treatment, which led to some signposts of potential and inclusive change, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time, the Act offered a hopeful gateway toward mitigating discrimination and affording equal rights. That was 57 years ago. Are things much better now?
Deep-rooted, systemic racism and other forms of exclusivity, potential reparations, and related issues are complex and will take strong yet peaceful activism, advocacy, and commitment to satisfactorily address. Yet, like the 60 year ago 1960s, there is a simple yet hard to consistently implement building block that we can all choose attitudinally and actively each day. How do we treat other people daily, especially those who differ racially or in other ways from us, in one-on-one encounters in all contexts, from passing one another on the street, in the grocery store, at our workplaces, and otherwise? If enough people intentionally resolved and then carried out compassionate, empathetic, and equal treatment of others, we could indeed make significant progress, as well as “softening” the playing field for dealing with more complex issues.
With the freedom to choose how we interact person-to-person, I recall my paternal grandfather from my 1960s childhood. We called him “Granddaddy.” He was a real character with true character and a big kid persona. He had a great sense of humor and was always fun to be around. He was a mountain of a man physically with a gentle nature and a huge heart. I loved my grandmother as well, including her home-made cooking and her devotion to all in our family.
My grandparents modeled a healthy relationship in many ways. Yet, my grandmother’s elevated frustration threshold had its limits, especially related to communication. Granddaddy wore hearing aids, yet he seemed to selectively hear what he liked, such as his favorite television show, “Gunsmoke.” I vividly recall numerous instances at the dinner table when my grandmother would begin asking him questions and reeling off chores for him as he quietly ate with his head down. Her voice raising, she would often get up, walk to his side, and scream “Russell” in his ear, followed by a loud responsive “What?”
As a young teenager, I worked for my grandfather at his used car lot. In addition to daily trips to their home for nap-inducing lunches and mid-afternoon walks across the street for pie and coffee breaks, I learned something of lasting and profound importance. I closely watched my Granddaddy carry out his business in a personal relationship and respectful manner. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s in East Texas, with a hateful and discriminatory perspective lurking all around, he treated everyone the same. I vividly recall him, tobacco in his mouth and spittoon close by, sitting in his office and dealing with a diverse clientele one person at a time. He was kind, understanding, fair, and gentle in his demeanor and communication with everyone — black, white, Hispanic, male, female, or any other.
What really stands out in retrospect is my grandfather’s compassion, which is simply a word to characterize love-based, meaningful action. Most of his diverse customers had one thing in common: they were hard-working people who needed transportation to work so that they could get by and care for their families. Many of them could not afford to pay cash on the spot for a car or obtain financing.
I recall Granddaddy often asking what a person who was in dire need of a car could pay on a weekly basis. This approach led to his weekly Saturday morning practice of opening his office for the sole purpose of customers making weekly payments without interest, usually in cash because most of them had no bank account. He kept envelopes full of cash with names on one side and a handwritten ledger on the other noting payments.
My parents, aunt, and uncle worried about him as he continued his work until his untimely death at age 75. He was an aging, nice, and trusting man alone in that office with a large amount of cash that his numerous repeat customers all knew about. Each one could see the pile of money a few feet away as he opened his drawer for them to pay what they could afford. Yet, I never heard about any hint of a problem with anyone.
I was there a few times with him on Saturdays washing cars but primarily just sitting outside his office in the very small reception area. I remember that he smiled, knew people’s names, asked about their families and the cars they bought, showed them their accounts, and wished them a good week ahead – one at a time. From the customers, I recall firm handshakes, return smiles, “thank yous,” and “see you next week.” Although I woke up and went to church the next morning, I had already been to “real” church Saturday morning by observing these kind, honest, respectful, inclusive, and peaceful human interactions. That is what true Christianity, any other authentic faith tradition, or simply being a good person is all about.
Generally, from the standpoint of hate, violence, and judgmental laced racial, economic, and religious prejudice, things are not much different and are arguably worse in our country today than long ago in East Texas.
What can we do individually about such an overwhelming cultural pandemic for which there is no vaccine or short-term permanent fix? The answer is “something.” The something starts with compassionate and equal treatment of everyone individually. As Bishop Michael Curry describes in his practical and memoir-like book, Love is the Way (Penguin Random House 2020), we can focus on “one relationship at a time” to work for change. “One step at a time,” person-to-person and starting now with continuity, we can effectuate progress. We should all take these steps every day.