Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On Race

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years. 
The theme for the Fall 2015 Issue of Connect Journal was "Race," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . . 


The Hearts of the Fathers

So, I know the theme of this issue is “Race.”  And in thinking on that topic, I keep coming back to something more fundamental, in a way:  Parents.  Here’s my story . . .

I grew up in a horrible town of great beauty and potential.  An awful place that millions of people happily come to visit each year.  As a tourist, you zip into town, you see the sights, and you flee before finding out what life is like for the residents.  That’s kind of the best way to visit a scary place: See the good, and get out before the bad.

Since prohibition, this border town has had one foot in the underworld of the Mafia.  However, with the 21st Amendment, the Mob has been on a bit of a slide, locally.  The underlings and their descendants stuck around, but the big names moved on.  This left the “soldiers” in a position of having mob-like mentalities, in average-Joe workplaces.  A guy who once turned out pockets is now turning wrench.  A fellow who once busted kneecaps is now busting rocks.

The children and grandchildren of these has-been big shots were our classmates.  The kids came to school knocked around and knocked up, beaten and beating, furious and frustrated.  It was just understood that minor disagreements were solved with fists and steel-toed boots, while more serious conflicts involved lead pipes and knives.

Each year, our high school lost somewhere between 3 and 10 children to some kind of violence or accidents.  Every year.  So, it was never surprising to any of us—or at least not to me.  (My wife, who grew up in small-town Ohio still really can’t believe I’m not exaggerating when I tell her such things.)  To those who grew up in that scary tourist mecca, it was just the way things were, and it never occurred to any of us to imagine a world where things were different.  Violence, not intelligence, was how problems got solved.

In hindsight, it seems obvious how this all came to be: Fathers succeeded by lawbreaking and terror.  When the Prohibition success went away, the lawbreaking and terror remained, but got funneled into labor unions and local government.  This set the tone for the next generation, and I was born into the generation after that.  Elliot Ness didn’t come to Niagara Falls.  Robert Kennedy didn’t notice my neighborhood.  No one stepped in to say, “This is not how society is meant to be.”  Niagara just kept falling.

People who could get out got out.  It’s a place to be from, but nobody ever moves back there.  It is still unstable, dangerous, and just plain sad.  The easiest thing to do is walk away, and that’s what we did.  Sure, once in a while you go back and drive around Goat Island, marveling at the power of nature.  But because of the power of habit, you’d never seriously consider moving back.  The evil has been passed down for so long that no one knows any other way.  It’s just the way things are.

Now I live in Cleveland, where Elliot Ness made his mark, and where the DOJ recently issued a scathing review of the Police Department.  And somehow, this all seems connected to me.  Parents, and kids, and violence, and fleeing, and race, and poverty.  It all gets played out in the lives—and deaths—of children, but it comes from somewhere else.  It starts in the home, and in our better moments, it starts to change in the home as well.

And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.  —Malichi 4:6