It was June. Stormy. Hot. Mild. Unpredictable. Midwest. June.
Our family became Mississippi State baseball fans overnight the evening that my husband was asked to serve as a chaplain to their team who had fought their way to a place on 'The Road to Omaha.' Their team chaplain and his family would join the entourage later in the games.
It was that time again for the College World Series and we jumped in with both feet to encourage and accompany a team, their families and fans to each game. A couple of our daughters even babysat the small children of the Mississippi State's chaplain in the team's hotel. We related, connected and found that we had much in common with this community built around baseball and faith.
Instant bonds and forever friends, we met some of the kindest, most friendly people from the south during the series that year. We met proud parents, dedicated fans and many soon to be major league baseball players who were as down to earth as the soil they played on. Just good people.
A year later my husband was asked to speak at pregame team gatherings for the SEC semifinals and I went along to enjoy the road trip, the swimming pool at the hotel and the scent of Magnolias carried along in the southern warm breeze and of course a good ole baseball tournament.
A good friend in the auto business set us up with a BMW SUV rental and we were off on a 13 hour drive to the deep south. I have traveled in, out and around the country and have enjoyed meeting all kinds of people. One thing I notice as I travel is that people are people. From New York, California, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, North and South Dakota, Indiana, Minnesota, Georgia, New Jersey and even Iowa, people are people. Everyone has a story, has history and is equally important. So interesting!
It was a tournament. And if you know baseball, a game can be played for hours and hours and hours.
The weather was beautiful, the stands were full, the games were competitive and after quite awhile of sitting I had to find a reason to get up and move so I went for a diet soda. I know. Not good for you. But neither would be complications from staying in that posture for 972 hours, or something like that.
So I went to the concessions. And just like shopping for the best deal in a store I chose to view all of my options before I dropped $7 on a cold cup of toxins over ice, I mean soda. And it was a good walk. As I walked slowly I peeked through the portals to the field occasionally to check on the game. After all that is why I was there, right?
After viewing the menu at each concession as I walked by I would glance at the workers. They were all eagerly awaiting business at their registers with smiles. Most of them anyway. I began to see a pattern. There were several groups with their own areas to offer concessions. But they were divided not just with counters, types of food or refreshments or distance. They were segregated by the color of their skin. Light skin. Then dark skin. Light skin. Then dark. Then light and another light.
I am from a small town in the mid-west. A very small town, actually classified a village now. You were either Catholic or Lutheran and it I remember that it seemed to be a divide to many. But not to me. Dad was raised Lutheran and mom, Catholic so I saw both worlds. But one thing was the same in that small community. All were light skinned.
I went to a little Lutheran church in a nearby town down the farmland highway where a missionary came and told stories about hungry children in poverty stricken regions. Until that moment at the age of 8 I was completely unaware. Unaware of a different kind of suffering and unaware of this Jesus who cared so deeply for all including those malnourished dirty faced little children in the photos that were taped to a cardboard display in the stale basement of this little gathering place. I had heard some stories about this Jesus in Sunday School at the Presbyterian church down the road from the house I called home but I was confused a bit. Santa? Easter Bunny? Noah? Esther? Daniel? Jesus? What is true? What is a tale? When as a child I would sneak out of the house on Sunday mornings when I heard church bells and go see my friends at this fun place called church. And there were always itty bitty servings of crackers and a tiny cup of juice for a snack. How thoughtful.
(Ironically, that is my lunch that I'm eating as I write this)
Call me naive? Uncultured? Ignorant? That's ok. But I'd rather be kind.. I want to be part of the solution. I saw the movie Roots on tv when I was only 10 years old. 1977. January. It was so cold. I couldn't do much else. I watched the whole series. It was eye opening to this little girl sitting alone in front of the tv. That was the same era that grandma had me watch Billy Graham Crusades with her. The Reverand Billy Graham did not allow segregation at his gatherings. He once asked a head usher to remove the ropes that divided color in the 50's and was met with a firm no so the Reverend Billy Graham did it himself. The head usher quit and much like anyone who goes against the grain of the common in a culture, Reverend Graham took a lot of flack for it. But I'm guessing he didn't mind. He was a good friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I am sure he counted it an honor to do the right thing. Roots by Alex Haley changed me. Shocked me. Broke my heart. And placed an insatiable need in me to apologize for something that I had no idea that I could be even remotely associated with until that point. I felt responsible because of the color of my skin.
I walked up to the counter and with a smile asked "May I have a Diet Pepsi please?"
With the bow of her head glancing down to avoid eye contact she muttered quietly "Why Yes, Ma'am" and slid away sheepishly to the others who stood in their places' also with their heads so low that their chins were on their chests. The kind woman quickly returned with the cold cup of soda and nodded as if to say "Go on. Take the cup." I handed her the money. She bowed again avoiding eye contact and said "Thank you Ma'am" as she moved away from me. I thanked her, smiled at all of them and went for another long walk.
I was disturbed. So many thoughts. So many questions. I walked for another inning or 2 and then asked God to give me opportunity to have a conversation with a gray haired woman who is an African American concession worker. I walked. I waited. I peeked through the walkways to the ball field just to prove to my husband that I was kind of watching the game and to let him know I was still there at the stadium. The game was close and it was the top of the 9th inning. The crowd got louder and louder. "Lord, I'd like to talk with a gray haired African American woman."
Another loud smack of the bat and loud cheering from inside the stadium. I walked to an entryway to check the score. Still so close. I turned to my left and there she was leaning against the wall almost as if she were holding the wall from falling. She was leaning, hanging onto the dusty wall tightly to stay out of the way of people passing through. "Hello How are you?" I said with a smile. "Oh, fine" she nodded as she looked to the cement floor. "Close game" I added attempting small talk. "Yes Ma'am" eyes still on floor. "I think you were the one I bought my soda from. Do you work here for all the games?" "Yes, Ma'am" As we continued the conversation the gaze of her eyes began to lift from the floor to the wall. Then from the wall to my shoulder. I asked open ended questions. She told me about the all black community that she lives in. She told me about all of her children. Her work. And her Jesus. Finally as we continued to converse she looked me in the eye and as she talked and she was careful to keep a straight expression on her face. And then something changed. Her face lit up, a huge almost toothless smile broke out across her face and she said "I can't believe you are talking to me! I just cannot believe you are talking to me. I just can not..." "Why?" I asked. "Why? Why wouldn't I talk to you?"
Years ago my husband and I had lunch with Coach Ron Brown, at that time a coach with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cornhusker football team. He was talking about missions work with American Indians and one of the things that he was passionate to communicate is the fact that the ground at the foot of the cross is level. No one stands higher than anyone else.
I told that beautiful soul that I love the same Jesus as she and He says "Christ is not divided" so why should we be?
I thanked her for the opportunity to get to know her and hear her stories and that I was honored that she took time for me. I think she was honored, too.
...I looked, and there before me was a great multitude
that no one could count, from every nation and tribe
and people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
clothed in white robes
and were holding palm branches in their hands
We have a friend who once said that a person changes by the books you read and the people you meet. I have to agree. What books or people help you grow? I'd love to hear your stories!
Until next time,