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7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – February 23, 2020 – Crossing the Divide

This past weekend, I was in New York City for a conference. The conference was on the theme, “Crossing the Divide.” I heard presentations and discussions in the areas of economics, politics, criminal justice, race relations, and international conflict in which the panelists spoke about the seemingly unbridgeable distance between people and groups that we see all around us. We live in shells of ideology in which we only speak to those who think and look like we do. What enables us to cross this divide? Or even want to cross this divide? Many of the panelists spoke about events in their lives that enabled them to see things differently and moved them to work toward a surprising unity that would have otherwise been thought impossible. They spoke about healing wounds in themselves and in others. And if there was a common thread among the presenters, it could be summed up by what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” The divide is crossed by love – when we love one another as God loves us. There is a unity that emerges when we begin to see each other as brothers and sisters of the same Father. There is a unity that has been given to us – a reality that is deeper and precedes the differences of race, ethnicity, and ideology that make the other appear as an enemy. I would like to share some of the witnesses I heard because without witnesses – real life examples – the teaching of Jesus seems abstract, unrealistic, and impossible. Daryl Davis is a well-travelled and accomplished blues musician. He spoke of growing up in the 60s as one of only a few black children in a suburban Boston community. He was the only African American in his scout troop, and at 10 years old, he carried the American flag and led his troop in a memorial day parade through the town. As the parade passed through a section of town, a group of teenagers and their fathers started throwing rocks and bottles at Daryl. When he got home and his parents were tending to his cuts and bruises, he asked his parents why those men didn’t like the Boy Scouts and were throwing things at him. When his parents told him that they were throwing things at him because he was black, he didn’t believe his parents. How could that be? He said, “How could they hate me if they don’t know me?” As a young boy, Daryl realized that the antidote to bigotry was to get to know the other. He has made it a life practice to engage with people who disagree with him – to get to know the other – to start a relationship with the other. In the news coverage of the 2017 White Supremacy Rally in Charlottesville, Daryl saw a man shouting racial epithets and firing a gun into the crowd. He said to himself, “What do I do when I see this?” “Do I sit back and blame the system or a person or a group, or do I do something to make it become what I want it to be?” He found out that the man was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He called him up and said, “We need to talk man to man; American to American.” They talked on the phone for a while and then agreed to meet. Daryl went to his house and the man gave him a two hour history lesson from a white supremacist perspective. Daryl offered some corrections to his narrative and then invited him to dinner at his house and to a tour of the National African American History Museum in Washington, DC. Listening to each other and seeing life from the other’s perspective, they discovered a common humanity and became friends. A year later, the Klansman invited Daryl to his wedding. On the same panel, Christian Picciolini, a former leader of a white-supremacist skinhead group spoke about how he left the neo-Nazi group and has made it his mission to help others to leave hate behind. Christian had a record store in which he sold racist music as well as popular hip-hop and heavy metal music. All kinds of people came into his store. Eventually he started to have casual relationships with his clients. He was surprised that, knowing who he was and what he was doing, these people didn’t attack him. A breakthrough came when a young black man began to share with him that his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Christian’s mother was recently diagnosed with cancer too, and these men began to talk on a deep level. He was struck how this man showed him compassion when he didn’t deserve it. He had spent years dehumanizing the other, and this man revealed to him their common humanity. Looking at his own experience, he said that hate and blame often come from self-hatred being projected onto others so one doesn’t have to deal with it in one’s own life. He said that one needs to listen for the “potholes” in one’s own life and the life of others. “Potholes” are those wounds caused by trauma, abandonment, and abuse – whatever might isolate us from humanity. Those lacks need to be filled with love for there to be healing. Those “holes” are the places of vulnerability but also the place where we find communion with our brothers and sisters – where we cross the divide. Giving someone compassion who doesn’t deserve it is the “unusual” response that can awaken someone to a different narrative, a new identity, a new community, and a life-giving purpose to one’s life.

Blaming others and labeling others as “haters” or “enemies” blinds us to our common humanity and is an easy way to excuse ourselves of our Christian responsibility to love. An “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a prescript intended to limit retribution to a just punishment – to prevent the escalation of violence, but it cannot bring about healing or reconciliation. Only divine mercy and forgiveness opens the way to healing and peace – a more perfect union. Can we do this on our own? No. It doesn’t come from us but from God. The ability to cross the divide is born from an experience of divine mercy – an experience of the compassion of God for us in our weakness, and a begging on our part for the grace to live what we’ve received. There are many divisions in our country, in our community, in our Church, in our families, and in our parish. What are we doing to cross the divide? Are we open to dialogue with the other – listening with empathy to the one coming from a different place in order to get past the superficial differences to what we have in common on a human level? I am grateful to those people who have taken the risk to make themselves vulnerable – to share their woundedness with me instead of writing me off or being judgmental and critical when there is a perceived division among us. I have “potholes” in my life too, and it is only by caring for each other’s destiny in Christ that enemies become friends and that we become a life-giving community that reflects God’s love and mercy to the world. Let’s pray for that grace with the words of that well known hymn attributed to St. Francis: “Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring your love. Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord. And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.”

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