In praise of a little light

23 Sep

Sometimes, in deep troublesome times, light begins to pierce the darkness. In my own life, that light came through others — wife, children, parents, priests and friends.

I remember times of great struggle when we began our family. Driving a garbage truck for the City of Groves, Texas paid very little. Sometimes I’d get discouraged. My Uncle Joe told me something that kept me going: “You work hard, stick with it, do your job and you will soon find things are better.

My parents were cut from the same bolt of cloth: “Do everything you’re told to do, do it with a good face, and if you can, do more than they ask you to do.”

Then there were the times when I really messed up — like the time some friends and I ran our horses through a field of watermelons simply because the owner was different from us.

I moped around for a couple of days and my Mama knew something was up. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I didn’t answer. “Okay, what did you do?”

I told her. She was silent a while, then said, “You know that was wrong. We taught you better than that. You must go to confession and promise never to do that again.”

So, I did what she said. But, as I think back, Dad should have taken me to that farmer and made me apologize and work for him. That didn’t happen. The farmer was black and we were white.

Before you condemn my parents and me for racial prejudice, enter into the setting: Southwest Louisiana, 1947. Black people were considered inferior. Dad and Mama suffered criticism from their own relatives for what kindness they extended.

For example, during the early morning hours of cotton picking season, the sacks of picked cotton were heavy with dew. Dad would not subtract the traditional two pounds for dew. And I recall them inviting the workers into the house for lunch rather than leaving them outside to sit in the dirt under the trees.

A little light is better than total darkness. My folks used to say, “Well, they’re not like us but they are human beings and they have to save their souls just like us and we should not mistreat them.” This somewhat limited nod to equality was itself that bit of light in the darkness — that and the gentle counsel they and others have given me over the years.

Later in life, in the 1960s,  I would be writing about the evils of prejudice and in support for the Civil Rights Act; I marched in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I would hear the snickers of friends and see my elders looking disappointed me in. And I would do it again if the need arose.

Two points:

1. White people were themselves victims of segregation — not anywhere close to the victimization of black people, but victims, too,  because they  were fearful of differences and so prejudiced they missed the dignity and wonder of other human beings.

2. Gentle counsel works. St. Augustine wrote a forceful and insightful admonition to pastors in his own time — and the lessons hold true today, for all of us, not only for pastors:

People who need advice or correction “must not be deceived by false hope nor  broken by fear.

                   (Liturgy of the Hours, Book IV, Page 281.)

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