John Steinbeck once wrote, “Try to understand men. If you understand each other, you will be kind to each other.” (Of Mice and Men). This summer I had a sea-changing experience, working as an intern at the Edmundite Missions in Selma, Alabama. There, I learned to re-evaluate my pessimistic spirit and experience how, as Steinbeck wrote, better understanding creates a deepening sense of empathy. Most of all, I learned that if we truly want to understand the hearts of others, we must walk in their shoes and be open to giving rather than taking. When I let go of my jaded and pessimistic spirit, I received more than I ever intended to give.
While I had believed Selma to be a city rampant with hopelessness and dominated by bitterness, I instead discovered a community brimming with life, love, passion, and, above all, sincerity. My experience in Selma profoundly humbled me. My ego-centric understanding of myself, of others, and of God has forever been changed; I believe that by God’s Amazing Grace, “that I once was blind but now I see!”
The people I met opened themselves to me in ways I had never encountered in my life. Over time, I discovered that I was being gratefully welcomed into their lives. They showed me no contempt or judgement for where I came from and I found myself falling in love with their kindness and sincerity. They judged me, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said, by the content of my character, rather than the color of my skin. This was a totally new and unexpected gift. My life experiences had cautioned me to remain very guarded towards others; I had often found that others had an ulterior motive. People often wanted something from me, and so often in the past I had been used and abused. Yet, these folks, who I am now blessed to call my friends, wanted nothing from me but companionship and friendship.
I was invited into the personal lives of many of the people I lived and worked with, and heard tales of brokenness and hope, of hatred and forgiveness, of tragedy and graceful tenacity. As someone recovering from a substance use disorder, I have tasted the bitterness of prejudice and the stigma of being labeled as worthless because of my addiction. I did not truly understand the destructive effects of prejudice until I saw and felt the sorrow which it brought into the lives of my new friends.
One man shared with me his experience of being hit with electric cattle prods during the Civil and Voting Rights Movements of the 1960’s. I was engulfed with shame and sorrow; and I was deeply humbled that he trusted me enough to share his story. As he told of his struggles, I realized that his life’s experiences were far more vicious and dehumanizing than any I have ever faced. I was astounded that through all this hardship, this man was able to trust me and let me into his life. He also told me how he had lost a son to gang violence – a chronic problem in Selma. Yet, he continues to smile, joke and enjoy life. His perseverance and steadfastness, as a man well into his 60’s who works at a backbreaking job to provide for his family, demonstrated to me what it means to be a man of faith and to live with hope and peace in your heart. This man, whom many would consider unimpressive because he is poor, is one of the greatest male role models I have ever met, and I strive to be more like him every day.
As this man and many others explained to me, systemic and personal racism has been and is still rampant in the city of Selma. Until then, people who still viewed another race as inferior were a fairy tale to me. Yet, when I learned of the broken education system, the damaged political past, and the many other abysmal circumstances of the city’s history, racism was no longer something that was a dead and dark chapter in American history. It is a debilitating and continuing aspect of our culture that continues to prevent the fulfillment of the Gospel’s call to Holiness and of Dr. King’s Dream.
The summer school program I worked in at the Edmundite Missions was more than a chance to teach kids about reading, writing, and math. It was an opportunity to testify, through my actions, that race is irrelevant when building personal relationships. I was able to show these kids that I was not out to vilify or demonize them because I am white, but rather that I welcomed and respected them with an open heart and outstretched arms. This, I hope, was a personal victory over racism.
These middle schoolers, full of energy and excitement, despite their socio-economic circumstances, also taught me a lesson more valuable than silver and gold. They bestowed upon me the lesson of redemption. As a young man once ostracized by society because of my addiction, today I am overcome with gratitude for the blessings and love in my life.
Two years ago, I was a hopeless drug addict. I was employable exclusively by other criminals. My family, justifiably, refused to be in my presence. My friends thought me an abrasive, self-centered, destructive individual who was a liability to be around. When I first came to the Recovery Residence on Enders Island, I was a frightened stray dog, dying for love yet doubtful of my own worthiness.
Yet, nearly a year later, when I walked into the “New Possibilities” youth center of the Edmundite Missions, I was greeted with the luminous and gleeful eyes of a boy or girl, smiling brighter than the sun. Even the most determined attempt to undo the life and warmth in their eyes would have been futile -- because in a child, hope is always capable of illuminating the darkness of despair. To have these kids look upon me with excitement and ask me to play ball with them was more sublime than a sunset in the Green Mountains of Vermont. It gave me a sense of value I never thought I would attain.
During my time in Selma, I fell in love with Southern culture. The older women, with their innate maternal instinct, took pride in their cooking and their nurturing; they always wanted to make sure I was well fed. I felt a natural sense of comfort, safety and protection in their presence. I also picked up many a great soul food recipe, my favorite being sweet potato pie.
I got to see some of the landmarks of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Spanish and French history of the South. As a history major, these are things which I just could not get enough of. I went to a rodeo, drove a tractor, saw the gravesite of the Ku Klux Klan founder, talked about trucks and fishing with the locals, and I loved it. I experienced a part of the country that most people where I live – white, suburban, coastal Connecticut – think is a diminishing microcosm of the nation. I learned that this supposed fraction is a deeply rooted culture whose people have deep love and pride in their traditions. And this is not limited to Selma. It is a critical part of all Southern culture.
This new understanding has made it that much more difficult for me to condemn anyone for their beliefs, values, or background. And the friendships I made caused my departure to be painful. This true understanding is what will help the world come together. This is the embodiment of the Catholic message: All of us are, at our core, brothers and sisters in Christ. The men, women and children of Selma, Alabama, and I are aliens and strangers no longer. We are as one, the blessed and redeemed members of the household of God.