Be the Change

Bradley Williams lay aside the drum that the village elders had given him before they left. Their words – that it was time to spread the music of reconciliation to the world – rang louder in his mind than the fear that had gripped him since he held that envelope from the Archdiocese in his trembling fingers.

Whatever happened here today, he had to trust. He had to believe. Have faith. This was meant to be.

He reached out his hand and took hers. No matter what, this woman was the greatest miracle of his life. This gentle soul had given him a chance. The woman had stood by his side through it all. He squeezed Elena’s hand and smiled into her face.

“You’ve got this, Brad.” She stood on tiptoes and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. His hand briefly caressed her growing mound and felt their second daughter move in agreement with her mother. Whatever happened, they had one another. Hadn’t he seen first hand the power of love to conquer anything – even fear and hate.

His wife stepped away, took the mask from her pocket, and put it on before walking down the couple of steps and sliding into the front pew with the rest of her family.

Was that Stacey Reynolds? His mother-in-law had sworn at their wedding she would never again set foot in this place. But behind that mask, Brad was almost certain it was. He knew from what Elena had said how difficult this must be for the woman. But wasn’t that a sign? The fulfillment of that message of reconciliation.

Brad stepped to the pulpit. He gripped the lectern and, for a moment, bowed his head, not to stare at his notes but to calm his mind. Whatever happened, this was the message that he was meant to give. Somehow he knew that.

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

“Those words are attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5, verses twenty-three and twenty-four. They are part of what is called the sermon on the mount.”

“Notice that word – reconcile. Jesus didn’t say to ask forgiveness or to apologize. He said to be reconciled. That’s not a word we hear very often these days. What does it even mean?”

“Merriam-Webster says reconcile is to restore to friendship or harmony. Or to settle and resolve. To accept something unpleasant. The Cambridge dictionary defines reconcile as finding a way in which two situations or beliefs that are opposed to each other can agree and exist together.”

“For those of us who google it, Dictionary.com says to cause a person to accept or be resigned to something not desired. To win over to friendliness or cause to become amicable. To compose or settle a quarrel or dispute.”

“But it was these words upon which I have been meditating lately. To bring into agreement or harmony. To reconsecrate.”

He paused to look out over the sea of faces. Tears filled his eyes. Where had all these people come from? He recognized only a handful of the faces behind those masks.

He knew that Elena had been on the phone from the moment he opened that letter to her family and friends. That his pregnant wife had fought back jetlag to sew close to fifty face masks to combat this new virus that was sweeping the globe. They had barely made it back before the borders were closed.

Each of those mask-clad faces seemed like a miracle this sunny Sunday morning when not only his job but so much more seemed to lay on the line in this little town.

“We live in a world of turmoil. A world of strife. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Islamaphobia. And ones you may not have heard of before, such as able-ist and adultism. Jesus also lived in a world of oppression, conflict, and domination of one people by another. It cost him his life.”

“This country was founded on the beliefs of white supremacy more even than religious freedom. On the premise of ‘civilizing’ ‘savages.’ Of bringing the gospel.” Brad looked out at the rainbow of masked faces. Some nodded their heads. Others looked shocked.

“Some of my ancestors were brought here in chains. In boats with conditions so deplorable that over half would die before even seeing America. Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, twenty-seven owned slaves. Nine of our presidents were slaveholders. Only George Washington freed his slaves.”

“Those men obviously did not mean the words, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Even the word ‘men’ excludes one-half of humanity.”

“On our way back home, Elena and I stopped in New York City. We stood at the foot of that great lady, and I read these words.”

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Brad saw a young Latino man sandwiched between an older man and woman, perhaps his parents, on the back row. He had no idea who they were or their story, but something about their eyes held a pain that spoke to him. 

“But we know despite these words of poet Emma Lazarus, the Irish and Italian immigrants that were held on Ellis Island once faced many of the same prejudices as slaves and Native Americans. Even today, along our borders, babies are being torn from the arms of their mothers. Some may never be reunited.”

“How then do we reconcile ourselves to this world in which we live? Is that what Jesus meant? To just accept these injustices, many of which have been done in his name?”

“I, as a man of mixed race, have struggled with that issue my whole life. Coming here – to this town – has been a struggle. Maybe one, I have not reconciled myself to. But I know one thing, I have a dream. One that was enunciated more eloquently than I ever could half-a-century ago.”

“I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” Brad paused and nodded to the man in the front row whose face flowed with tears as he spoke each of those words along with him. A man he would soon be proud to call his brother.

“I have a dream that one day down in Sebida, Texas with its vicious racists and gossips. One day right there in Sebida, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. And Latino and Native American ones too. Mixed-race ones who can celebrate their multi-cultural roots fully.”

He felt it then. A gentle breeze. Was it from the windows they had left open as an additional precautionary measure? Was it the elusive holy spirit? Or perhaps the winds of change?

“You may think I’m a dreamer. And an idealist. Out of touch with reality. But I know it can happen. I have seen it and lived it.”

How could mere words translate those experiences, though? How could he possibly transfer that vision to these people half-a-world away? But he had to try.

“What if I told you about a village a half-a-world away where murderers and the families of their victims live side-by-side? Where they till the soil together? Build houses for one another? Where woman and girls who were the victim of vicious rapes and bore the children of their rapist celebrate life not as victims or even survivors, but as full participants in a community dedicated to that ideal of reconciliation.”

“Elena and I spent the past few weeks in this place. A land that is slowly healing from a genocide that killed one million people in a matter of weeks. I was humbled by what I saw and heard there.”

“A place not of forgiveness and contrition, but of reconciliation. Where sins are not pushed to the side or buried deeply, only to resurface later. But where those old hurts are exposed to the light of day. Where excising them from the culture and future generations is the common goal of all. Where children, all children, are a blessing and hope for a new country, a new and healed world.”

“I can’t tell you in words, the miracles I saw there. Not healings, or walking on water, or turning water into wine. Those things are easy. It is much harder to grow love and harmony in soil stained with the blood of one million people. But that village is doing just that. It is breeding harmony, compassion, and acceptance in its children.”

“That is a true miracle. The fulfillment of that dream. And something I know we can build here. A place of healing. A place where even though we are different – different colors, different tribes, different religions – we can agree and co-exist in that harmony.”

“But that kind of miracle does not begin in Washington, D.C., or Austin, the Hague, or the United Nations. Governments can make and enforce laws. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and others. And as we have seen, those laws can be ignored. They can even be changed.”

“Because laws cannot remove hate and prejudice from a person’s heart. Neither can you or I. We don’t have that kind of power – to change another person. Not even those closest to us. And yes, parents can and do have an obligation to teach their children understanding, acceptance, and unconditional love. Ultimately, those children must make that choice for themselves.”

“Where then does change begin?” Brad shook his head and smiled at that rainbow of faces, “The hardest place of all. That reconciliation begins with the person in the mirror. Before we can change this town and make it a beacon of hope and love, we have to reconcile ourselves.”

“We have to face our own failings. And we all have them. Anger. Ignorance. Or willful denial. We are all part of the problem. Caught up in our own lives, our needs, the injustice that we face. That we don’t see the pain we inflict on others.”

“This long road to a better world begins with looking deep into the mirror of self and facing our own ugliness. The scars of our past that limit our movement and growth. That keeps us from truly being…Free at last, free at last. Thank god almighty, we’re free at last.”

“So I charge each of you, as that man of Gallila said, ‘if someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice.’ As Elena closes this service in song, I encourage you to search your hearts and minds for those you need to reconcile yourselves with. Then go out and do it. Whatever it takes to restore harmony. To be reconciled one to another.”

“Whatever happens, in this world, in this nation, in this state, Elena and I are committed to this town, this place, and these peoples. But in our minds and our hearts, we have reconsecrated Sebida as Reconciliation, Texas.”

Brad smiled down at that front row and nodded. As they had agreed, Elena, with tears running down her face, took their fidgety daughter from her sister’s arms and came to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with him. He wrapped his arms around his wife. Once again, Brad was flooded with the peace, solace, and acceptance that he only ever found in Elena’s arms. Together they faced that sea of masked faces.

“We welcome you, whatever your faith or beliefs, even if you have none at all. We believe that love unites us all. We hope that you will join us to write a new story in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades ahead. A story of hope. A story of reconciliation. One with another and with this magnificent planet on which we live. As Gandhi said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’”

He smiled out at the crowd. Though they had asked each group to keep a safe distance from one another, the place looked packed. Would any of them answer the call? Were they ready for the challenges? The hardest part of change?

He took Rehab from his wife’s arms. As she reached for her guitar, “We hope at least a couple of you will be back to join us next Sunday.” Silently he added, ‘if we’re still here.’

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