A ride home on Christmas eve

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

No surprise that we were waiting.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

Those demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. Looking out the front window, we saw a car that wasn’t my dad’s. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing and there was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Then, off he went into the Christmas eve night.

He saw that he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad acknowledged that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Perhaps you could, too.

Stranded by the side of the road

StrandedMotorist

The front axle on my car broke while I was driving on a hilly, two-lane road a few weeks ago. It was nighttime. I was stranded and felt helpless.

I put on my emergency flashers, got out of the car and waved the others around me while fishing the AAA card from my wallet to call for a tow. Two people stopped and offered to help me push my car to the shoulder of the road.

We were on a hill. We couldn’t push hard enough to even budge it. I thanked them, and they went on their way.

Soon, three young men in an SUV pulled up behind me. One of them was a mechanic. They offered to tow me up the hill to a church parking lot where I’d be out of harm’s way until the AAA tow truck arrived.

I was grateful and touched by their kindness. They didn’t have to stop, but they decided to take the time to help a stranger stranded by the side of the road.

Kind of a parable. And it took an uncomfortable twist.

They stopped to help

The young men pulled their SUV in front of my car so they could connect it to their hitch. They had a bumper sticker that made it clear we have a sharp disagreement on an issue that’s dear to my heart.

In that instant, my gratitude was muted. Why couldn’t the person who stopped to help me be someone, well, more like me?

As I watched them crawl under my car to hook it up, I realized how prone I was to make assumptions about them. Instead of merely appreciating their kindness, I’d judged them based upon a bumper sticker.

Which made me re-think the famous parable.

The story of the good Samaritan starts with two devoutly religious men who pass by a bleeding man, offering nothing more than thoughts and prayers. They’ve drawn lines in their minds – who’s worthy of their help, who’s not – that allow them to ignore someone in need.

Along comes the Samaritan, someone on the wrong side of so many people’s imaginary lines, and he’s moved to do the compassionate thing. The Samaritan has no lines that limit his love.

But what about the bleeding man?

How would he react?

The man who was robbed and left half-dead most likely had lines in his own mind, too. The Samaritan likely would have been on the wrong side of the robbery victim’s assumptions about who is worthy.

How would the robbed man react when he regained consciousness and learned that he’d been saved by someone whom he looks down upon and maybe even despises?

Would it change the robbed man’s view of Samaritans?

Did it change my view of those who stopped to help me?

That roadside moment reminded me how it’s so easy to get drawn into the loud voices saying we shouldn’t help those who are on a different side of our lines, our theologies, our borders.

The parable tries to erase those lines and make us recognize each other from the perspective of our undivided humanity. It challenges us to let our compassion supersede and trump anything and anyone who tries to divide us into groups of those who are worthy and those who are not.

When we see someone who needs our help, we stop. When someone stops to help us, we feel thankful, regardless of what’s on their bumper.

And we say a prayer of gratitude for them as they drive away – not only for their help, but for the lesson learned again.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

 

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.

Archie and me

Archie

I became well-versed in slurs during my childhood. I learned them in my neighborhood, in my church, in my extended family. I heard many different types of people demeaned with many different words.

I grew up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Each immigrant group had its own neighborhood, its own tavern, its own bakery, its own church, and its own groups that it disliked because of past history.

Italians? They’re all in the mob. The Irish are drunks. The Poles are dumb. Blacks are uncivilized. Women are dim and emotional. Protestants are hell-bound. Jews are money grubbers.

On and on it went. There were demeaning terms for pretty much every group, including my group. And the mention of other groups could bring out the worst in some people.

That’s why Archie Bunker was one of my favorite television characters. I knew him. Also, I knew many people like his daughter and his son-in-law who regularly called him out for his prejudices. For instance, my dad would challenge my grandfather for using the n-word yet again.

The show came on TV at a time when another idea was taking root in America: People should be considered by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or any other superficial difference.

For a time, the slurs and the ugly jokes receded, although many people still felt comfortable telling them when they were around people like them. They’d complain that the country had become so “politically correct” that their slurs and jokes no longer drew nods and laughs, but criticism.

And they wished things would go back to the way they were. Back to the days when we openly judged people on the basis of the color of their skin or the country of their origin or the sex chromosome they inherited. And people would nod and laugh and agree.

Like Archie, they thought: Those were the days.

Well, those days are making a comeback in some ways, aren’t they?

A presidential candidate gets applause for saying a Mexican can’t be an impartial judge, or Muslims are dangerous, or immigrants are criminals, or women should be judged on their physical appearance. Or when he says that only rich people like him can be great.

And it’s not confined to politics. Religion is providing its own blast from the past: I’m going to heaven, but you’re not because you’re a sinner and I don’t want to have anything to do with you because I’m afraid it might jeopardize me. So go away.

My childhood, revisited.

Fearing those who are different from us seems to be our default setting as humans. It’s true for me. I’m more comfortable in groups of people who are more like me in some ways. People who think like me and have similar life experiences.

Yeah, there’s that little bit of Archie in me, too. It’s just a human trait, I suppose, woven throughout our history and religious texts. And so is this: The moral and spiritual imperative to push past our innate fears and learn to love each other and appreciate our differences.

Jesus loudly advocated for it, which got him into a hell of a lot of trouble. He reached out to the rejected groups of his times and welcomed them. He was constantly criticized for inviting the wrong people – the ones who were the objects of the slurs and the nasty jokes – to eat and socialize with him.

In fact, he made those people the heroes of his stories. It’s the dreaded, good-for-nothing Samaritan who is the model of behavior, not the religiously observant people.

Is it any wonder that people wanted to push him off a cliff?

So, what about us? Perhaps we start with never allowing anyone to be slurred or bullied or made the butt of jokes, even if there’s a price to be paid in standing up for them.

But it requires something more.

Perhaps the next time we encounter one of them people – as Archie would say – we could invite them for coffee or lunch. Instead of talking about our differences, we could share stories about what keeps us up at night, what breaks our hearts, what makes us feel alive, what we’d most like to change about ourselves.

And maybe along the way we’ll have a few laughs and change how we feel about each another a little bit. In doing so, we might actually get somewhere.

Somewhere beyond the days that were great only for those slinging the slurs.