But during my junior year my family moved to the inner city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was the late 60s, a time of great civil unrest. During my junior year both Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And Harrisburg had a whole lot more people than white folk. My class had African-Americans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics. In my high school, John Harris, there were more whites than any other race– but even the white people were different. Some were Protestant, some Catholic, some Jewish, some Baptists, some main liners. There were different accents and different traditions. Blue collar kids and wealthy ones. Poor kids from the projects and comfortable kids from Bellevue Park. There were kids whose parents voted Democrat (didn’t know of those in small town Ohio) and some whose parents were socialists. Still a lot of Republicans. Kids who wouldn’t spend the time of day with someone of another race, and others who dated interracially. All kinds of people.
One of the best things that ever happened to meet was to move into a community where there were all kinds of people.
There is a comfortable naivete when you are only around people like yourself. But there is also a dangerous ignorance that can lead to devaluing other people. It is an easy step from devaluing them to making them convenient enemies or scapegoats. When you are around only your kind of people there also emerges an unchallenged arrogance that assumes your way of life is the best way, if not the only way to live.
Because God led my father to move into a parish in the city, I learned many lessons I might have missed. I meant many people who were not like me but whose friendship enriched me immeasurably. I met a Greek girl who taught me about hard work and loyalty to family. I met a Jewish man who taught me about the importance of honoring your word even to someone who dishonors you. I met an African-American who introduced me to the poet James Weldon Johnson, and a Polish kid who made a jazz-lover out of me. I met a black man who taught me that no one should be too busy to listen to a young man’s dreams. I met police detective who taught me to protect myself and white woman who taught me to pray for my enemies. I met a divorced man who taught me that treasuring your family requires sacrifice and a widow from a previous era in the church to love the new things God was doing. I met a steelworker who taught me the importance of attitude. The list goes on.
One of God’s gifts to us is all kinds of people. More of us need to step out of our cliques and comfort zones and meet those people.