September 2017 Churchwork reflection by the Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr.
“The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt.” Frederick Buechner
My maternal grandfather owned a plumbing and electrical contracting company in the delta of Mississippi. At the height of his career, he had several crews, heavy equipment, and a large shop of interesting tools and such with which any boy would be in heaven meddling. For me, nothing was more enjoyable than laying my hands on the electric grinder and watching the sparks fly off a piece of metal pipe, or melting a chunk of lead and pouring it into a mold. Being around my grandfather was pure joy and I always looked forward to my visits. I also looked forward to riding with James in his truck.
James was an African American man that worked many years for my grandfather. He was the foreman of one of his crews. If my grandfather was not able to go to the job site, I would ride with James. Part of the joy of being with James was that he let me ride in the bed of the truck. I’d stand up holding onto the rail that held all the ladders and let the wind blow in my face. Days in the delta were the best days. Another thing I liked about James was that he and my grandfather held mutual respect for each other. My grandfather never said this, but if he had a partner I think it would have been James. Whether black or white, no one held the place of authority the way James did. Theirs was a relationship built on trust and respect. From my early apprenticeship, my grandfather taught me the code of reverence for the other.
But like many families, there was another side. My paternal grandfather was not as generous towards people of color. While this grandfather was a kind man to us he was not so with others. His harsh words directed at someone working around the house or comments hurled at the TV were often the chatter around the dinner table. The topic always ended with the comment: “He’s a product of his day.”
On some level, I understood the “product of his day” spiel except that this grandfather was just as old as my other grandfather. Why wasn’t my delta grandfather a product of his day? Where did he learn to respect all people regardless of the color of their skin?
My maternal grandfather was hard of hearing. In his elementary years, he realized he was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. This malady was an embarrassment to him. It was his burden to carry, so much so that he dropped out of school before the 5th grade. If I had to guess, this burden made him aware of others’ burdens and he had compassion upon them as he might hope others might show compassion towards him. I understand this as the burdens of my own life have caused me to be more aware of others carrying theirs.
We are products of our families, broken and made whole or not by kindness. If we know kindness by gift, then we are more likely to pass this kindness to others. If, however, we only know embarrassment and ridicule we may return the likeness with vigor. The result is not pretty. Who wants to be made to feel ignorant, a nobody?
If we are products of our families, we are also products of choice. While we don’t choose our parents, as we mature we do choose to be for someone or to be against. While we may be taught to fear others, as we grow we become aware that we can choose to engage in relationship or to ignore. When we discount the other our minds contrive things that are not true. Only in engagement can we truly know our brothers and sisters. I believe we are at the stage in our country’s short life in which we need to choose to engage rather than ignore. Far too long we have lived out of fear of the other, choosing to believe something that never existed. Now we are of age to choose to be for rather than against.
Buechner is right, the life we touch for good or ill will touch another life. Let us choose to touch good. Let our understanding of our own brokenness be our guide in that we come to know not only our own need for healing and acceptance but that of our neighbor.
The Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr.
Bishop of Louisiana