The other day I watched this video:
And then I heard about THIS:
Sadly it reminded me of an experience I had over twenty years ago in southern Illinois. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons. I served a two year mission for my church between the years 1989 and 1991 in the Kentucky, Louisville mission. It covered all of Kentucky, a little of Ohio, and the southern tip of Illinois. I served in Harrisburg, Illinois for nine months of my mission.
Missionaries for the church do just what you think missionaries do, talk to people about religion. There are many other things missionaries do though, that most people don’t know about. There are hours and hours of service that are given each week. I served in Boys and Girls clubs in Frankfort, Kentucky, played touch football with youth in Greensburg, Kentucky and served in many nursing homes throughout the state. In southern Illinois we helped a family clean up after a tornado danced around their home knocking down their garage on one side of the house, then taking out the 5 full grown 30 foot trees that surrounded the house. After taking out the garage and trees it leveled the cement block post office building that was right next door – leveled it. The only thing left of the post office was the concrete floor. Miraculously, the home with the family inside, was left untouched. My service there was much like what the missionaries did in Oklahoma earlier this year.
My companion, Elder Vincent, and I discovered a young family with 5 kids. The parents were very open to us talking to them about the gospel. They had a humble existence, but enjoyed us coming over and speaking about Christ and what He has done for us. Elder Vincent and I loved the family, they were a great bunch of people. We especially enjoyed the kids. Their oldest was in high school and youngest was about 5.
We taught them three or four lessons when things started to go south. And by that I mean literally, south. I’m from California and went to high school in a town where every race had it’s individuals that excelled; in athletics, academics, the student body government, and popularity. The group of friends I hung out with in high school was a hodge-podge of races. One of the first girls I had a crush on was Asian. I couldn’t even tell you whether she was Chinese, Japanese or Korean – she was just beautiful and a fun friend. Racism is something I’d heard about, but never really experienced in my life. So, being in ‘the south’ was a stark contrast to what I’d been exposed to growing up. Witnessing people who truly hated someone, because their skin was a different color, just didn’t compute with me. I couldn’t understand it. It really just made me sad.
My companion and I traveled to the family’s house to teach them a lesson. Not all of the family were there, the mom was picking kids up so we had time to talk to the father, Wilbur. We followed him around the little house, just talking. Then I saw something that caught my eye, a pocket knife. I love pocket knives. I had one in my pocket at that moment. The one I carried was a tiny Buck knife I’d found in my house when I was 12 years old, and I still have it to this day. The knife on Wilbur’s desk had intricate carvings so I picked it up to examine it closer.
As I looked closely at it, I realized what the carvings were. Little men, dressed in hooded outfits. It was a KKK knife. Understanding what it was, I just about dropped it. Wilbur saw my reaction and got a big smile on his face. He came close to me and said, ‘Yep, it’s a Klan knife.’ I nodded my head and realized he was speaking with pride. Then he sidled even closer and asked, ‘Are you interested in joining? I could get you an application.’
An application?! They actually had applications? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I quickly put the knife down and felt a knot growing in my stomach. It was as if I were walking in a wheat field and out of nowhere I was stuck by a brick to the head. This man, who I’d thought I’d gotten to know fairly well, I really didn’t know at all. I told him I wasn’t interested and walked back to talk to the kids. I felt sick and we ended up leaving shortly after that.
My companion and I were teaching other people in town as well. There was a young interracial couple we just started working with who lived in the projects. I remember initially sitting on the edge of my chair in their apartment watching the cockroaches scurry across the walls, hoping there wasn’t one climbing up my pant leg. After a while though, you forget about all that and settle in. The couple was fun and enjoyed listening to our message. They only took a lesson or two though, they didn’t seem too interested. It was too bad, I enjoyed talking with them and could see they were really in love.
It was about a week later when we saw Wilbur again. We stopped by the house, at night this time. He was in his garage. He and some other men were standing around a garbage can that had something burning in it. We walked up smiling and said hi. He stepped away from the others to speak to us. He greeted us, but we could tell something was wrong. He came right out and asked us, ‘Are y’all teaching a couple in town that is white and black?’
We were taken aback. How did he know who we were teaching? I stammered and said, ‘Do you mean Jill and Tom? Uh, ya, they are white and black.’
He said, ‘I won’t go to any church that allows that. Birds of a feather flock together. I don’t want any part of it, nothing. Y’all can go on, we’re through.’ He then turned back to his friends in a dismissal to us.
My companion and I stood there in shock. We realized the conversation was over so we walked back to the car and left.
We tried to go by a few times after that, but it was obvious the family was dodging us. They were done, and didn’t want anything to do with us. It was incredibly sad. Sad not only because we lost them as people we were teaching, but sad because of the view they had of humanity. I just couldn’t understand their prejudices.
I’m back in California now living in Silicon Valley. Over the last 20+ years since my mission, I’ve had business partners that were Jewish, Muslim, white and gay. All really good quality people. And that’s what drove me to work with each of them, they were good people regardless of their background or skin color. About ten years ago we had a black couple that moved in across the street from us with daughters about the same age as mine. The girls had a lot of fun playing together.
I loved Kentucky, and the people in the south. My heart aches though for the people there that suffer from the disease of racism. I’m sure much of it is here in my own town. There is talk of gangs and anger on our local news, so I’m sure I’ve just circled myself with people who don’t see life that way.
Here’s to hoping my children will see life as I do.