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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bygones

     I dredged up my high school German to translate the words on a stained-glass window in a Protestant church called Martinskirche in Langenau, Germany. Just after Christmas in 2005, I was there to chaperone the Orlando Deanery Boychoir and Girls Choir on their Prayer for Peace International Tour. While the children rehearsed the evening's concert program, I studied the window in the 400-year-old building. A list of names cascaded from ceiling to floor. A date followed each name, 1916, 1917, the First World War, the "war to end all wars." Among the names were the words I translated as "They gave their lives for others."
     Nearby, more names were painted on a wall. This section was dated 1939-1945. A wreath stood in front with a banner that read, I think, "We remember our dead." In my mind, I had to peer around the horror of Hitler, but finally it struck me: these people reacted to the loss of their soldiers in exactly the same way we react to the loss of our soldiers. And this day, grandchildren of their enemies had come to sing to them. The choirs sang carols in German and traditional church songs in Latin. They sang American spirituals with contagious enthusiasm. They sang "Prayer for Peace," written especially for the choirs after Sept. 11, 2001. It asks God to protect us from evil and to strengthen us to stand for what is right. 
     The tour was meant to extend a hand of friendship to the people of the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. It seemed to work. The audience of dignitaries at the Ambassador's Concert Series in Prague (where men with dogs and pistols swept the room beforehand) demanded encores. One was a carol in the Czech language. They sang along. At an informal performance in Munich, I saw a woman singing along with the lovely Latin round "Dona Nobis Pacem," which means "grant us peace." Another woman leaned toward us choir moms and said, "They are wonderful!"
     In Vienna on New Year's Day, an American deputy ambassador heard them sing on an outdoor stage and followed them to the cathedral where they sang for a mass. Afterward, he told them that his job was to present the best of American culture to other nations, and that they had done exactly that with their singing. In the Martinskirche, though, there was something more. A reporter who covered the concert for the local paper noted a "spiritual dimension" that made the performance "intensive and expressive."
     When I told the story of the window and the wall of remembrance to a friend at church, she said, "We all come together at the foot of the cross." That was it. In Langenau, they read the Bible in German, but they learn the same truths, and they serve the same Savior. In this place of humility, we could all recognize our own flaws and reach out to one another as human beings in the name of Jesus Christ, even if there had been hatred and destruction between us in the past. We offered our music, and we held out our hands.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Whole-hearted Evil: Kermit Gosnell



     They say he joked about the size of some of his victims. “Big enough to walk to the bus stop.” They say he kept the feet. Cut them from the bodies and preserved them in jars. Trophies, I think, like the head of a deer, or the skin of a Jew stretched onto a lamp shade. At the trial, he smiled. Found guilty of three child-murders, he seemed surprised. Too evil to be real. But real.
     In Perelandra, by C. S. Lewis, the character Ransom wakes one morning to the discovery of the body of a colorful little frog, crippled and left to suffer. “The whole back had been ripped open in a sort of V-shaped gash, the point of the V being a little behind the head. Something had torn a widening wound backward—as we do in opening an envelope—along the trunk and pulled it out so far behind the animal that the hoppers or hind legs had  been almost torn off with it… He told himself that a creature of that kind probably had very little sensation. But it did not much mend matters.”
     Ransom follows a trail of twenty mutilated animals. It leads him to the character Weston tearing yet another frog, “almost surgically inserting his forefinger, with its long sharp nail, under the skin behind the creature’s head and ripping it open… Then he finished the operation, threw the bleeding ruin away, and looked up. Their eyes met.”   
     Weston “looked at Ransom in silence and at last began to smile… a devilish smile… It seemed to summon Ransom, with horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive or ashamed… Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice…”
          They say he joked about the size of some of his victims. “Big enough to walk to the bus stop.” They say he kept the feet. Cut them from the bodies and preserved them in jars. Trophies, I think, like the head of a deer, or the skin of a Jew stretched onto a lamp shade. At the trial, he smiled. Found guilty of three child-murders, he seemed surprised. Too evil to be real. But real.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sterling Garbage Men

  

     “Even our garbage men are white,” said the city manager of a town with a nasty past of racial violence. I was a girl reporter at the time, as white as they come, blonde and blue-eyed, and he seemed to assume I would be impressed with the pallor of the city’s staff. I thought he was an idiot. That was 40 years ago, so he may have gone to his reward. I just hope his soul came to life before he met his Maker. Since then, I’ve lived in neighborhoods served by the full spectrum of garbage men, and I’ve found the content of their character to be, for the most part, sterling, regardless of the outer layer.

     Across the street from us once lived a retired couple. The husband was disabled, so the wife did all the outside work, including hauling the garbage down to the curb. One particular garbage collector, a very large black man, always carried the can up the driveway to the garage after emptying it. This was the only house that got such extra service. If the woman was outside, the collector would greet her cheerfully. He was doing a kindness to a little white lady, just because he saw she could use some help. I was so impressed, I called the garbage collection company to tell them about it and congratulate them on the quality of their employees. I think the woman who took the call was happy to hear something other than a complaint.

     Sometimes my little grandson and I are outside when the recycling truck comes by. The men, who mostly appear to be Hispanic, always smile and wave at three-year-old Edward, and the driver blows the horn. The guy who empties our bin into the hopper knows he’s putting on a show for the pre-school cutie-pie, so he pulls the lever with a flourish and grins at the rapt little face as the machinery roars, lifts and crashes. He gives a thumbs-up as he hops back onto the truck.

     This morning, I happened to be out by the mailbox when the garbage truck pulled up. I crossed the driveway, smiled at the man who emptied the can, and said, “Thank you.”

     He answered with enthusiasm, “You’re welcome, ma’am.” That made me wonder how often he and his co-workers hear thanks, or even how often they are recognized as human beings. Hey, everybody! These men are doing a strenuous and very important job. (What would we do with our garbage otherwise?) They deserve a smile, a wave, and a word of gratitude.