by Diane Lefer —
Barack Obama says we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States, and after his election, I heard from friends and relatives—progressives all–who live in places like Alabama, Alaska, and Kentucky all saying we are here, too, along with millions of others working for change in the so-called Red states. Please don’t write us off!
Well, of course not. But what about those millions who did support a ticket and an agenda I consider profoundly dangerous to both justice and peace?
When I try to answer that question, I think about my friend Sue–a hard-line Christian conservative Republican in South Carolina who is also smart, talented, witty, and always generous of heart. When we met in New England, she didn’t see my lefty rabble-rousing as an obstacle to our friendship and so I just assumed she shared my views.
In fact, up North, Sue kept significant parts of her identity closeted. She’d been wary ever since her first trip above the Mason-Dixon line when she saw a monument to the Union dead. As she would eventually tell me, “I felt the way you would feel seeing a tribute to the Nazis. My family never owned slaves, but my ancestors died in the war, and our city was burned to the ground. That’s what the Union Army means to me.”
For me, that was a new perspective. I told her I’d been wary of the South since I’d taught in a summer program at a black college in Alabama in ’69. White men in cars and pickup trucks would try to run me down, even driving up onto sidewalks and front lawns in their attempts to do so. A black teenager held a gun to my head saying he’d always wanted to kill a white person. “Oh, wow!” I said. “Have you read Wretched of the Earth?” Well, that was the Sixties. It still amazes me he settled into a discussion of Fanon instead of blowing my do-gooder head off.
When Sue invited me to visit her home in South Carolina several years ago, it was an act of trust. She knew that during this trip she would no longer be able to hide her politics and the way faith informs her daily life. She didn’t know how I would react to driving around a city where many cars and businesses display the Confederate flag. But to me first and foremost, Sue was the person I’ve probably laughed longer and harder with than anyone else in my life. I also know her as a woman who at one time paid a very high personal price for insisting on adherence to ethical standards and the law. We had a great visit.
But after 9/11 as the country geared up for war, Sue sent me an e-mail: “Look, I know we’re going to be on different sides of this issue, so please, let’s not talk about it.”
We didn’t. But when so much of our lives revolves around living our beliefs, what else was there to talk about? We found we could simply keep each other up-to-date on our activities without trying to convince. I headed south to protest at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and told her I was going without expounding on the evils of the School of the Americas or asking her to join me.
She trusted me enough to tell how, overwhelmed with family problems, she became furious with God, and then so guilty about her anger that she crashed. Hard. When she was as low as a person can be, Jesus came to her and said, “Just rest, child. Everything will be all right.” If that was a hallucination, I thought, it was surely the most healing one she could have had.
Soon after I was leading a writing workshop for young gangbangers in a placement facility. The first week this one kid—I’ll call him Alex–kept his head down and didn’t make eye contact. I couldn’t get through to him at all. At the end of the class, though, he suddenly looked up and said, “I wish I could talk to God.”
This kind of conversation is out of my depth, what with being an atheist, but I asked Alex what he wanted to say to God.
“I’d ask a question. Why did you put me here on earth?”
My heart almost stopped. It almost broke. I didn’t know what to say until I thought of Sue. I told him about her and how when she was in great pain and confusion Jesus spoke to her. Then I asked Alex to imagine what God might say to him but his head was down again and he didn’t respond.
The next week and the next, same disconnect. He wasn’t writing anything. I was told he was illiterate. OK, he couldn’t write, but he wasn’t even raising his head. A friend suggested I take my laptop to Alex and just ask him questions. Then I could type up his life story and print it out for him. He would see that he and his reality mattered and he would get to see his own story written out in words.
A couple of weeks after I gave him his story, Alex tried to write. We hit on this method: I’d ask him a question and he’d answer and repeat the answer until he had it memorized and then he’d write it down. I didn’t care if the spelling and grammar were wrong. I wanted him to discover he could move words from his head to a page. He managed a paragraph.
But the last session of our program, he came running over. “God spoke to me!”
That was the first I realized he’d even been listening when I told about Sue.
“What did God say?”
Alex handed me two whole pages he’d written himself, in rhyme, about being arrested and in Juvenile Hall and everything that had happened to him. His poem ends with his lord Jesus Christ telling him “Son, I know you made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes, and now you’re going to be all right.”
That night, I e-mailed Sue to tell her the role she’d played in his breakthrough.
Then I heard from her husband. Bill participates in a Christian ministry for the lifers in a maximum-security prison. “I told the men about Alex. They got on their knees and prayed for him for 20 minutes and they say they will continue to pray every night for him to turn his life around.” They even took a group photo—40 men in prison for life, and they all wrote messages of encouragement and support on the back.
When I gave the photograph to Alex, he was stunned. He studied every man’s face and read their words over and over again. “Will your friend see them again?” He asked for a favor. “Please have your friend tell them I will pray for them, too.”
Sue and Bill did vote McCain-Palin, but they also created a village of support around this 14-year-old kid, a different sort of community than he finds on the streets he’s now gone back to. They were able to give him what I couldn’t give. They still pray for Alex while I cannot.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on “Nightwind,” about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes “Majikan,” a Ciona Taylor Production in New York’s Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.
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