She looked at the hateful tattoo, then looked into the young white man's eyes, and said, "Oh honey, you're so much better than that."
This courageous elderly woman planted a seed in the young neo-Nazi, a seed that would take many years to germinate. But eventually he did leave white nationalism behind and and became a founding member of Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. Frequently he shares the story of the African-American woman who spoke truth and love to him.
Tony McAleer, one of the other co-founders of Life After Hate, says "The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for those who have no compassion, but those are the people who need it the most." Speaking of the elderly McDonald's employee, he says "It's incredibly powerful to receive compassion from someone you've dehumanized."
McAleer himself was an upper-middle-class kid whose father was physically and emotionally absent and who was bullied unmercifully at an all-boys' Catholic school - until he decided to save himself by joining the bullies. He became as violent as the others and received their respect. He spent years as a white nationalist, or, as they are often called today, a member of the alt-right, until a friend urged him to go for counseling. Jason Byasse (in "Confessions of a Former White Supremacist" in Sojourners magazine, August 2017) recounts McAleer's experience with his counselor:
"As he laid out his Neo-Nazi past, the therapist smiled. 'What?' McAleer asked. 'You don't know?' the therapist responded. 'I was born Jewish.'
"McLeer figures that he and his therapist, Dov Baron, spent some 1,000 hours together in therapy, events, and workshops - they both speak on the leadership circuit. It took this relationship with a Jewish therapist for a former skinhead to learn he was lovable, to bring the healing that is a necessary step beyond disengagement."
Life After Hate has conducted research on those who are most susceptible to belonging to hate groups, extremist groups, and discovered that the key factors are disconnection and childhood trauma. Unresolved anger will explode in violence. Unfortunately, "In 2016, the number of hate groups in the U.S. increased for a second year in a row, including a tripling of the number of anti-Muslim groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center." (Byasse) The U.S. is not only dealing with radical Islamic terror. White extremists from Oklahoma City to Kansas and New York are spreading terror by committing murders; in fact our country's experience of terror began with slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws.
Today, hate groups are not necessarily composed of skinheads in leather jackets. Today extremists often grow their hair out, put on ties, and launch websites with seemingly innocuous names. But they still are people who hurt inside, who feel betrayed, by relatives, friends, or even their country.
How can we combat extremism? How can we help angry men and women to transcend anger, hurt, and violence and have their inner wounds healed? McAleer points to the McDonald's employee and insists that small, everyday gestures of kindness are the seeds of love that all of us can plant in people's hearts. Like the everyday kindness of an imam whom McAleer introduced to a Canadian veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was teetering toward anti-Islam extremism. The imam gave compassion to the man who was in danger of dehumanizing a whole people, and helped him move away from hate.
So often we are depressed and despairing about situations in our own lives that seem beyond our own abilities to help or heal. So often we don't know when we should speak and when we should be silent, when we should get involved and when we should get out of the way.
This is where our faith is of paramount importance. So often we think that faith is a way of believing in certain doctrines and dogmas. But faith is much more a way of living, living in relationship with God by saying "yes" to every new situation and encounter in our lives. Faith is opening our hearts to trust that God,living in us and with us, will guide us on when to speak, when to remain silent, when to get involved, and when to get out of the way.
God calls us to plant seeds of love in people's hearts, as the African-American McDonald's employee did, as the Jewish therapist did, as the Muslim imam did. So often we weep, feeling helpless. As Psalm 126 says, "they go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing." So often, when we speak of God or try to bring about reconciliation, people's hearts seem hard dry, and impervious to anything we may say or do. Yet the Psalm continues, "they come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves. " For it is the Lord Who commands the seed to rise, not us. We only plant the seeds; the Lord brings them to full flourishing while we weep, all unaware.
We do not have to be perfect people to be sowers of God's seed. We are all broken in some way, and whether we are physically or mentally healthy is not important to God. God does not care if we are rich or poor; young or old; black, brown, yellow, or white; straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. God does not care what faith we espouse. God only asks for our open hearts and our willingness to say "yes" to God's impulses of grace.
God uses people with the most profound disabilities to sow seeds of His divine love, for often they are the purest and most innocent. Recently I attended a birthday party for a one year old, and a profoundly disabled man was a much-loved member of this naturally good family. They even gave him the first piece of birthday cake after the one year old received her piece! We smiled at each other often during the party and waved hands to communicate. I wanted him to experience God's love through me. But God had a surprise in store for me. As I was saying my "goodbyes," the man suddenly turned to me and hugged me as hard as if he'd known me all his life. And, in what I was sure was a sign of his special favor, he gently licked my cheek. What a humbler! God was more interested in loving ME through this innocent. I chuckled, thinking "Today, Jesus licked me!"
God does not even care if we are totally helpless and dying. St. Francis, heart open to God, has inspired billions of believers with the glorious hymn he composed and sang as he lay dying.
As he lay dying in a little hut, Francis still suffered from a dark night of betrayal. He had resigned from his position as leader of the Order he had founded since others had desired a tighter, more administrative approach. He was almost completely blind from a parasitic disease he had contracted. He also suffered the continuing fevers of malaria, as well as from leprosy, and also tuberculosis. He was, in effect, so stripped away that he was ready for another gift, in addition to the gift he had already received - the Stigmata, the five wounds of Christ in his own body. Even in this darkness of physical and spiritual pain, he opened his heart and received the inner gift of the Canticle of the Sun,(or Canticle of Creatures) then opened his mouth and sang.
In spite of the great pain in his eyes, intensified by any sunlight, he remembered Nature with gratitude, and sang praise to God for the gift of Brother Sun, whose radiance bears a likeness to God; to Sister Moon; to wind and weather which cannot be changed anymore than his dying could be changed. Rain water was probably seeping in through the roof of his hut, yet he still praised Sister Water, which flows over us so abundantly, reminiscent of the abundant flow of grace in our lives. Finally, he sang in praise of Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can possibly escape. In his total surrender to a God Whom he loved and trusted, Francis was totally free to transcend his sufferings and be transformed by love and hope for eternal life. And so, he was free to sing - and plant the seeds of eternal love in the hearts of all who sing his Canticle of the Creatures.
God can open us to the potential of the many encounters in our lives. They may be with family, friends, strangers, or even enemies, like young white extremists. But all our words and deeds carry seeds of hope and love and renewal within them, if we have faith in God and trust that He desires to use us as instruments of His love. As Ephesians 3:20-21 reminds us, "To God whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end, Amen."