The change that started with me
How a relationship developed peacefully after a change of heart
In the middle of the 1960s, I met the Focolare Movement. It left an indelible mark on me.
At that time, I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, I was still deeply looking for something else beyond it, more fulfilling. Although those times were filled with extraordinary people and lofty transformative ideas, I longed for a totally changed culture, for a community, a completely new society.
As I started to live the communitarian spirituality of the Focolare, and in particular tried to put the words of the Gospel into practice, I undeniably experienced the transforming revolutionary power of the Word of God — it changed me.
I can never forget my first experience of this evangelical “revolutionary force.” Nowadays we would call it a healing, bridge-building experience. But it was much more than that for me.
I was still at college as I began to live the spirituality of unity. I boarded at my college and ate in the cafeteria every day. There was a young woman working at the counter who had a great dislike for me. This fact was common knowledge, and every evening those behind me in line watched the show as the young woman slid (or almost threw) my plate of food to me with great force.
It never crossed my mind for one moment that although she was belligerent, something about my attitude might be at least the partial reason for her behavior. Could it also stem from the reality that she was Black, and I was White?
Trying to find an answer in the Words of the Gospel, I tried to understand how I could love this woman.
I realized that her job was not just handing out the food, but also picking up the dirty dishes from the table and carrying them away. I had an idea: what if I waited until dinner was over, when her second task started and went to help her?
I knew that asking her was a big deal … she would most likely think that I was deriding her. Why should she believe in my goodwill since she never experienced it before?
However, I wanted to demonstrate that something in me had changed, and if I wanted to live the words of Jesus, I had to see him in her.
At the end of the dinner, when she started cleaning up, I began to help her without any words. She said nothing.
I was so involved in my plan to help her that I left half of the food on my own plate, so once we had miraculously finished cleaning, I went back to my table, thanking God that things had gone well somehow, and ready to finish my meal.
I was deeply involved in thinking about what had just happened when I saw from the corner of my eye someone in a white apron approaching my table when I heard the words, “Can I eat with you?” I was overwhelmed by the joy.
Later that evening there was a Black student party. It was still rare to have integrated social events such as a party at that time, but I was invited. After the party started, a woman walked in, saw me, and had to contain her surprise.
After a while she came to me and said, “I certainly did not expect for you to be here … but I am not surprised.”
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