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Seasonal Reflections - Raking Leaves In The Beloved Community

Sixteen years ago we made the move from Minneapolis to Virginia. Lynn and I flew out for a few days in early December to find a place to live and, as best we could, learn what we could about living here. I had spent a fair amount of time in Washington, but that was years before, and things had no doubt changed. Neither one of us had much of an idea about what we were doing.

We looked at what must have been two dozen houses over a very tiring weekend. Nothing seemed right, and a bit of despair was settling in when our realtor drove us to a new development in Manassas to look at one last house. All we knew of the town was that there had been two Civil War battles fought there, that Stephen Stills had been so taken with the train station there that he names one of his solo albums after it, and that it sat in the outer ring of Washington’s suburbs. No expectations.

As we drove up to our last chance, about six kids went running from the house next door across the street, and, with the usual shouts of childhood, bustled into the house there. What struck me – what struck both of us – was that this was a dreary December afternoon where most kids wouldn’t really want to be outside. But there they were, together having fun. Something special about that.

We bought this house, the last one we saw, and settled into a new neighborhood. For our son there were ready and constant friends, all about his age. Summers were baseball games in the backyard, and winters were sleepovers and snowball fights on those most magical days when the white flakes fell.

We grew into our neighborhood day by day, inch by inch, and came to know its character. This part of Northern Virginia is, for the most part, is more northern than Virginia. A large proportion of our neighbors are in the military, work for defense contractors or serve in law enforcement, but our street is diverse. We live amidst African American, Salvadoran, Filipino, Mexican and Pakistani families, and everyone seems to get along.

This place nurtured us, and nurtured our son. He grew roots here knowing that he was safe, and secure, and surrounded by community. And while the neighbors came and went in this transient part of the world, that nurturing spirit survived.

My neighbors are an eclectic lot. There’s Mike, a Pakistani gentleman living with his extended family across the street who will join me in raking leaves or painting a mailbox post without being asked. When I’m out front working, Mike is likely to come over with his wide smile, any tool that might help things along, and jump right into whatever I’m about.

Sam, who is Filipino and married to a loquacious Irish girl, never fails to share a story whenever I see him. Tony lives next door, an imposing African American state trooper whose heart shines as brightly as any badge he might wear, and next to him is David, a soft-spoken former Air Force officer who now teaches college.

My best friend in this place from the day we moved in is, in some ways, perhaps the most unlikely. Erik wears his passions without filter, both good and bad, but his integrity never wanes. I don’t think I’ve ever known someone so honest and open. He’s a fairly conservative former Navy man whose politics generally run the opposite direction from my own. We rarely talk about the state of public affairs, but when we do, it’s respectful and well reasoned, based in logic rather than diatribe or sound bites. What I know to the depths of my soul is that if ever I needed help, or a favor, or just a stiff drink, Erik would be there without fail, and that he’d be offended if I did not ask him. Friends like that don’t come along often enough.

Last night I reflected on this special place that we found, and what it means. We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the rhetoric of division, and we have separated ourselves into tribes. We look at one another as labels rather than as individuals, yet each of us is striving to live out our lives in purpose and happiness, winning what fulfillment we can. We share a bond of common fate, although too often we do not choose to see it. And in our blindness we suffer the setbacks attendant with greed, self-interest, brutality and repression all at the expense of our shared humanity.

More than 60 years ago Martin Luther King wrote in words that ring truer today than ever before: “But the end is reconciliation . . . . . the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that… agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

In this season of peace we see so clearly the need to commit ourselves to The Beloved Community, not a place of adherence or conformity, but a place where all individuals are valued for their inherent dignity, regardless of who they are or what they might represent to our jaundiced eyes.

All peace begins from within, then emanates outward by degree. I rarely claim that peace for myself, but my neighborhood, with all its quirks – this Beloved Community – demands that it is there, and that I acknowledge it. It teaches me that the greatest movements can only begin with what’s at hand, and that we need only see these blessings, really see them, to be able to share them willingly and selflessly.

Peace to you all, through this season and forevermore.

“Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.”

-Archbishop Oscar Romero


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