Beyond Politics to Love
“I don’t know if you will take that chair,” I said to the young man who was doing the rounds for the daily trash pickup.
“For you, I will,” he said gallantly. “For you– anything.” He smiled.
I looked at him.
He was tall and lanky, with jet black skin and a rakish pirate’s beard. Though his appearance and demeanor indicated he could be tough, he had the gracious manners of an aristocrat. I thought he looked familiar. Then I realized that in spite of the shockingly loud neon green and orange striped uniform all Wilmington’s trash collectors sport, he looked almost exactly like man portrayed in “The Moorish Chief,” a work found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I love that painting. My new acquaintance had the same look and the same compelling presence as the chieftain. Behind his cool gaze lay strength with a hint of danger and ferocity– but also grace.
‘Oh,” I replied, continuing to water my plants, “Thank you so much. Bless you! I truly appreciate that.”
“You are welcome,” he said, plucking the ancient slatted chair from the sidewalk and tossing it with practiced accuracy into the bowels of the garbage truck, where it was swallowed up with a crunching, splintering sound by the mechanized beast.
His companion, a handsome young guy who appeared to be either of Middle Eastern or Hispanic origin came near. He had the air of a Spanish grandee in disguise, with the looks of a matinee idol from the past. He looked at me quizzically, as if wondering what sort of reception he’d get.
“Hi,” I said, smiling at him. He smiled back.
“Would you spray me with water?” I glanced at his face, thinking he was kidding. But, no, he was in earnest.
“Sure,” I answered. He knelt on one knee before me, gracefully bending his head. I sprinkled him tentatively with the hose.
“More,” he said. “I really want you to put a lot of water on me.”
So, laughing, I turned the water full on him. The theologian in me resisted saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The chieftain smiled as his friend rubbed his head and face with his hands, while the water ran down in cool streams onto the deep red bricks, darkening their color to a deep mahogany. Droplets of water sparkled in the sun, reflecting iridescent rainbow hues as they were briefly suspended in the cool morning air.
We three were like children, smiling and laughing while playing with a garden hose.
It was a baptism, I later thought–a unifying moment that erased all distinctions between us. Who cared that we were black, brown and white? There I was, whiter than white, with skin so pale a few moments in the sun would turn it bright pink. There the chieftain was, with skin so black it seemed to have dark blue shadows. There the Hispanic prince in hiding was, his coffee with cream brown skin denoting a mixed heritage. All the superficial distinctions among us three vanished in that brief, childlike moment. I thought of the millions of people who, regardless of class or race, find peace and deep meaning and unity in the rituals of faith. Oh, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers and sinners who shall wear that starry crown; let’s go down to the river to pray.
“Do you feel better?” I asked as the postulant rose.
“Yes,” he replied, his face a mixture of shyness and tranquility.
“Good, “ I said. The word seemed a brief blessing.
There was a moment of silence.
The chieftain spoke. He had noticed my plants and knew I loved caring for them. “I have an olive tree in a pot. Where do I get a new pot? Walmart?”
“Or Lowe’s,” I said. “Or Home Depot or somewhere like that.”
“What kind of soil does an olive tree need?”
“Well, you need…” I paused. I knew he didn’t need or want a long dissertation about the kind of soil that characterizes the olive groves in the Mediterranean. “Try Scott’s top soil,” I finally said.
“OK,” he answered. “It needs room to grow. It’s just too big for the pot it’s in. Thank you for your help.”
“You are welcome,” I answered. “Good bye.”
And with the groaning sound only an accelerating garbage truck can make—it’s my wakeup call on Tuesday mornings–the two were off, looking back at me from the platform at the back of the vehicle. I felt a sudden pang. How brief the moment was.
“An olive tree!” I later thought. The symbol of peace and good will. Water, the sign of God’s cleansing grace and redemptive love. The too small pot, a symbol of the need to expand and grow. New soil, a sign of the spiritual food needed to grow.
We three had been blessed in ways we only intuited at the moment. We didn’t think anything through. We didn’t do anything but respond to the moment. But we were blessed, even though all three of us stood in the middle of a small city considered the most dangerous in America. Blessed in a place where violent crime is epidemic and people are divided as they seldom have been. Blessed in a place where blood rather than water sometimes stains the streets. We were blessed with unity, which though transient, was real.
We were blessed, at least for an evanescent, luminescent and fleeting moment with a glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom of Heaven, where no one does another any harm; where there are no tears, no pain, no sorrow, but only Love.
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