HALSEY — It was a dark and stormy night and I was speaking to the Central Linn Lions Club at the Halsey United Methodist Church.
Eleven people in the fellowship room. A ham-and-peas dinner made by a member. And, before my talk, a discussion of the club’s entry in the Halsey Christmas Parade three days away, like who was going to provide the vehicle.
The parade was to start at 5 p.m., the dinner roughly the same time. Short parades, I suspect, in Halsey, a wide spot on Highway 99E as you’re heading from Eugene to Albany.
I was enjoying the whole Lake Wobegon scene when Vice President Lori Robertson opened a letter to share with her fellow Lions, who, you may know, collect used eyeglasses and donate them to people who can’t afford them.
“I wish to thank you for the gift of glasses and blessing of improved sight,” a man wrote. “I have been able to actually see my granddaughter make winning goals in the soccer playoffs!”
The writer had drawn a happy face beneath it.
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t strike me as a happy-face time in America.
Terrorism. Extremism. Innocent people being gunned down. Donald Trump’s poll numbers going up. I can’t remember ever feeling so much disunity on so many levels: international, national, race, politics, religion — you name it.
Scary times. And, among many of us, a sense of futility, as if we’re helpless to change the course of this rogue river.
Which is why, when I heard that letter while a storm lashed the little church, I felt the slightest twinge of hope. Saw the slightest flicker of a candle in the dark. Realized that if things are going to get better, it won’t be because we turn inward and selfish and fearful, circle the wagons and consider anybody not in our tribe the enemy.
Instead, it will be because we help others see more clearly by turning outward and selfless and forgiving, by giving to those with needs, by trying to be the proverbial change we’d like to see.
Does that stop a madman from opening fire at a school? No.
Does that strike fear in ISIS? No.
Does that inspire a white police officer and a black man in Ferguson, Mo., to suddenly embrace each other in oneness? No.
But if we can’t simply download an app for world peace, we can upload an attitude to be decent to one another, can’t we?
To look for the good in each other.
To not paint entire groups of people with the colors of the few bad apples.
To, dare I say, humble ourselves a bit instead of lording our side over yours with thinly veiled pride.
To be all those things that the truly hateful can never be.
And perhaps there’s victory in that, right?
I confess, I’ve been inspired lately by the subject of a book I’m writing about a man from New York who, in 1949, opened the first theme park in America, a place called Santa’s Workshop, outside Lake Placid. (A small contingent from Los Angeles would arrive a few years later, trying to pick up some tips for a little 8-acre park they planned to build call Disneylandia.)
The man, Julian Reiss, would seem to be as politically incorrect as they come. A white guy in the 1940s whose father was among the wealthiest men in the country. Catholic.
But here’s what impressed me about the guy: He refused to be defined by whatever “group” by which you wanted to classify him and relished the chance to look at life through other people’s eyes. Thus, instead of building skyscrapers to feed his ego he built a theme park to fuel the imaginations of children.
Born of wealth, he spent his entire life being about giving, not greed. In the early 1940s, he started among the country’s first profit-sharing plans so his employees could enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Born white, he served on the first state anti-discrimination board in the country, New York’s. He barnstormed the staid Northeast in the mid-1940s with fiery speeches about equality for blacks. He helped convince the Brooklyn Dodgers that, by law, they needed to bring the talented Jackie Robinson up from the minor leagues.
Born into a German-Catholic family, he defied his father and married a high school dropout from Brooklyn who was neither German nor Catholic. He rankled some among the faith — particularly his father and brother — by daring to bring Jesus into debates about racism, working conditions and wealth. And when building a camp in the Adirondacks for inner city New York City youth, he hired an alcoholic to build the chapel — to show the man someone believed in him.
To be conventional in America today is, it seems, to find our “comfort group,” beat our chests wildly about how wonderful we are and look askance — or downright hate — anyone outside our inner circle.
“You’ve embarrassed the entire family,” Reiss’s father said after learning his son had joined the anti-discrimination board. “When people at the club hear you’re my son … .”
Perhaps it’s time we were, like Julian Reiss, less conventional — and more willing to rankle the folks not only on the other side of the barricade, but right beside us, by our willingness to think bigger. To consider that the world may not be as black and white as we want to believe.
While, in the spirit of the Lions, rejoicing in the “blessing of improved sight” by anyone, regardless of what side of the barricade they’re on.