A Trip With Two Surprises
This morning’s comments are different from those I had planned to make because one week ago today two unexpected experiences left me with an irresistible impulse to share them before the memory is dimmed. Last Sunday, right after the early service here, with thoughts of Easter people on our minds, and hearing still the choir’s great music, Billie and I hurried down to Oklahoma City to be with family. We were happy at the prospect of being with the grandchildren, and at the thought of how our daughter-in-law always outdoes herself with holy day dinners, but neither of us had even a hint of the emotional roller-coaster ride we would take before the day was over.
We all hugged each other mightily and sat outside for a while in the warm sun, and after a while our daughter-in-law, whose name is Shawn, said she had to leave for a bit to do her part in a project called Christmas In April . When I asked what that was, she explained that it was an outreach labor of love established on the premise that although people in great need get meals on Thanksgiving and some presents on Christmas, their lives quickly return to normal and wouldn’t it be nice after January, February and March if Christmas could come back briefly in April. “I’ll be back in a little while,” she said, and the rest of us continued to share the simple stories that bond families.
As four o’clock approached, my son began to tell us more about Christmas in April . A group of people in his church had been alerted by a social worker to the desperate needs of a grandmother named Bertie, who was caring for five neglected grandchildren in a rundown shack no bigger than my garage. Bertie might have gotten more help from social services but she was terrified of asking because she knew that if someone came out and saw how they were having to live, the children might be taken away from the only family they had, so she did what she could and kept quiet. But this tiny handicapped woman who wore a huge brace on her neck because she couldn’t support her head without help had captured some hearts in the welfare office and they had mentioned her to Mayflower Congregational Church in the hope that some group, not part of the state or federal system, might be able to help without causing Bertie to lose the children.
So for 10 days before Easter a group of men and women like yourselves had been going in shifts to Bertie’s house to see if they could make it livable. At this point in the story my son, who knew exactly how to set us up, said, “They are almost finished, and Bertie, who has been keeping the kids somewhere out in the county while the house was torn up, is coming back in a few minutes to see what has happened. She’s going to be the most amazed little woman in the world, and I don’t want to miss her reaction. Would you and Mom like to go?”
We still had no notion of the miracle we were about to witness, but we piled into the Honda Passport and headed for a slum neighborhood in south Oklahoma City while our son warned how depressing it would be, and how we could not possibly imagine what Bertie’s house had looked like the first time he saw it. He described a drab cinderblock house with one sagging bed where two of the kids slept, a lumpy old sofa where another slept, and the dirt floor on which Bertie and the other kids rolled out pallets at night. Rain had rotted the attic and made the ceilings droop, termites had destroyed some of the rafters and sills, and the bathroom and kitchen fixtures were hopeless. The cow I milked as a youngster had a better stall.
The neighborhood, a place of mixed races, was bad enough but Bertie’s house was worse than most. Bertie, if you have been wondering, was a diminutive white woman with faded silver hair and bright blue eyes, and quite a history. There had been only one husband but she had married him three times because after he abused her, and she left, he would come begging and saying he would never do it again, and it’s in Bertie’s makeup to love and nurture, so she would marry him again. But that was all long ago, and now there were these grandchildren who needed her.
So we made our way down miserable little streets, past small houses where people sat on porches to enjoy a rare warm day, until ahead of us we saw a bunch of nice new cars looking conspicuously out of place, and a beehive of human activity centered on a small cinderblock house. Our son was right: we couldn’t believe the change from what he had described. It was no wonder he wanted to see the incredulous joy on Bertie’s face, who had left a dungheap and was coming back that afternoon to the greatest miracle of her life: a place transformed by people motivated in the spirit of Christ to do extraordinarily unselfish and beautful things. Busy, successful people with all sorts of other pleasant things they might have been doing the week before and on this bright, warm Easter Sunday: husbands and wives, owners of businesses, lawyers, teachers, doctors — with table saws and tool kits and paint brushes, all trying to put their final touches on Bertie’s house before she came back.
We found our daughter-in-law hanging fresh white curtains in a bathroom with a newly-tiled floor and new appliances, Others were unpacking and assembling a new dining table and chairs. Someone had brought a new TV, someone else had bought a new bed with new linen. The cinderblocks had been painted barn red and the windows trimmed in white. Earlier in the week dump trucks had spread sand over the dirt floors and a concrete truck had pumped a new slab floor in through the windows, and now there was new carpet over it, and new tile in the kitchen, and new ceilings and lamps — it was an amazing labor of love, and it was clearly too much for Bertie to believe when they brought her in. If you had seen her face and heard her wonder if it were only a dream from which she would wake up after while, you would have had a lump in your throat like all the rest of us.
Bertie hugged and blessed everyone, including even Billie and me because we happened to be parents of the man from whose church the volunteers had come to do this incredible thing. I was standing nearby when she caught her first glimpse of the front yard, which had been full of weeds and huge holes before the people of Mayflower went to work on it. They filled the holes and someone said, “You know, she has to have the practical things like beds and tables and new floors, but she hasn’t been able to enjoy things that have no reason to exist except that they are beautiful,” so off they went to buy landscape timbers and flats of geraniums and impatiens. Bertie had kept her composure remarkably well until that moment, but for a life long starved of beauty this was too much. “O, look!” she kept saying, over and over, “There are flowers in my front yard! She grabbed anyone close and said it over and over like a child on Christmas morning: “Come look at the flowers in my front yard!” About 20 volunteers stopped chatting with one another and looked at the floor to hide their tears. A guy at the table saw who may have had his problems with some parts of the resurrection story in church that morning looked at Bertie’s face, and the faces of those who had given her a new life, and said, “You want to know about Easter? Well, this is Easter.”
I can only wish every one of you could have been there because no words do justice to the heartwarming wonder of that visit to Bertie’s rebuilt life. It was all more than enough high emotion for one afternoon, but we were about to experience another and equally powerful kind. As we drove away our son wondered if we would like to see the completed memorial on the site of what had been the Murrah federal building before Timothy McVeigh parked the rented truck in front of it and murdered 168 unsuspecting and innocent people. We had been taken early on, a few years ago, to view that testament to human depravity when it was still just a hideous raw sore in downtown Oklahoma City, but we had not seen the finished memorial park which has been drawing visitors from literally all over the world.
If my reaction to that sight seems excessive, please remember that I had just come from a forgotten neighborhood where unselfish love had brought new hope to one family, to the heart of a city where insane hatred had brought death and devastation to many families in the vilest act of terrorism ever carried out in America. I will not be able to do justice to the impact of this experience, either, so before I fail in trying let me say something to you with great urgency. If you have never visited this national memorial I beg you to put it on your must-do list. Take family or friends, anyone who is important to you, and plan to spend an hour or more, and I promise none of you will ever be quite the same afterwards.
I can’t spoil the wonder of your visit by describing the place because my description will still fall so far short of its full emotional impact, but I want to tempt you so strongly that you really will go. At each end of the memorial grounds there are massive structures representing the two ends of the multi-storied federal building, and on the face of each one are 3 numbers as you would see them on a giant clock: I think it’s 9:0l at one end and 9:02 or 3 at the other, symbolizing the minute or two between which a gigantic bomb blast changed American history. Between those free-standing walls is a blocklong reflecting pool which turns out to be a marvel of engineering. It is longer and wider than you will have imagined, and your first thought may be about how much water it must have taken to fill it. But when you stand right at one of the edges you suddenly discover that the water is only a half inch deep and rests on a huge expanse of polished black granite, perfectly level from one end to the other.
On one side is the famous “Survivor Tree” which weathered the blast that damaged buildings all around, and a museum where pictures and recordings help you feel the terror of that April day. On the other side is a scene that will never leave your memory. Laid out in perfect order on a gentle grassy slope facing the water are 168 chairs, each representing someone who died that day. There are five rows, corresponding to the the five floors on which people died, and they are so perfectly placed that they will remind some of you of the white crosses in that World War II Normandy cemetery , except that many are small chairs to represent the children who died while there in day care that morning, or on a visit with parents. The chairs sit on box pedestals of glass or clear plastic, and inside each pedestal is a light so that at night, when you look at that slope, the chairs all seem to be floating in air. I don’t know what sort of image I have put into your heads, but I do know that the whole design is stunningly simple and absolutely perfect, and if you want to feel how hideous hatred is, and how love refuses to let it have the last word, put that place on your schedule.
Well, that was last week’s unique Sunday: Easter service here first, among the people of an extraordinary church; a christening service for Julie and Terry Baker’s new son Blake, whom many of you got to see presented at the second service; a pleasant drive to Oklahoma City and the long afternoon I have just described in the hope that seeing Bertie’s house and the memorial park, if only in imagination, will turn you more strongly than ever against hate and violence, and stir new hope in your hearts for the power of love and goodness. I wish every last one of you had been with us last Sunday, but I have counted this morning on the fact that there is more than one way of seeing. When someone asked Helen Keller once, “Isn’t it terrible to be blind?” she said, “Better to be blind and see with your heart, than to have two good eyes and see nothing.” My hope is that in the past 20 minutes you have seen with your hearts.