The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45; the entreaty for “brethren (to) live together in unity” in Psalm 133; and Jesus’ reconciliation with an obtrusive Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 all suggest Bible-based answers to nuances of the question: What if your adversary relents and does not persist?
In this regard, I wish to share a wrenching yet redeeming two-part episode, first from my childhood about 60 years ago, then from my mature years about 25 years ago.
Although born in Philadelphia, I was raised from infancy in legally segregated Washington, D.C., in a social and religious cocoon. I was largely unaware of most of the depredations of the day. Moreover, before I was shipped off to boarding school in New England at age 12, I had spent three wonderful summers at a racially integrated Boston YMCA camp near Cape Cod where I had the rare (for mid-20th century America) privilege of feeling “normal,” that is, neither especially good nor prized nor in any sense despised.
Then came the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, and the mad rush of Black and White parents, rightly or wrongly, to get their offspring out of the way of the anticipated unruly mayhem of resistance to enforcement.
So it was in 1955 that I encountered in boarding school a teenage covey (if not klavern!) from the deep South that delighted in making my life miserable. Further, they threatened to ostracize anyone who might befriend or defend me.
I experienced that in what I saw, felt, and heard, and yet I overcame — largely with the support of my family, my steady girlfriend and my Baptist pastor in Washington, who assured me, “Remember, Wesley, that you are ‘royal’ — a valued child of God in Christ, King Jesus, who is always with you.”
Fast-forward about 30 years. I had already had a flurry of successes — at Harvard and other universities, in the lay leadership of the Episcopal Church locally and nationally, in law practice and corporate counseling nationally and internationally, and in all manner of Civil Rights enhancement and social service as well as the arts, social engagement, politics, and my greatest prize, my marriage to my beloved Karen Hastie.
And now I was hosting, for my boarding school, a reception at a distinguished club in Washington when I espied the presence of one of my chief “tormentors” from school in the 1950s — the one who hailed from a small town near the Mississippi Delta. He asked to have a conversation, so after pointing out that I would be tied up welcoming guests for the next hour, I suggested that he meet me in the club’s library upstairs.
When I finally arrived, more than an hour later, my school-mate, with apparent relief, jumped over the usual small talk overture, and told me that he had been wanting to approach me ever since he and his family moved to Washington some years earlier.
He said he wanted to apologize for how he and his friends had treated me. Immediately, I thought of Genesis chapter 45 and Psalm 133. After boarding school, he had come to his senses. He said “understood full well the deep hurt” he must have caused me and — as a result, he worked diligently with the growing Civil Rights Movement, in college and back home. According to him, every step was motivated by a desire to make amends.
So I ask today: What if America takes an unaccustomed path of self-realization on matters of race relations and repents? How should we, the offended, react? And what does this say about the wondrous ways of the Almighty?
– The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain at Washington National Cathedral. He previously served as Bishop’s Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and Priest in Charge of various congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.