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Christopher Smith, S.J.February 01, 2022
Two people, one white and another Black, holding hands.(iStock)

When my grandmother died, I helped my mother and her sisters sort through all of the things she accumulated during her 89 years. Tucked into the top drawer of her vanity in a manila envelope was a bundle of dozens of cards and letters: every note that my father had ever sent to her or my grandfather. Each one was meticulously organized—birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas—and all of the edges were worn from years of rereading.

The letters spanned the 40 years of my own parents’ marriage, four decades that began with my white grandparents disowning my mother for marrying my father because he was Black. How could the notes from the very man who nearly caused my grandmother to drop her own daughter have become such precious mementos over those years? It happened because of the only force strong enough to cause humans to change: love.

My grandmother was born over a century ago to a preacher and his wife, each with a third-grade education, who together served a small Baptist church in a textile mill town in rural North Carolina. For the majority of her life my grandmother belonged to that church and lived within 30 minutes of that church. She grew up in the segregated south, and that was all that she knew. There were members of the Klan among the parishioners of her father’s all-white church. Grandma was raised to be refined and genteel: She never swore or used slurs (although her sister did frequently). As a white woman she did not mix with Black people and she even looked down on them.

My grandmother, like every other human being, was a product of her time for better and for worse.

My grandmother, like every other human being, was a product of her time for better and for worse. She married my grandfather at 18 after becoming the first in her family to graduate high school. She moved with him as he, too, became a Baptist preacher and moved from church to church as he was called to serve various small Baptist churches across the North Carolina Piedmont. My grandfather eventually ended his career at the same family church that my grandmother’s parents founded: composed of the same all-white families and their descendants, although with fewer Klan members.

My mother, their youngest child, moved to the western part of the state to get as far away from that church and small town community as soon as she could. There she met my father. They fell in love and eventually decided to get married knowing that my grandparents would be irate and that her marriage could cause my grandfather to lose his job at the family church, she did not invite (or even notify) them. My mother wrote my grandmother a letter after the fact, explaining what she had done and that she had given birth to a child—my older brother—and braced for the response.

It was as swift as it was hurtful: My grandmother was outraged that my mom married a Black person (and that she wasn’t invited). She disowned my mother, or at least threatened to. After she sent that letter, her mother, my great-grandmother, intervened and smoothed the waters. My great-grandmother, our family saint, was an orphan and had been taken care of by a Black family as a child. She never forgot their kindness, and as a result, never harbored prejudice toward Black folks. She was respected, and she would have absolutely no disowning in her family. No one dared contradict her.

Eventually, my grandmother relented and acknowledged my mother, but relations were icy. After my brother was born, she drove the four hours up to the mountains to meet her grandson and her son-in-law. My mother says that when her mother came through the door and laid eyes on her grandson, my smiling brother, she smiled. The change in mood was palpable: Grandma instantly softened. My father was kind and deferential, and my grandmother saw what great love he had for my mother and brother, and so she (slowly) accepted my family.

I gave the eulogy for my grandmother from the very same old wooden pulpit her husband almost lost due to my family’s existence.

Since my grandfather worked at the church for most of my brother’s childhood, my brother was treated like a dirty secret, never allowed to come and visit my grandparents’ home. By the time I came along, 10 years later, things had changed dramatically. Grandpa had retired, and he and my grandmother moved outside of town, to a suburb far from the eyes of the same nosy neighbors that populated the same small church. I grew up visiting them frequently, eating chicken and dumplings to my heart’s content in their cozy southern house, and always feeling loved, welcomed and acknowledged. My Dad had long won over my grandparents with his kindness and sense of humor, and my brother was no longer a secret but a source of pride by the time I came on the scene. My grandparents listened to me rant about my interests and made me feel important—even as a little kid.

When I became Catholic, my devout Baptist grandparents were concerned, to say the least. However, as long as I could show that a Catholic belief or practice that they objected to was rooted in Scripture, they would relent. Thus, my grandparents taught me to love Scripture (albeit as a weapon at first). Seeing that I loved Jesus and did not worship Mary, they came around on Catholicism, and even encouraged me in it. My grandfather walked into a Catholic Church with me, and my grandmother even went to Mass. In these ways, they showed their support for me. When their daughter, my mother, converted, my grandfather wrote a letter attesting that he had baptized her, so that she could be confirmed. It had to have been one of the most difficult things he ever did, but he did it, just six months before he died, out of love for her and for me.

My grandfather requested that at his funeral, my brother—whose existence he worked so hard to hide from the church—sing “Amazing Grace,” front and center of the same church. Ten years later, I gave the eulogy for my grandmother from the very same old wooden pulpit her husband almost lost due to my family’s existence. It was at that moment, speaking from that sanctuary, that I started to think about ministry and began my journey to become a Jesuit. I would not be who I am without my grandparents and their involvement in my life, and they would never have been a part of my life if change weren’t possible.

My little family is living proof of the fact that change is possible. My grandparents went from fury to admiration of my parents’ love, and from shame to pride in their mixed race grandchildren.

Throwaway culture has always been part and parcel of our modern life, but with social media fomenting our deep cultural divides, we too easily treat other folks as expendable. Those who disagree with us are ignorant, hateful, hopeless and disposable. It seems that there is little hope that people can change, and thus little point in building bridges or dialogue with those who hold diametrically different views from us.

But my little family is living proof of the fact that change is possible. My grandparents went from fury to admiration of my parents’ love, and from shame to pride in their mixed race grandchildren. Raised to believe that the Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon, who adamantly opposed JFK because of their anti-Catholic prejudice, they converted from apprehension to appreciation of the faith when my mother and I embraced it. My grandmother even cast her last presidential ballot for Obama, although she was a lifelong Republican. She wanted to live to see a president who looked like her grandsons (and she wanted to live to see us see such a president).

Clarence and Irene changed because there was a greater, stronger force holding our family together than the divisions that destroy so many families and friendships, and which threaten to tear our country apart. Clarence and Irene actually made the terrifying and difficult effort to meet, to know and eventually to love people who were members of groups that they held preconceived notions and negative feelings toward. Once they did that, each group could no longer remain faceless and awful in abstract.

Rather, loving one member makes it impossible to hate the group. Their courage is a message for us in our conflict-filled world today. The answer to so much division is not to block, to dismiss or to ignore, but rather, the opposite. Changing one’s mind can be extremely difficult. But, as Scripture says: Nothing is impossible for God, and God is love. If Clarence and Irene could change their minds, as they did in so many ways over their many years, then anyone can—with love.

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