Friends Forever

“Wall Breakers – Bridge Builders,” Susan Ryder

Ephesians 2:14-19
For Christ is our peace; he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create one new humanity, thus making peace. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

Thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi
Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Today would have been my father’s 90th birthday – he was born on July 16, 1927 in a small Oklahoma mining town, the first of two children born to Opal and Homer White. Homer was a miner in the local zinc and lead mines, and died of tuberculosis when my dad was 6 years old. His mother remarried – another miner – who relocated the family to a small mining town in northern Idaho, severing all ties with my father’s paternal side of the family. A few years later they moved again, settling in Santa Barbara California soon after the beginning of World War 2. My father enlisted in the Navy just before he turned 17, served in the South Pacific, and was honorably discharged in 1946. He met and married my mother 3 years later, and they started their family in Whittier, California, with my brother David’s birth in 1951 followed by my sister Betsy in 1954. When my dad was offered a job at Disneyland in 1957 they moved to a house in Anaheim, where I was born in 1960. He died in that home in 2002, just a couple of months after turning 75.

My father endured and survived numerous hardships throughout his life – some I learned about from him directly, and others I discovered after he died. His life-story, like all of ours, is complicated and poignant, heartbreaking and heartwarming – a string of events and challenges that all came together in a certain way to make him who he was. He was shaped by those things, as we all are, and had strongly held beliefs and values, along with prejudices, as we all do. I don’t know if it was because of or in spite of his background, but one of the things I admired most about my father was his openness to other points of view – his willingness to set aside right or wrong and meet in Rumi’s field.

For instance – because of the generation of which he was a part, and his religious upbringing, he believed that homosexuality was a sin against God’s will for humanity. He would defend that position passionately at times when challenged (usually by me). But when I invited him to actually meet a few of my gay friends, because he was ultimately a kind and very social person, he agreed to do so, and had conversations with my friends. He got to know them on a personal level, as he listened to their stories, and they listened to his. As a result, his beliefs about homosexuality began to evolve because he began to put names and faces – actual people – with what had previously been an issue. He listened instead of making judgments, and was transformed.

For much of my father’s life the world must have seemed to be very black and white – fortunately he allowed a few colors to seep in now and then, which left the door open for him to experience and be open a much wider palette. I imagine if he were alive today, he’d still be putting that into practice – getting to know those with whom he differed or disagreed, putting people before issues, building bridges instead of walls. For that reason my dad would have loved the Friends Forever program, and the concept behind it: bringing young people from around the world together to build lasting friendships across cultural, religious and political divides as part of an international peace process, and helping those young leaders transform the way they see the world in order to help them realize that they are the very ones who can change the world for the better. What a worthy endeavor, especially in this day and age. Young people whose paths would otherwise likely never cross back home come together here in the US for two weeks, breaking down the walls between them as they share their stories and build bridges of understanding and peace to replace those walls. Meeting here in Rumi’s field, they set aside right or wrong and put names and faces – actual people – in place of an issue.

The Friends Forever group has visited us for the past five years, and each time I have been so inspired by their willingness to be part of the program – to come together with those who very different from themselves, and seek to get to know each other in spite and because of those differences. While that inspires me still – this year, I think Friends Forever can teach us even more in this time of dividedness within our own country. Perhaps by taking a page from their book, instead of increasing the separations between those with whom we differ, we can, like the Friends Forever teens, reach out to those with whom we differ, and meet in Rumi’s field, sharing our stories and listening to theirs. Maybe we can take the materials that come from the walls we break down between us to build bridges instead.

I’ll close my remarks with a reading from Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”