I have been playing games with children for decades. I’ve played games with children in Soweto under apartheid, games with children in Belfast during The Troubles, games with children in privileged suburbs, games with children in homeless shelters. At some point , you figure you’ve pretty much covered the repertoire.
But last week the kids in Hancock taught me a new game called Sweet and Sour. It is one of those absolutely simple, near perfect forms of entertainment. The kids grouped themselves by the bandstand and waved at passing cars. Some offered exuberant, jumping-up-and-down waves; others chaste little twists of the wrist, beauty pageant style. But every wave was accompanied by an ear-to-ear grin. The object of the game? To get people passing by to wave back. If people waved, the kids would shout “Sweet.” Those who ignored the joyful ruckus were tagged as “Sour.”
There were many sweet things about last week. We held Vacation Bible School at the Church, always one of my favorite weeks of the year. We acted out The Good Samaritan story with Oscar-worthy skill. We talked about what it means to be a neighbor. We danced. We strung beads. We picked through an old stamp collection for the best dog and skiing stamps. We folded paper boats (the extent of my paltry skills in origami). We decided that if we had to live somewhere else, we would pick Zimbabwe because it is such a fun word to say.We rebuilt a model volcano that melted in the heat. We politely tried spring rolls and guacamole, but agreed that ice cream is better. We talked more about what it means to be a neighbor.
It was a sweet week for me and I think for the two dozen children who came to VBS. But it turned out to be a sour week for American children in general. A week reminding us that our children are not safe when fear and actions justified by fear become the highest law.
After VBS, as I was sorting out the beach towels and water bottles and hoodies left behind in the Vestry, I wished with all my heart that another family could have been handed back a hoody stained with ice cream instead of blood. I wished that life could have been sweet and long for Trayvon Martin. I wished that our country had not succumbed again to the sour sins of racism and fear.
Today our President reminded us that “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” In New Hampshire, the third whitest state in the U.S. with a white population of 96% (and a state that borders numbers one and two–Maine at 96.9%, Vermont at 96.7%), we have to work harder to make those connections. We may not have black friends or colleagues.We may not understand why the events of the past week stir up such deep and painful memories.
If you haven’t read it, try and find a book called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is, hands down, the best work of non-fiction I have ever read. It tells the story of how the Jim Crow laws and their accompanying attitudes shaped the lives of three black Americans who came north during the 20th century. When I was reading it, I kept saying over and over again, “I had no idea. I just had no idea.”
We may be clueless and awkward around the subject of race, but we know what the Gospel demands. That we keep working at being a better neighbors. Until sweet trumps sour, once and for all.