World

Spreading a Little Peace in Harlem

July 30, 2020 by

On my way to the post office I see three men leaning on the wall, relaxing and sipping cold coffee. I nod and say, “How you doing?” hoping that my smile will somehow penetrate my mask. As I pass I hear “He was just saying hi!” – a slightly frantic explanation for my act to someone who was apparently disturbed by it.

These days we hear a lot of messages from many different people. I see them in marches and protests; on vehicles, buildings, and shirts. I hear them called out loud. Each comes from a valid viewpoint and expresses a real need or hurt. I feel the energy behind the statements and wonder what my response should be. As a fellow human being, shouldn’t I be helping them get the message out? But which message? It seems like every group, although holding valid points of view, has something against another.

I feel that the best I can do is to try to be a true human being – one that feels the needs of others, stands with all men, and lives for love.So instead I feel that the best I can do is to try to be a true human being – one that feels the needs of others, stands with all men, and lives for love. Simple perhaps, but definitely not easy. I don’t naturally look for other people’s needs; each day is filled with enough issues that affect me directly and that need my attention. But we are instructed to be peacemakers. That reality is much more mundane than helping charter an accord at the United Nations.

I tried to practice it in this situation: I was enjoying a drink with my wife in a neighbor’s yard at street level when I heard an angry voice coming down the other side of the street chanting, “Get your knee off my neck!” Naturally I turned around to see the person. We found ourselves looking directly at each other. Now the anger was directed straight at me; he yelled the phrase and emphasized it with a finger gesture. I returned it with a peace sign and shouted, “Have a great day!” The situation diffused, he walked away a little quieter.

Harlem, New YorkPhoto credit: Allie

For those of us not in a position to make sweeping policy changes (and what should they be anyway?) I strongly feel that our response should be to live lives of listening and understanding that translate into acts of love and peace.

Back to the three men I met on the way to the post office. I decided that I was not going to let that suspicion hang. A few minutes later I was on my way back. I walked closer to them and said more clearly this time, “Hello, how are you doing today?”

After passing I heard, “See – he did it again!” This time I turned around. I walked back and asked, “What did I do again?”

I strongly feel that our response should be to live lives of listening and understanding that translate into acts of love and peace.One young man had now moved away, and one appeared, nervously awaiting the outcome. The third looked down and spoke: “You said hi, and I don’t know you and that makes me nervous.”

“OK,” I said, as gently as I could, “I like to say hi to strangers, isn’t that OK?”

“I said it made me nervous and I have a right to my feelings,” he said, defensively and a little angrily. “You absolutely do,” I replied, “but if you don’t mind, I would like to understand your feelings a little bit. What made you nervous?”

“I don’t know you,” he repeated.

“OK, I understand,” I said, “but I think we all just need to be nicer to each other. I am just a neighbor of yours and I like to say hi to people.”

“I’m feeling you,” he answered softly, after a pause, and looked away.

“Is that OK? Don’t you think that’s good?” I asked. Both of the others were now smiling, and he was too a little. “Yea that’s fine,” he said with a small smile. He wished me a nice day, which I returned. This time I didn’t hear what they said behind me when I walked away, but I hope that they felt the peace that I honestly want.

And reflecting further, these are great days to practice showing love. In 1921 a German visionary named Otto Salomon said it perfectly in verse, in a hymn I’ve liked for years:

Love can conquer wrong
Teaching deeper meanings,
Using hate’s occasions
To grow strong.

If this time is providing us with better chances, let’s make sure we use them.

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About the author

Tim, a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community

Tim Maendel

Tim Maendel lives at the Bruderhof house in Harlem, NY where he and his wife are house parents to a number of college...

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