I wish to confess publicly a sin from my youth. This is done not to absolve myself of guilt, but to point to a wrong from my past. This is also done because the current Black Lives Matter movement has caused me to reflect on things racial, and this memory from the past comes roaring into my mind.
In the 1950s, I attended Barren Hill Elementary School in Lafayette Hill, just outside of Philadelphia. It was an all-white school except for one girl, Barbara Johnson. I was in second grade and I had no contact with people of color except Barbara. Barbara was not in my class, but she was a presence outside on the playground at recess.
I remember teasing her. My friends and I found pleasure in taunting her with the phrase “chocolate bar.” She would hold back for a while, but we knew she would eventually explode and chase us until we got away from her.
This happened numerous times. I was not mature enough to understand the damage I was causing to her emotionally. To me, it was a game with someone we decided to pick on, and in this case it was a Black girl.
It was a terrible sin. I know that now. And I repent of it. I also ask Barbara and the entire Johnson family for forgiveness. However, we are separated by time and space, and this late confession seems futile. But I need to state it out loud so others who may read this piece also will reflect and search their hearts and souls.
And then do something about it.
When I reached college age, the civil rights movement burst upon America, and racial injustices were finally admitted and addressed. Some of them, but not all. By the 1980s, the various movements for racial equality slipped into a period of benign neglect. There were stirrings for greater equality and justice for minorities in America, but many whites like me assumed that most were addressed in some way.
In time, America elected a Black president. Surely, this proved that equality and fairness for all had arrived in the United States. President Barack Obama could not have been elected twice without white support. But the events of the past year show there is much left to do.
My belated reminiscence of elementary school years reveals how an evil done in the past can launch dark patterns that may drift down the decades and do much damage. I do not know what happened to Barbara Johnson. Did she marry, have children, get a job, face racial discrimination, suffer police violence or who knows what? How did my sin shape her mental outlook, which in turn made her respond to the challenges she faced in life in ways that hurt her even more? I do not know, but the legacy of my youthful actions most likely enabled some dark and painful consequences.
Here is where the grace of God comes in. I hope Barbara found comfort and support in her church and in her family. The eyes of my heart have been opened to hear the laments of many in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I cannot discount them. Racial prejudice is a sin. It runs smack in the face of biblical teachings on loving your neighbor as yourself.
It is by a change of heart that relationships among the races will improve. Will America ever live up to its stated creed of equality in the founding documents? Maybe someday, but not quite yet.
And if it ever does, it most likely will take a change of heart that comes from a painful reflection on past (and current) behavior — and a large dose of divine grace.
So, Barbara, I am so sorry. And to Black Lives Matter supporters: Your protest is noble. I hope and pray this all leads to a better place for all of us.
George Leyh lives in Mount Joy. He spent many years as a social studies teacher at Hempfield High School and Lancaster Christian School.