Over a decade ago, I won a writing contest (yeah, I know - it's hard to believe) and was invited to write a quarterly column for our city newspaper. I'm sharing one of those old columns today in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday. Once you've read it, I'll tell you what happened as a result.
When I was a junior-high student at a school for American military dependents in Germany, I sang in a German-American youth choir. Some songs we sang in English, some in German and a few in both languages. One simple song sung in both languages especially touched us all. For this one, we moved from being grouped by voice and positioned ourselves so every child stood next to one of the opposite nationality. Whenever we sang it, a spontaneous chain of squeezing hands would wind through the choir.
"Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me," we would sing, and a powerful energy would course through the air, touch every ear present, then seem to flow straight to the listener's heart. We would watch as one person after another in the audience would form a smile, look to the people nearby, and begin nodding to the rhythm of the music. We felt like junior ambassadors while singing that song, and we could clearly see that our cause had an effect. It was there I began formulating my dream of world peace that would "begin with me."
I saw firsthand the telescoping effect of fifty American children befriending fifty German children, whose parents then befriended one another. I saw the profound effect when one child of an American WWII vet befriended one child of a German WWII vet, and one day their warrior fathers shook hands and even drank beer together.
When we lived stateside in the deep south, I watched my parents befriend a black family from, literally, the other side of the tracks. I watched and learned as my neighbor kids, one by one, eventually came back to play at my house when my new black friends were visiting. I saw the adult neighbors, at first horrified that my parents would strike a friendship with a family of color, gradually begin speaking to them again. It didn't take long for an observant child like me to see that some form of peace could surely begin with one person, one family, one neighborhood.
My career-officer father and his fellow U.S. soldiers worldwide swore a dedication to peace as defined through their military mission. Everything they did seemed to have far-reaching influence, and they worked toward world peace as a massive, single unit of power. They truly had a global outlook. I, on the other hand, felt overwhelmed by world diplomacy and began defining a micro-philosophy and peace plan for myself to live by that has worked for me. My micro-world is at peace.
But I live in the city of St. Louis, and the divisions seem wide. There is a disparity of economic status. There is animosity and distrust between blue- and white-collar workers. There is north-side/south-side xenophobia. There is nearly palpable racial tension. There is constant political intrigue. The children who could bring some small form of peace, as did those children of the German-American choir of my youth, don't even go to school together anymore.
When I daydream, I dream of the peace of my micro-world somehow expanding to include the whole city of St. Louis and its metropolitan area. In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream. In 1997 I have a dream, too. I dream for the friendship of one black woman from the north side of St. Louis. I dream that, through our friendship, our families get to know and trust one another. I dream that our two families set a contagious example for our collective neighborhoods. Yes, I have a dream, too. Now where, oh where, is my imaginary friend?
Shortly after this column, including my photo and byline, appeared in the paper on Sunday, June 15, 1997, and again on Wednesday, June 17, 1997, I got a few phone calls from people I know from my own neighborhood. Most shared my frustration that white and black women in this city didn't seem to make friends easily, and all were thankful that I had taken the initiative and the opportunity to speak out.
I got a personal letter, forwarded from the newspaper's editor, from a black man who was anxious to offer his wife as my new friend. Unfortunately his wife was angry at him for not consulting her first, and she let me know she "didn't need any new friends."
Eventually I did happen to meet a woman my own age who had lived on the north side all her life. We worked together for a while, and even though it took some time to warm up to each other, we became friendly enough to have some great dinner conversations together. After that job ended, we saw each other about once a year until she moved to Texas to follow a man. We've since lost touch.
The most satisfaction I got from writing this column, though, was the day I dropped by the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Bureau office to pick up some brochures they had funded for our neighborhood's commercial district. When the woman brought the brochures to the reception area, she stopped dead in her tracks and exclaimed, "Oh my gosh. You're THAT woman!" I was a little stunned at her response, but she insisted I had to go with her to the back office and meet the other folks there. Framed and hanging on the wall in the common area was this column and one other I had written earlier. I felt that a whole room of white and black women were somehow going to "let peace begin" with each of them. Warmed my heart, indeed.
If you've had a "micro-experience" that you feel has planted a seed of "macro-change" in your life or community, I'd love to hear about it - either here in the Comments section or in a private e-mail. Peace be with us all.