As a toddler in Seattle, Washington, in the late 1930s I saw my mother feed itinerants who came to our back door hungry. What my parents taught me, startled by this basic need, was that everyone deserved respect and the necessities of life. At home we listened on the radio to the plight of the Chinese children starving in North China during the famines of the 1930s.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day I remember walking from my home up to Queen Anne Avenue to the district meat market. It was closed; the sign said, “We are Chinese, not Japanese,” and I saw first-hand the effects of and fear of retaliation. Japanese families were forced to leave Seattle and their homes and farms and were moved to barbed wire camps with not much more than the clothes on their backs and a few other things they carried in a bag. The U.S. was at war with Japan. As the war widened and the U.S. joined battle with the British and French against Germany and Italy, word of the Holocaust began to surface. Our local Catholic newspaper described the genocide in the extermination camps and the writer was horrified by it. Two weeks later another writer and my teacher at school explained that this had happened because of the crucifixion of Christ. I simply knew they were wrong.
I can’t remember any thing that my parents said about any of this (except to eat what was on my plate and be glad I wasn’t starving in China). But I knew early on that interning innocent families was wrong, that genocide was wrong, that starvation was wrong, that authority’s judgments are sometimes very wrong. As a child I grew to believe like Paul that there are neither slave nor free, woman nor man, Jew nor gentile, but equals in the eyes of God.
This year in Charleston my family visited the slave market museum and I was overwhelmed by the horror of treating/trading human beings as expendable commodities. Previously I’d focused on the road to freedom: Ripley, the Underground Railroad, the heroes and heroines of that railroad. In Charleston at the slave mart museum I finally came face to face with our national sin of slavery, at about the same time the U.S. House of Representatives apologized to the descendants of those enslaved.
I believe an individual, an institution, and a nation all need to admit and then ask forgiveness for wrongdoing. One can’t undo the effects of that wrong, but one can try to repair it.