By Mel Harkrader Pine
On a rainy Monday afternoon in September 2010, my sister and brother-in-law, 75 and 86 years old, died in an automobile crash. For reasons that have never been clear — maybe hydroplaning — the car Marilyn was driving swerved into oncoming traffic, took a direct passenger-door hit, and propelled the seat-belted Alex into my sister. Marilyn died at the scene and Alex hours later at a trauma center.
Sorry to assault you with the details, but they’re important to the story that follows. I learned from their four children that the car that T-boned them was driven by a kind clergyman, who, although injured himself, left his wife and 4-year-old grandchild in his car and went to minister to my dead and dying loved ones.
In trying to make sense of their deaths, I came to one conclusion. I knew from deep within me that if Marilyn and Alex could do it, they would want to apologize to the minister for what their accident had put him and his family through. So I would make that apology for them.
When I called the clergyman five days after the collision, he greeted me with a warm and nurturing tone, telling me that he prays to live a life as long and fulfilling as Alex and Marilyn did. It was clear that our family’s Jewish heritage and his Christian faith made no difference. We spoke about what was important, and eventually I made the apology for them — the reason for my call.
Most people would react with an “Oh, there’s nothing to apologize for.” And that would have been enough. But this clergyman did something perfect that was far more fulfilling for me. He said:
I accept the apology.
The call helped with my grief, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt for having accepted ministry from this particular man of God. You see, he was a bishop in the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, having broken with the Episcopalians over their liberal treatment of gays. He stood against my own deeply held liberal religious beliefs, and those of Marilyn, Alex and most of their family. Because I needed his ministry and accepted it, I failed to bring that up with him.
I did eventually grow out of my guilt, realizing that we all have various traits, some of which benefit the rest of us, and some of which others find reprehensible. It’s OK, I realized, to accept the good others do for us without demonizing them for other parts of their character. You might call that an insight Marilyn and Alex left me with.
I thought of that incident today as I read a New York Times op-ed article by the disgraced Billy Bush. You know, the former host of NBC’s Access Hollywood and Today who may always be a footnote in history for a certain conversation he had on a bus with a certain reality-show star who would go on to the White House. For some reason, the tape of their conversation pushed Bush under that bus but hardly tripped Donald Trump.
For me, though, what I got was how — in our churches as well as in other forums — we’ve been labeling people by their worst traits. An Episcopal church in Alexandria, Virginia, for example, has relocated plaques from near its altar in memory of two former parishioners — George Washington and Robert E. Lee. In New York City, more than 120 artists and scholars have signed a letter calling for the “removal or reframing” of several monuments, including those to Teddy Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus.
And, of course, we’re jetting with supersonic speed into an accounting for past sexual behaviors without a flight plan. But that’s a subject for another day.
After all, as Bryan Stevenson often says:
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine