My nostrils were already overwhelmed by the stench of spilled beer and stale smoke. As I knocked on the door of the trailer, Ralph eyed me suspiciously through the screen and then let me in with a grunt. “A fine mess of my street all of these n*****s have made,” Ralph pronounced with clenched fists.
As soon as I stepped into the sweltering trailer, I was greeted by an enormous Confederate battle flag hanging over Ralph’s sofa. Sitting beside the couch was a 12-gauge shot gun. “That gun is gonna be what they’re gonna get if any of THEM people come to my door,” Ralph informed me, pointing to several school-aged, African-American children sitting at a picnic table across the street.
Ralph was in the final stages of dying from esophageal cancer, and I was his hospice chaplain. Although I had witnessed my share of racism while growing up in a Rustbelt town where racial tensions were high, I had never encountered the venom with which Ralph spewed his hatred of black people.
During one hour of visiting Ralph on that oppressively hot South Carolina summer afternoon, I heard the “n” word uttered more times than I probably had in my entire life. Ralph was a character straight from the set of “Mississippi Burning” – a hardened, hateful, old-time racist who I imagined could have spent some time donning a white sheet, underneath the glow of a burning cross.
Every moral sensibility in me was offended by Ralph’s vitriol. And yet some power entirely beyond myself made me stay put and not run away. When Ralph saw that I was not going to be triggered by his outbursts, he quieted a bit and invited me to sit down. It was clear from looking at his skeletal frame and seeing him cough up streams of blood and sputum into an old coffee can that Ralph was not long for this world.
He began to tell me a little about his life which was, well…pathetic. Divorced and childless, Ralph’s only family member was a nephew with whom he had an ambivalent relationship at best. A son of poor, white, Carolina dirt farmers, Ralph left home early, fought in Korea, and then did construction work for a living.
I quickly got the impression that he had slashed and burned his way through life. Now facing his final days, Ralph was lonely, bitter, and – above all – scared to death. “I don’t know, preacher…Do you think there is any hope for me?” he asked in a hoarse, weak voice.
In response, I mouthed some churchy-sounding pieties about grace, forgiveness, redemption, etc. My reply lacked conviction, though. At that point in my life, I was embroiled in my own self-destructive spiral – of which I was horribly ashamed and over which I felt utterly powerless. Questioning God’s ability to change me from the inside out, I certainly had my doubts about the prospect of Ralph experiencing some kind of death bed transformation.
Quite rightly, Ralph did not seem entirely satisfied with my all-too-easy answers that day. As I walked back into the oven that was late summer South Carolina, I felt like I had utterly failed Ralph in my role as a spiritual caregiver.
Sure, part of me wanted to rant and rave about Ralph’s ignorant stupidity, especially his unvarnished hatred of African-Americans. Lest we forget our own American history, the same evil that led fanatical men to fly planes into buildings nine years ago also once drove “true believers” of another sort to blow up Sunday schools full of young black children, bomb synagogues, and assassinate Civil Rights workers.
At another level, I found it impossible to condemn Ralph to a fate worse than my own. Driving out of that little trailer park on the outskirts of Columbia, I could see in Ralph signs of my own brokenness writ large; I just did a much better job of hiding the ways in which I was wounded and bleeding.
I may not have had a Confederate battle flag hanging in my living room, but my heart was jaded by violent thoughts and prejudice, especially towards anyone who threatened my ego (a long list indeed!). I didn’t spend my days smoking and drinking with a shot gun on my lap, but I had traversed through some very dark places. As hard as it was for me to admit, my brokenness was just as life-denying and love-destroying as Ralph’s.
Even more terrifying, the verdict was still out in my mind whether redemption was truly possible for the hopeless cases and losers and phonies and hate-mongers and hypocrites and failures of this world – all of the bastards like Ralph and like me. Were we destined to squander our gifts, hurt others, destroy ourselves and die miserable deaths, world without end? If so, what was I doing in the “God business,” pretending to help others with their spiritual crises, mired as I was in the mud and muck of my own pathetic struggle to surrender to a God of my understanding?
I had planned to see Ralph the following week back at his trailer. The day before our appointment, a hospice nurse called to tell me that Ralph’s condition had declined so rapidly that his nephew had made arrangements for him to spend his final days in a nursing home where he could receive around-the-clock care.
My first thoughts went to the nursing home’s paid caregivers, the vast majority of whom were African American women. How would Ralph, the long-time racist who had threatened to shoot his neighbors if they came to his door, tolerate being cared for by black people? The kind of help that Ralph needed was as personal as it gets – toileting, bathing, feeding, etc. I predicted disaster for everyone involved.
Paralyzed by my own fear and loathing, I avoided going to see Ralph until the third day after he had been admitted. A bit to my surprise, I found him comfortably propped up in bed gazing out his window. Gone was the profanity-laced bravado and defiant swagger. The scowl with which Ralph first greeted me only last week had softened into a gentle smile. Ralph beckoned me to his side with his eyes and then extended his bony arms in warm greeting, “Preacher, I wondered when you were gonna get here.”
Just as I was going to utter some lame excuse for my delay in visiting, the unit nurse, a stout African-American woman in her late thirties, entered Ralph’s room. “Is there anything you need, Ralph? How are those pain meds working? If you are feeling uncomfortable, you have to let us know so that we can help you, okay, honey?” She spoke these words with a tenderness which left no mistake about their authenticity.
Expecting the worst, I turned back towards Ralph to see on his face a look of child-like contentment. “You’all are taking such good care of me,” Ralph whispered back. “I don’t…I don’t…I don’t deserve this.” Ralph’s voice trailed off in what I could see were choked- back tears.
The nurse seemed a bit puzzled by Ralph’s response and walked away to tend to other patients. I knew exactly what Ralph had meant. And it was shattering. “After how I have lived, how I’ve treated them people…Then they come in here all caring and kind and wash my face and rub my back. Damn it, preacher, they even change my dirty pajama pants. Ain’t no way on God’s green earth that they should be so good to me.”
Ralph couldn’t talk any more; his shoulders began to shudder in waves of sobbing grief, tears pouring down his sun-hardened cheeks. I, too, was speechless. What does one say after witnessing a miracle?
Ralph soon fell asleep with me holding his hand. His breathing was shallow and labored, but he seemed to be truly at peace. One of the nursing assistants came in with a cool cloth and lovingly mopped the tiny beads of perspiration from Ralph’s brow. The corners of his mouth curled up again into a slight smile. He didn’t open his eyes. Ralph was sleeping the sleep of small child, relaxed and surrendered unto the embrace of a Love beyond all telling.
Ralph took leave of his mortal flesh later that night. By all accounts, his death was remarkably uneventful. I never found out if anyone was with Ralph when he died. I do know that every staff member on duty in his unit that night was African American.
Most people in my line of work will tell you that we see very few “death bed conversions.” “People usually die as they have lived,” goes one hospice adage. In Ralph’s case this was decidedly NOT the case. From what I could tell, Ralph frittered away decades of his life drinking, fighting, cursing, and hating. He alienated his family, drove away his friends, and kept at bay any force of love that might have shown him a happier, more fruitful path to trod. It seemed that Ralph was destined to die as he had lived : conflicted, bitter, resentful, miserable, alone.
Instead, Ralph died on clean sheets, in a place where people truly cared for him. And not just any people – but people of color who Ralph had spent his life hating. Unbeknownst to them, those African American caregivers at the nursing home were conduits of saving grace to a man in desperate need of it.
Ralph knew that he didn’t “deserve” the unconditional love and mercy of his caregivers. That is the amazing thing about grace – it is a gift and not a reward. As an ancient slogan from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, “God loves you, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it!”
The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that our thoughts and ways are not identical with those of the Most High. We are children of a loving Father, not nameless, faceless minions of a cosmic tyrant.
I have plans for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29.11)
Ralph entered the nursing home shriveled up in hatred for himself and others. At the loving hands of his caregivers, who looked beyond the shell of his bigotry and nastiness to see a beloved, beautiful child of God, Ralph got a taste of that Jesus Kingdom where
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3.16).
Ralph’s transformation came not in spite of the fact that he was a dyed-in-the-wool, hateful, racist; Ralph’s conversion occurred in and through the reality of his most loathsome traits. In other words, God used Ralph’s brokenness to bring healing. That which was most ugly in Ralph’s life unveiled that which was most beautiful.
I am certain that the miracle that I witnessed at Ralph’s deathbed has played a role in my own journey from death back into life. Though my growth since those early years of ministry has been slow and uneven, I have repeatedly encountered the power of hope and the promise of grace.
Moreover, I have come to embrace my weakness and to make friends with my brokenness, rather than try to present a “perfect” self to the world. This is because the greatest healing in my life has occurred not through my “successes” but through my wounds and the places in which I am most needy and broken.
I would like to believe that I could have acquired the authenticity I bring to relationships and the authority I bring to ministry today without having hurt many people along the way through acts of betrayal and inauthenticity. That is not the case, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. I am free to live beyond the walls of fear, shame, and addiction not in spite of my failures but because of them.
This paradox of the spiritual life is beautifully captured by the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, who was a close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and who is often called the “dean of American preachers.”
Any authenticity that we are going to have as persons of faith and any authority that we are going to have as witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ will come because of our exposure to bruises and scars and by wounds. There is no other way to authenticity. There is no other way…
I promise you this, if you can take whatever deep hurt that occurs in your life and hold it up before God and say to God, even in bitterness, of this which you despise and this which you hate, “If there is anything you can do with it, take, and use it,” I promise you, you will be utterly amazed at what will occur.
– Rev. Gardner C. Taylor (1918-), great American preacher, teacher, Civil Rights leader, mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Amazed I am, and by God’s grace, will continue to be amazed – one day at a time and world without end. Amen.