A Tale of Two Caps… a story on racial understanding.
I cringed when the national news last Friday led on a story, “From Louisiana, a justice of the peace has enraged… ” I knew it was going to be something that put my beloved home state in a bad light… and it did.
I’m not going to even dignify that man’s prejudice and insensitivity. I’m going to talk about how far we come (even while realizing how far there is to go, but it’s doable.)
I grew up in a home where my parents never judged people by the color of their skin or the money in their bank account. My dad and mom taught us, by word and example, to deal with all people with respect.
Even though I grew up in an all-white community, my parents taught us how to respect others. I never heard my parents use any racial slur.
When the first black family came to our school, I sat by one of them, Wilford Goodley, at lunch and received taunts from prejudiced classmates. It only made me more determined.
The story below, A Tale of Two Caps, shares about a racially divisive issue we dealt with at Dry Creek Camp. I thought this would be a good time to pull out this old story about dealing with an old problem.
It’s a story about understanding and flexibility.
It’s about putting yourself in another man’s shoes, or in the case of this story, another man’s cap.
A Tale of Two Caps
Eight years as a high school assistant principal come in handy at summer camp. From dealing with discipline and roaming the hallways of a school, I developed a sense of “smelling trouble” just by walking past a group of teens. You can often sense that tempers are hot and trouble is brewing. Most of the time, if you can walk the potential combatants away from the crowd, most fights can be averted.
Now this “school fighting resume” is told to illustrate this: a disciplinarian, even at church camp, can often smell trouble brewing. That was the case on a recent night of summer youth camp.
The evening service had just ended and campers roamed the area around the snack shack and main road. There was a large group of about twenty-five campers near the road. I could tell something was up. Tension could be felt just walking past this group.
I walked over and tried to say politely, “Hey guys, what’s going on here?” The crowd parted slightly, but no one was willing to tell me anything. Then I saw Randall and figured he was the person everyone was gathered around.
I’ve always liked Randall. I had gotten to know him better the previous summer when we made a late night emergency room visit.
Randall is what I call a “man-child.” Although only fourteen at the time, he was a big boy– about six-foot-two and a good 250 pounds. He had the look and size of a high school football lineman. I pulled him to the side and said, “Now Randall, I know something is going on. Tell me what the trouble is.” He hesitated but finally began, “Brother Curt, I’ve had trouble with some of those boys in cabin 7 and they won’t leave me alone.”
Looking at Randall and then thinking of what groups were in cabin 7, I knew what the trouble was probably about. Randall was wearing a cap with the Confederate flag on it. One of our groups in cabin 7 was an inner city youth group from the Alexandria area. This group, which had had a great time this week, was composed entirely of black teens.
I turned to Randall and said, “Hey, let’s go over here where we can talk.” I told him to take off his cap and put it in his pocket. “Randall, does this trouble have anything to do with your cap?” He kind of mumbled a denial but I now knew at least part of the basis of this problem.
I sat him in one of our outdoor pavilions and went over to cabin 7. Outside, the campers were still milling around and talking. I tried to think of how to defuse this situation. That was the exact moment when I spotted the solution to this problem—it was a young man named Ty. He was the oldest and tallest camper from this inner city group. I’d spoken to him several times this week and he had responded with a quiet nod and a shy smile. I just had a feeling that he could help solve this problem.
I walked over and spoke to the guys. Then I called Ty over and asked him if he could help me. Ty looked at me suspiciously as we walked away. I told him that we had a problem that I could use his help on. He cautiously said that he would try, but still seemed non-committal about getting involved.
Ty was also wearing a type of cap, but it sure wasn’t a rebel cap. It was a thin black nylon stocking cap that many black teens wear.
Bringing these two guys together under the pavilion, I looked at both boys and their caps – Ty’s black cap on his head and Randall’s confederate cap sticking out of his back pocket. There was a wide chasm that these two caps represented and I knew my work was cut out for me.
We sat down in the pavilion and I introduced the boys to each other by name. They had probably spent most of this day glaring at each other. Now they were no longer nameless but instead were sitting by each other in the darkness on an old church pew. I asked them about their problem but neither guy was willing to say much.
I turned to Ty and asked, “Ty, does Randall’s hat bother you?” After a brief silence, his reply was slow and measured, “Well it doesn’t bother me too much, but there are some of the guys in our group that are pretty hot and upset by him wearing it.”
I asked Randall if he knew why this rebel flag cap bothered these guys from Alexandria. He kind of hemmed and hawed before shrugging, “Well, I just don’t think it ought to bother those guys.” I shared with him how the same flag that meant freedom and Southern pride to him meant something completely different to a black man. To them it was a symbol of slavery, oppression, and prejudice.
With that I switched on my flashlight and turned to I Corinthians 8. In this passage the Apostle Paul addressed the problem in Corinth of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul clearly stated that the actual eating of the meat was in no ways a sin, but he added a passage of wisdom that is still a good rule of thumb two millenniums later. In verse thirteen, he states,
“Therefore if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
Two chapters later Paul adds,
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God.”
I turned to Randall and asked, “Do you see any correlation between your rebel hat and this passage in Corinthians?” Reluctantly he agreed with Paul’s wisdom on not being a stumbling block with our actions.
I told Randall of what God had done in my life on this same issue. I am a true son of the South. My great great great grandfather, the first in our line to settle in Dry Creek, joined the Confederate army and later died near Opelousas. All of my life I’d proudly displayed the stars and bars. Then about ten years ago this changed when the realization came that this same flag, which I took such pride in, offended my black friends.
Sitting there in the dark with these two boys, I told how I had made a personal pledge not to display the rebel flag out of respect for others who might be offended. No flag or symbol is more important than people.
I shared with these boys a story I read while visiting Appomattox Courthouse in central Virginia. This crossroads village is where the Civil War ended. Being a lover of history, it was a great day to visit there and walk into the room where Generals Lee and Grant sat down to end our country’s bloody four year war.
The story I read was beneath a torn and tattered rebel battle flag. The day after the signing of the surrender, the Southern soldiers were under orders by General Lee to march in, stack and surrender their weapons as well as turn in all battle flags and regimental colors.
On this spring day in 1865, thousands of Union soldiers lined the picket fences along the narrow road through this village. General Grant had sternly ordered that nothing detrimental or disrespectful be spoken toward the defeated Rebels. Standing there at this museum in front of the framed Confederate flag, I could look out the museum window and see the long curving road where these men had marched on that fateful day.
The story in the museum told of how the Southern soldiers quietly stacked their weapons as the Union soldiers stood silently at attention.
As the regimental colors and battle flags were folded and placed on top of the rifles, Southern men wept openly. One soldier lovingly patted the flag and stepped away. As tears flowed down his gunpowder-stained face, he turned toward the Union soldiers and pointed to a United States flag blowing in the wind. Commenting to men of both armies within earshot he said,
“Men, you see that flag there. That’s my flag now.
Yes, sir—that’s my flag again.”
I’m not sure Randall fully appreciated my sermon/lecture/history lesson, but he did nod his head several times in assent. Then I asked Randall, “I’d appreciate you not wearing that cap again at Dry Creek Camp. I’d like to take it and keep it for you until the end of the week.”
Randall sat quietly for a few moments and said, “If you’ll let me keep it, I promise it will not be seen or worn again.” I told him that he needed to promise that to Ty, not me. He reached out his big hand and promised as he shook Ty’s hand.
However, Randall wasn’t quite through. He turned to me and added as he pointed directly at Ty, “There is one thing about those guys that bothers me.”
Had I been closer I would have kicked Randall in the shin as hard as I could. He continued, “It bothers us that we can’t wear our hats in the Tabernacle, but these guys can wear their black nylon caps.”
I turned to Ty who was listening intently. I asked him, “Ty, Randall has a good point. Could you take care of that for me?” Ty quickly answered, “That is no problem at all. I’ll take care of it.”
With that we stood in a circle as I prayed for them and all our campers.
I share the tale of the two caps not to make a political or racial statement, but to remind myself that no flag, symbol, or statement, is more important than the feelings of another person.
If I’m living right and have the right attitude, I’ll be careful not to insist on my own rights but think about the other fellow.
Randall and Ty both had a good week for the rest of camp. The two caps were not seen again. The heat from this situation was cooled simply by two young men looking into each other’s eyes, shaking hands, and having a willingness to look out for someone else’s best interests.
May the same be said of all of us…
When I became manager at Dry Creek Camp, I set the goal of attracting black churches in the Lake Charles area to come for weekend retreats. Even as I developed friendships among the churches and their pastors, no one would come.
Finally, one of the pastors said, “We’d like to come, but we’re just worried about bringing our folks up in your area. We’ve heard stories.”
I understood this very well but promised them that we’d take good care of them.
Finally, a brave ladies group came to Dry Creek for a weekend. I remember the pastor calling me on Friday afternoon still concerned if they were going to be all right.
That was the first group, but they weren’t the last.
We quickly found that the most gracious and kind guests we ever had came from our sister churches in Lake Charles. Our staff just fell in love with them and they fell in love with the Dry Creek experience.
Last weekend I drove by and saw that our black friends from Progressive Baptist Church in Lafayette were staying in Dry Creek’s “White House.” (There is some irony there.) Their couples come yearly and have a great retreat in what was once Dry Creek High School. The members of this church have become members of our Dry Creek family.
Monday as I was thinking about the Justice of the Peace disaster, I had an eye appointment in DeRidder. As I sat in the waiting room, a young military couple with two beautiful children sat across from me. Next to them was a couple about my age.
One of the couples was white and the other was black.
It doesn’t matter which was which.
What matters is what happened.
The older woman, who obviously had a great love for children, took the oldest child on her lap and played with her for thirty minutes. There was a bond between the families that was cemented by their love of these children.
When the older couple left for their appointment, another woman my age came in. Soon, she had the child on her lap, showing the same kind of love.
I saw a deep love that was not hindered by race, pedigree, background, class, caste, financial status, education, or status.
The kind of deep love I see daily in the community I live and love.
A place called Beauregard Parish. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s my home and I’m proud to call it and Louisiana my home.
For every ignorant person who makes the national news in my home state, there’s a thousand more who are getting along and making where they live better.