This was a week of planting flowers.
A few days ago, I’m able to tend some flowers in our town’s community garden. Over a cup of coffee, a young man and I talk about changing attitudes in this community. Two street preachers have periodically shown up on Main Street, condemning homosexual love, accosting young people, telling them they are going to hell.
One brave high school girl made a sign, and stood next to them on the street corner, contradicting their views. Her hand-lettered sign spoke of the idea that love is the highest human value, that everyone should be able to love who they choose to love, that homosexual love is an aspect of Christian love and compassion.
She was joined by others, and a Facebook group was created, #TillamookForLove, its members now close to 3,000. The preaching and the counter demonstrations became the talk of the town. The young girl’s actions were mentioned around the world, tweeted by Ellen DeGeneres and becoming a featured story in the Huffington Post.
The young man I had coffee with joined the girl and her supporters, taking a public stand on an issue dear to his heart. As often happens in a small town, and across America, people criticized him, condemned him, telling him he’s a sinner because of what he is willing to say. His job was at risk for what he believed in, what he spoke about on his own Facebook page.
Yes, fear and bigotry and discrimination, right in his face. Change his opinion or lose his job. The old beliefs, the old discriminatory, bigoted ways aren’t just something to talk about, not just some textbook First Amendment clash between freedom of religion and free speech. Now, it’s seeing the reality of imposing one’s own religious beliefs, and beliefs about who you can marry, to the point of crushing someone else’s right to their own opinion, to the point of getting fired.
Our coffee cools as we wrestle with his story, his pain and anguish, his moral dilemmas hitting his wallet and his conscience. Being called out for what you believe in and threatened with losing his job, his challenges and choices aren’t just an academic debate. He’s on the battlefield, and the spears and the clash of swords on the front lines aren’t confined to a history book. The blood being shed is real.
Bigotry and fear run deep in our little town and across our country. He’s still in shock about how deep the cancer grows, how quickly the moral question got personal. The ugliness is something we both don’t like to see, don’t like to admit is thinking that is all too common. What is the price of his own conscience?
Yet, he knows his own mind, and he knows his standards of ethics and morality. Quietly, firmly he speaks his mind, knowing that he can sleep well tonight, knowing he made the right call, knowing that his beliefs are truly his own, that getting fired for what he believed in was really the best response to his boss, his own epiphany for what we are facing.
I shake his hand, seeing real courage across the table, feeling proud that he knows himself well enough to know his own mind, that he’s confident enough to follow his Truth, and live according to his own heart.
This flower garden is growing well. The weeds have been called out and named. Weeds are being pulled and beautiful flowers have been planted. Strong plants send their roots deep into the soil of this young man’s heart, his morality strong and fertile.
Today, I plant some flowers of my own, going to a nearby prison and planting flowers inside the fence, behind the locked gate that slams shut every time I leave.
The young men I visit, several other volunteers, and I weed flower beds. We work on setting the supports for a new arbor in fresh cement, finish the week’s projects, and tidy up the garden. This weekend, the young men will host a Family Day, with food and games, and tours of their garden. Proudly, they will show off their hoop house, their raised beds and chickens, showing off all the growing that has been going on.
The youths clean up the garden and carry out their tasks, making the place shine, their flowers and vegetables thriving under their careful and meticulous gardening skills. They are learning a great deal in their class, where they are studying a wide range of subjects. I help correct their homework, and work with them, one on one, as they delve into the hands-on work of both the academic work and their hoop house and raised bed projects. Their work is top notch, and their gardens reflect the pride they are taking in their agricultural work, and the rebuilding of their lives. It is garden work on many levels.
We work happily together, asking questions, sharing our knowledge, expanding our curiosity about how sunshine, dirt, seeds, and tender care can produce vigorous growth. The young men ask great questions, get their hands dirty, and do the weeding, pruning and fertilizing they need to change themselves, and move on with their lives, becoming healthy, and vigorous young men. I’m given the task of adding several flats of marigolds to some bare spots in the flowerbeds. I create my own slice of Eden, being a role model for the young men, and adding some beauty to this world behind the fence and the barbed wire. A young man takes the time to admire my work, and ask me some questions about pruning. Our talk goes deep, until I answer what he is really asking.
Lives are changed here. I’m thankful I’m able to dig my trowel into the receptive soil of these young men, and plant some flowers.
This week, the gardens of our community have needed a great deal of work. Hard decisions have been made, and the spade work, hoeing and planting have made us sweat. The gardeners have new blisters, some new aches and pains. We’ve pulled the weeds and planted new flowers, and we are ready for a little more sunshine and truth in our lives.
—-Neal Lemery, May 29, 2015