I have watched with dismay as race relations in the United States have grown worse and worse. It seems as if all the good will won during my lifetime has been squandered away. We have gone from one daring kiss between a white man and a black woman on television in 1967, to a time when interracial marriage is a matter of course, as it ought to be.
Most people will say that we need to talk things through. Perhaps they are right. I have never put much hope in talk. I don’t mean that talk is cheap. It is often quite costly, as when people grow farther apart by stubbornness, by saying things they do not wholly mean, by opening wounds that were on the way to healing, or by the thinly veiled violence of emotional manipulation and threats.
People may shake hands and say that talking things over did them good, and maybe it is so, now and then. I would want to see what the disputants are doing a month later. Whether we have real peace, or a chilly truce, or more anger building beneath the politeness. And after all, what is there to say that has not been said already, a hundred times?
Opportunities for Friendship
But let us suppose that the aim is not to talk, but to build up opportunities for friendship. I will limit myself here to talking about men, because I am a man, and because I’m thinking about a way to friendship that is particularly masculine.
I take for granted that men forge friendships mainly in action, or in a shared devotion to something beyond the individual. Think of that principally masculine phenomenon, the team. How can a Bob Gibson and a Tim McCarver become lifelong friends, one from a black ghetto in Omaha, whose father died before he was born, and who faced the injustices and stupidities of racism at every step in his early career, and the other, a white boy offered what was then a huge bonus of $75,000 straight out of high school? Their friendship was forged in the heat of the summers in Saint Louis, in their common and ferocious will to win — in work to be done well.
Is there work in our midst that teams of white men and black men can do together and do it well? Yes, plenty. I will suggest two sorts of work here; readers no doubt will think of others.
To Repair and Beautify
First, to repair, to clean, and to beautify every patch of a yard, wall, culvert, median, bridge or any other item of what is called “infrastructure,” which in most of our cities bear all the signs of spiritual rot and apathy. Imagine many thousands of young men, guided by their elders, with earth-moving machines, sand blasters, jackhammers, cement mixers, and so on, with tasks to accomplish — things to make good and whole.
If such work requires training and skill, so much the better. We should divert some portion of welfare monies toward giving such skills to young working class men of all races. Why should they be loading groceries at Wal-Mart, when they could be on a boom with a chainsaw, or building up with bricks and mortar a handsome wall overlooking the river?
We would thus ameliorate several problems at once. We would get the benefit of the work; we would put to best use the considerable energy and the adventurousness of young men; and we would bring white men and black men together by a goal, specific, visible, and a triumph when it is attained.
The teammate is far more than a political ally, or somebody with whom you can trade a few inoffensive words. He is the man who sweated beside you, who hung from the ladder while you were trying to hold it steady on a slide of rocks, who pried up the 500-pound boulder with a plank while you were trying to jerk it free with cables wound about a winch, who laughed when you fell backwards into the river and who then fell too — and such things leave talk in the dust.
In other words, we could use a new Civilian Conservation Corps. Not that we will get one, because it would require us to think of the needs and the strengths of men in particular. But the principle, I think, is sound. I think it would work.
To Serve the Common Good
The second form of work would be similar to the first; easier perhaps to organize, but on a smaller scale. Let the men of one church, predominantly white, get together with the men of another church, predominantly black, again to accomplish some visible and concrete goal — as Deacons of the Common Good, so to speak. Let them bring the boys along whether the boys like it at first or not.
Let them then turn a vacant lot into a playground, with lumber and drills, and nuts and washers and bolts. Let them clear an unused strip of earth that is now gathering trash, and fence it round, and plant fruit trees. I give these suggestions only as examples. The sites themselves will suggest the tasks. But let the men understand that their coming together need not end and should not end when one thing is done. There is always more to do, and perhaps one success will encourage them to take up something else, even if only for the fellowship, the hamburgers, and the beer.
What about it? Do things, men. And maybe, when you have joined shoulders in work, you may well join voices in prayer.
Photo credit: Church volunteers from ACT (All Congregations Together) unloading furniture to be donated to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward (AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards via Getty Images).