This Sunday our pastor preached on loving our enemies, from Matthew chapter 5. As he challenged us to consider if our lives will contain any stories of radical love for our enemies, I remembered observing just such a story in my elementary school days. It’s a story of how my mom modeled returning good for evil – and thereby helped her younger sons to experience the power of actually following Jesus in this regard.
My second grade year was the roughest so far since we had returned to the US in the middle of my pre-K year, when my dad had died on the field. We had moved to a different town in the Philadelphia area, and that meant a new public elementary school. Overall, I didn’t have it as bad as my older brothers. My classroom experience was merely downgraded from wonderful to okay. Though I do remember the frustration of having to leave class movie time every Thursday in order to attend a speech therapy class. Those American R’s are tricky. But I had good friends in my class and a decent, if somewhat reserved, teacher. No, it was the bus ride where things were downright bad.
My fourth-grade brother and I managed to become the target of a crew of fifth grade bullies, led by a ringleader named JJ. Sometimes this had to do with our insistence on trying to sit in the back row of the bus, even though these boys claimed this as their exclusive territory. I remember being wrestled out of the back row, flipped over seat backs, and thrown up against metal window frames. We were much smaller than these older boys, so I’m not sure what caused us to keep on trying to assert our rights to the back seats. Perhaps it was the principle of it. Or perhaps there was something we had absorbed from the Melanesian highlands where we had grown up, where the locals were always ready for a fight.
Other fights involved teasing over the conspicuous size of our family’s ears and how the morning sunlight would shine through them, creating quite the pinkish-orange glow on the sides of our heads. Or the cross necklaces that we wore, one of which JJ tore off during a fight. While it was mostly angry boyish wrestling, there were some times that punches were thrown, though I think this was mostly directed at my older brother. I have a distinct memory of him getting punched in the stomach.
These conflicts on the school bus, as well as the difficulty my older brothers were having in their other school relationships, began to bleed into our relationships at home. My brothers and I began to fight with one another more often, a development which concerned my mom. With the exception of occasional squabbles, we three boys had always been pretty close to one another and related not only as brothers, but also as good friends. These growing conflicts would ultimately cause my mom to pull us out of public school in order to homeschool us for a year and a half. But first she had a bully to transform.
My mom has always been a woman not just of word, but of deed. She not only moved with her young family to the mission field, but later moved back to the field as a single mom. In the US as well as in Melanesia, she was not only personally involved in ministering to others, but active in trying to find ways for her boys to do so also. This often went well, though I do remember one time when after a snowstorm our family tried to serve a neighbor by brushing the snow off his car. We very quickly found out that in America, you don’t touch other people’s cars.
All the fights with JJ must have had my mom’s sanctified imagination chewing on what could be done. One day she told us that we were going to 7-Eleven, an American convenience store common in the northeast (common, but in Philly not as beloved as Wawa, where you can get a hoagie and Yoohoo to enjoy with your Poppop). When we arrived at 7-Eleven, she asked my brother and I to pick out a slurpee for JJ. A slurpee is a blended ice drink also known as a slushie, icee, etc., a kind of gas station drink full of sugar that sends kids into acrobat mode and bright food dye that stains their tongues. We chose a large blueberry slurpee and our mom drove us to JJ’s house.
The next scene I remember we are standing at JJ’s door. JJ’s mom, a pleasant enough-seeming woman, had answered the door. JJ was standing beside and a little behind her, looking not a little shocked and seeming very small. My mom explained that we had wanted to bring something for JJ, and she handed him the slurpee. JJ’s eyes were wide, but he seemed genuinely thankful. And since this was the 1990’s, his mom didn’t seem weird about it either, but let her kid keep the drink, and made him verbalize his thanks. I’m sure my mom and JJ’s mom said lots of other grownup things, but that’s all faded from my memory.
What hasn’t faded is the transformation that was visible on JJ’s the bully’s face and in his demeanor. He had been downright cruel to us for months, a classic bully, but this act of unexpected, undeserved kindness seemed to deeply disturb him in the right kinds of ways. He was never the same after that. JJ the bully actually became kind to us, consistently, from that point on. That was one powerful blueberry slurpee.
The last memory I have of JJ must have been toward the very end of that school year, because the weather was warm and it felt like summer. He had invited us over to his neighborhood to join in a big game of capture the flag.
Years and years later I would find myself in an intense text fight with one of my Central Asian friends. The abusive texts kept coming long after I had, exasperated, stopped responding. Then I remembered JJ, and the power of a blueberry slurpee, the power of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek when struck. My young wife and I grabbed some cupcakes from somewhere and we headed off to Walmart, unannounced, where my friend worked. The mean texts kept coming in as we drove. But when we found him at the back of the store, smiled, and handed him the cupcakes, a look came over him that I recognized. The hardness melted away, replaced by a kind of sheepish kindness, as if something powerful had suddenly been heaped upon his head. Just like JJ, actually obeying Jesus by doing something kind to someone cruel had made all the difference – had even proved transformative.
I had learned how to do this from my mom, who of course, had learned how to do this from Jesus.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:38–41).
Addendum: After writing this post I found out from my mom that I had unintentionally changed or omitted a few important details from this story. I have written about these corrections here.
Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash