Lorenzo and Willow ate the last of my granola bars, but I can’t be mad at them because I like having the neighborhood kids around. They are third graders, the same as my daughter. Their world revolves around after-school bike rides, wind in their faces, with stops at the playground or my door to ask for snacks.
Seeing them together makes me happy, as they enjoy the freedom of playing outside without hovering parents. My favorite thing is their blissful indifference to race. Lorenzo is black, Willow is white, and my daughter is Asian.
This neighborhood where we live is racially diverse but not well integrated. When I see my daughter and her friends together, I get a glimpse of old hatreds being blotted out with love. I envision them not growing up with the same old us-against-them garbage.
I hope they are not nearing the end of the innocence—that divisiveness is not some imminent rite of passage. I pray that the divisions that loom so large in our culture—carved out by racism and sexism and partisanship—end here, with this generation of carefree bike-riders.
When I was their age, my teacher assigned a family coat-of-arms project. We were supposed to ask our parents about our ancestry and then draw pictures to represent our heritage on a paper shield divided into four quadrants. We were also required to use the classroom’s World Book Encyclopedia to come up with emblems to represent our family. I grabbed the “G” volume for Germany and quickly went to work copying the German flag on my coat-of-arms.
We finished our coat-of-arms projects in time for Parent Night, and the teacher hung them up outside the classroom. That evening, while walking down the hall with my parents, I sensed that my work stood out when my mom said: “Oh, Em! What’s this?” She pointed at the German flag I’d copied straight from the encyclopedia.
As Mom took my coat-of-arms down from the cork strip, I knew something was wrong. She discreetly explained that the flag I’d copied was that of the Nazis—with a bold, black swastika against a bright red background.
Digging a pen out of her purse, she explained it was a symbol of hatred, so we should probably change it. Ashamed and embarrassed, I grabbed the pen and took her advice to turn the swastika into a windmill. She helped me add louvers to each arm, like a windmill on a mini-golf course.
Try as I might, I could not completely disguise the symbol of hate beneath my improvised Dutch-village windmill. I still wonder why my teacher didn’t point out the significance of my German flag. To this day it’s an evening I remember well, turning that swastika into a windmill.
I’ve been thinking lately about swastikas and windmills, or, more precisely, about what to do with the hatred and divisiveness that seems to permeate our culture. Looking back, I think my mom’s advice was timeless: “Look. Let’s turn it into a windmill.”
The wind of the Spirit blows wherever it pleases, Jesus said. But I want to feel it on my face. Too often, news of racial hatred or other injustices leads me to despair. But I want to set my face to the wind of peace and unity, which comes from God. Like a breeze drives a windmill, I want the Holy Spirit’s wind to activate my thoughts, words, and actions, converting divisiveness into humble, unifying love.
There’s a precedent for turning emblems of destruction into something productive. The prophet Isaiah shared a vision of peace and unity that resonates still: “[God] will judge between the nations / and will settle disputes for many peoples. / They will beat their swords into plowshares / and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4). I can almost imagine it—a day when weapons have become obsolete when those who follow Jesus are swamped with the work of bending swords into farm implements so anyone who’s hungry will have enough to eat.
I’m learning to cultivate a generous and loving spirit by turning my four sails to the wind of the Holy Spirit. For me, this means giving: giving time, giving stuff, and—sometimes this is the hardest thing to offer—giving people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know how to undo the hateful accumulation of centuries of racism. That is beyond my ability. But I’m learning to love my neighbors one by one and thus loosen the grip of old divisions—by loosening my grip on our granola bars.
Swords to plowshares, swastikas to windmills, division to unity: starting among neighbors.