03/21/2008 03:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down

"I WAS ABLE TO JEW that guy down to $85," I announced to my father.

I was a young man, and I had just convinced a salesman to cut the price of my purchase in half. It was a momentous event, and I had gone home in triumph to tell my Amish-Mennonite father. I expected him to praise me.

But instead, he exploded.

"You will not use racist language like that in my house," my father told me, raising his voice. I looked at him -- he had my attention.

And here's the thing -- today, I don't remember what I bought. All I remember is my father's anger. It was a kind of righteous anger, the sort I imagine the prophet Amos must have shown when he stood on the streets of Palestine and called for justice to "roll down" and cover the earth.

Over the past week, as I've watched CNN play endless loops of Barack Obama and the fiery indignation of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, I have thought of my father's reaction.

WHEN I WAS GROWING up, my parents told me the story of Mark Wagler, a young man who had left our Conservative Mennonite community in the 1960s to go to college. He married a woman named Rene. Her hellish death -- "attacked by young black men who poured gasoline on her and lit it" -- stuck in my memory.

When this story hit the news, it must have made my mother and father remember their tour of duty in the Bronx -- they understood the impact that Rene Wagler's death had upon America. But it took me until graduate school in 1998 before I realized the iconic nature of that tragedy.

The theatre department at the Middlebury Campus of The Bread Loaf School of English was working with a playwright to adapt J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground. As I read about an incident that occurred in 1973, it suddenly felt familiar:

On Monday, October 1, Rene Wagler, a twenty-four-year-old white woman who lived in a racially mixed feminist collective in Roxbury, was walking along Blue Hill Avenue when she encountered three young blacks who told her, "Honky, get out of this part of town." She shrugged it off.

But Tuesday night, as she carried a can of gasoline to her stalled car on the avenue, she was set upon by the same trio and three others. They dragged her down a narrow alley to a rubble-strewn lot, forced her to pour two gallons of gasoline over herself, and then touched a match to her soaked clothes.

Burning like a torch, Rene managed to stagger four hundred yards to a liquor store; she was rushed to a hospital, but died five hours later. Her body was so charred, doctors said, that except for the bottom of her feet, "you couldn't tell whether she was white or black."

My Swiss-German world did not promote cross-cultural values -- most of my schoolmates looked pretty much like me. But something was different about the way my parents raised me. Perhaps it was the real-life education they received in the heart of the Bronx during the 1950s.

OUR LITTLE TOWN OF Hartville, Ohio -- located smack between Canton and Akron -- was decidedly white when I was young. I remember going into McDonalds with my best friend and his African-American girlfriend. She was the only black in the place. The conversation died when we entered. We got looks that weren't looks. We felt like movie stars that had wandered into the middle of a scene from Gone with the Wind -- the one that wasn't supposed to have any blacks in it.

I still remember the tension.

It wasn't that African-Americans never entered our world. They did. The migrant workers who harvested the muck farms east of the town on Swamp Road were blacks from the South -- and on Fridays, they drove into town sitting on the flatbeds of their stripped-down pickup trucks, where they usually loaded baskets of radishes and scallions and lettuce heads. They were there to cash their paychecks. I remember their smiles.

Yes, Ma'am, No, Sir. They're polite, too. But we know about blacks -- the way they all live off welfare and our tax money. Of course, there are no black families living among us, and I know that doesn't really make sense, but listen, I promise you it does to anyone who lives here, because you see, they're outsiders, and it's best that we keep it that way, and you should just go to the town next to us, and you'll find they still burn crosses on the lawn of any black family that makes the mistake of buying a home, yes, sir, I know, and they still attach the word lily-white to the name of the public school over there. Yes, Sir.

NO WONDER the subject of race gets me so angry -- I had parents who instilled egalitarian principles within me from birth. You see, the problem does not exist within the mainstream Mennonite church, which historically has been a staunch advocate for peace and social justice. In fact, today the world Mennonite church is growing fastest on the African continent -- because it preaches a gospel of inclusiveness. Unlike the Conservative Mennonite church I remember from childhood, which was of a more exclusive brand.

I've wondered at times how my father, especially, managed to keep his temper about this subject while living in such a world. But perhaps his experiences in Connecticut and New York City taught him the value of restraint. Perhaps he was just too busy raising a family, trying to keep the wolf from the door, to worry about trying to reform people's values. Or perhaps the external rules of the Conservative Mennonite church distracted him.

It was his attitude towards people that counted the most anyway -- an attitude my mother shared with him. The amazing thing is that my parents ever met.

Why did my mother ever decide to leave home to go live in New York City? Was it just the gypsy in her? Or was it something more?

MY MOTHER MAGDALENA Overholt grew up in a household of six girls (one adopted) and six boys. Her father, Jerome Overholt, was a vegetable farmer who had forged his land from the swamp in the 1920s, cutting down the trees and blasting out the stumps with dynamite.

The Great Depression - raw fear of the soup line - shaped my mother's family. There was no talk of a child's educational future. The family needed to survive. Sons and daughters provided a workforce that kept the family fed and clothed. There were times, my mother has told me many times, when her father went for a week with only a dollar in his pocket.

I owe the first half of my love for education to my mother. I sense regret when she talks about her schooling. She attended the public school in Hartville when it was a schoolhouse, before it became the spreading campus called Lake High School. Her memories include the smartly dressed history teacher who would give them a writing quiz, and then drift next door to get a cup of coffee.

This was the time after the Great War, and before World War II. My mother's family was German, and the world still feared the Germans, and the film Witness had not yet entered our national mythology, showing what a positive world could be found within the Amish community. There was no ACLU, so when my mother and her peers refused to pledge allegiance to the flag - because they were pacifist and refused to accept violence as an alternative to peace - they were sent out into the Ohio cold of the hall each morning. It took the gift of an apple and a quiet visit from their bishop before their teacher allowed them to sit quietly while the other children chanted their love for America.

Then came tenth grade, and my mother was needed in the growing fields and the packing house. By then, her father's business was booming. In fact, his success drew the national seed companies, and they sent their seeds to him for testing. The white sweetness of his winter celery was much in demand. This was before refrigerated cars shipped vegetables across the nation - and so his ability to raise fresh vegetables year round made his products a valuable commodity.

It must have been difficult for my mother - giving up the rest of high school and college, all cut short because her father needed her in the celery fields. What a bitter twist it was for my mother.

But although she never went to college, my mother has remained a life-long learner. My clearest memories I have of her always include a book or a newspaper as she steals time to read.

She still delights in historical connections. In a recent family letter, she reminded our family that she and Elizabeth Taylor are the same age - born on the same day. At 76, my mother has been more successful in love, however. She didn't struggle publicly through eight marriages - she had eight kids, instead.

I have watched my mother's face light up at the discovery of some little-known fact of history, or listened to the rivulet of joy in her voice as she retold a moment from history. My mother would have made a fine history professor.

Of course, in that case I wouldn't have been born, because my mother's unique path led her to my father.

WHEN SHE TURNED 21, my mother -- now an adult and free of her responsibilities to the family -- went to Bible School at Pleasant View Mennonite Church in Berlin, Ohio. It was a startup school that would eventually become Rosedale Bible College.

From there, she took a trip to Bluntstown, Florida during the last part of February. My mother stayed there for half of a year. In August on the way home, she stopped a church conference and heard about a chance to work at a mission church in New York City. She moved to New York City in October.

I had always imagined my mother teaching rows of Hispanic and African-American children. But her work was far more basic than that - she helped the church function as a neighborhood home base for the children. Fox Street Mennonite Church was small, but they had Sunday School, and a sermon on Sunday - plus a service in the evening, and a prayer meeting on Wednesday night.

"We helped with different activities," my mother said. "We passed out The Way, a little Mennonite paper. We'd go visiting in different homes. In one of the little Spanish homes - we went there one evening - they gave us rice with coffee made very different than what I was used to. It was mostly milk with a good coffee flavor."

In order to support herself when she wasn't working with the church, my mother got herself a job at S & W Fine Foods.

"I started in as a gift wrapper," my mother said. "Then for awhile, I worked in the mailroom, sending out letters. Sometimes I ran the mailing machine."

WHAT DREW MY PARENTS together at that little church in the Bronx?

My mother had heard about a young man named Earl Denlinger from her pastor there - and the entire church was praying that he would commit to working with them. It made my mother curious, she told me. When she met him, she decided he was a good catch.

Earl was complex. He had been born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His family was pure Mennonite from strong Swiss stock - these were all good things. Unfortunately, his father had abandoned his family. Reared primarily by his mother, Earl had determined that his life would be different. He would be the parent his father never was.

When Earl had turned 18, the draft was in force, so he registered I-W. As a Mennonite, he was given Conscientious Objector status. When Earl's number was called, he was sent to Fairfield Hospital in Connecticut, where he once held a leg that was being sawed off by a physician. Thus, he avoided the killing fields of the Korean War. And thus he came to Fox Street Mennonite Church in the Bronx.

ACCORDING TO MY FATHER, the experience of meeting my mother was love at first sight. My father had been seeing another young woman before he came to the mission - and that relationship didn't last.

"When I met Maggie," he said, "I dropped that girl like a hot potato."

The feeling must have been mutual. Three months after they met, they were engaged, and three months later, my mother stood up before God and the world and married my father. It had taken them only six months to commit to what has been a 50+ year marriage.

As their oldest son, I know what a good marriage looks like. For example, my father's complete focus has always been the happiness of my mother - whether that meant doing the dishes on Sunday after dinner, or coming up with creative gifts, or praising her outlandishly in front of others. And my mother states unequivocally that my father knows how to love her.

Make no mistake. Life has not been easy. I've heard their arguments, and the family's financial difficulties etched scars in their marriage. But the structure has always been sound - due to good communication, affection, forgiveness.

BUT IT WAS MORE than simple attraction that interlocked the souls of my parents, almost on sight. It was a matter of shared values - one of them being education.

My father has always valued education. He is immensely proud of the fact that he earned his high school diploma from Lancaster Mennonite High School - in spite of the fact that he also had to work to help support his mother and five sisters at the same time.

I've always envied his poster-sized diploma - I think a high school education used to hold more value that it does now.

And because of his love for education - as long as that education is given by Christian teachers - my father determined that each of his children would receive a high school education.

AFTER THEY MARRIED, my parents lived for five more years in the Bronx while my three older sisters were born. At this point, my parents decided that they should move to Hartville. New York City was no place to raise a family. I was born approximately a year later.

What interests me most about their Bronx education is the way it reshaped their perspective on race. The rules of the Conservative Mennonite church limited how they could expose their children to the world. No television, radio, theatre, or film - all ways in which people experience other cultures.

So how much did the City affect the way they later lived in a more rural environment? A lot, I suspect. I think their transformation revealed itself in their reaction to the social cliques found in the close community of Hartville, Ohio, where people have known each other from birth.

The salad bowl of ethnicities found in the Bronx during the 1950s must have had something to do with the way my parents viewed their world after they returned to their more rural roots. I think this deeply affected their children.

For example, Jonathan Miller - my sister Marcia's oldest son - grew up within his parents' conservative Mennonite community in Seymour, Missouri. He married a beautiful girl named Roselynn Weaver.

Roselynn looks exactly like her conservative Mennonite peers: long, modest dress, white veiling in the shape of a bonnet, dark hose - the whole banana. Except that she's Hispanic.

Her father Robert Weaver was from the same community - but as a young man, he had been doing mission work in Belize when he met and fell in love with one of the local converts. He brought her back to Missouri and married her. Roselynn was a product of their love.

Why is this significant? Because contrary to bigoted attitudes found in some fundamentalist groups, there was never a question in my home about whether I could date or marry a person of color. My parents' only concern was that it be "a marriage in the Lord."

And so I come back to the same question: what happened to my parents during their time of service in that little mission church in the Bronx? What caused them to radically redefine the way they looked at other ethnicities? Was it the experience of living across cultures that changed their viewpoint?
What was it like for my parents - the experience of transformation - having grown up in worlds as white as Hartville?

I think the real question that I've been circling lies within the speech that Barack Obama gave the other day.

Can we move beyond our societal shaping?

I REMEMBER MONITORING a study hall in the large auditorium of Catholic Central High School in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1992. Almost the entire school was white, Catholic, and Italian. One of the few African-Americans was Donald Thorn, a student in my tenth-grade English class.

One day at the end of a study hall, he approached me.

"Mr. D," he said, "What's your middle name?"

I looked at Donald, curious as to why he should have asked me that question. But I didn't hesitate.

"Lamar," I said. "Why?"

He shook his head and grinned at me.

"Mr. D," he said, "I always knew you had soul."

I LIKE TO THINK my mom and dad had something to do with that.