The Problem We All Live With, Still
By Camille Goodison
The day after Ash Wednesday, I accepted an invitation from the NYU Episcopal Chaplain to hear a presentation entitled, “What does it take to forgive?” The talk, which took place at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church inGreenwich Village, was given by Ruby Bridges, best known as the little girl memorialized in the famous Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With.” I’d passed this building countless times, a modest white meetinghouse, but this was my first time inside. The room filled quickly with students, campus ministries, and members of the public. I took my seat in anticipation of what this woman, the first person to integrate elementary schools in the South, had to say on the topic of forgiveness. It was a subject I was grappling with, and for much the same reason, I figured, Ms. Bridges did. In his introduction, Eric Metaxas, Bridges’s interlocutor for the evening, made an aside to the audience as he described the kind of violence Ruby was subjected to—“imagine,” he said, “such innocence in the face of hate.”
Ms. Bridges talked about the NAACP’s then project for integrating the public schools of New Orleans, and how she was chosen as one of six girls in this initiative. The six girls were split into two groups. Two of the girls in Ruby’s group decided to stay at their old schools, leaving Ruby as the sole integrator of WilliamFrantzElementary School. White parents withdrew their students from the school, and teachers quit in protest. Ruby was taught in a classroom by herself. I was moved by Ms. Bridges’ quiet witness to the suffering of her parents, particularly her father who lost his job, and eventually succumbed to a heart attack. A parent put a black doll in a casket-like box that Ruby had to pass everyday on her way to school. She described this as the scariest part of the experience, and how difficult it was for her to walk past the box. As Ms. Bridges described how the stress of the experience led to the breakup of her family, the early death of her father, and her deepening reliance on prayer, I became more interested in finding out, well, exactly what does it take to forgive?
Near the end of her talk, Ms. Bridges revealed that her son was murdered, another casualty ofNew Orleans’ high rate of homicide. Not long after, she lost her home to Hurricane Katrina. A hush fell over the room as Bridges asked an earnest question, given all the problems we face as a nation, why is racism still an issue? It’s a good question, one I’m still pondering, and one for which I have no answer. So, returning to the question which brought me to this meetinghouse at the start of Lent, “What does it take to forgive?” It turns out that the real question is, how soon can you forgive. Ruby Bridges never really answered the title question of her talk. What she did explain was the necessity for forgiveness. Forgiveness is good for the soul, yes, but also the mind and body. To me her message was clear: There are times when forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Camille Goodison is a writing professor inBrooklynand an alumni of NYU. She remains connected with Canterbury Downtown and is interested in developing a writing group with interested students. Contact the Rev. Mary Cat Young to connect.The Veritas Forum is made up of university students and faculty around the country engaging in the challenging questions of this life in relation to the life of Jesus Christ. http://www.veritas.org/Home.aspx