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Unexpected Heroes among Us

By Joyce and Barry Vissell

In 1960, I was 14 years old, and my mother was the first civil rights activist that I knew. She did not march in the streets; she lived her beliefs. She had blacks, Muslims, gays and other minorities over to our house for dinner almost every Sunday. She treated them all with the greatest respect and honor like they were part of her family. She also spoke up loudly if anyone said anything against any of these minorities. She often coached me, “Joyce, remember that every person is a child of God. It doesn’t matter what their skin color is, or their religion. Our God loves them all the same.” This love of humanity and human rights is something that my mother passed on to me, one of the many gifts I’ve received being her daughter; in this way, she was one of my heroes.

This same year, there was a crisis for one of my uncles. He and his family lived close to us in Buffalo, New York, in a quiet, simple, middle-class neighborhood. He learned that a black family was going to move into the neighborhood, about 10 houses down from his house. My uncle was livid and complained bitterly to anyone who would listen. He felt it would ruin his neighborhood, and make it unsafe for his children, as well as bring down the value of his home. He spent great time and effort visiting every single neighbor and explaining the terrible result that would happen if this family moved in. He gathered signatures, and if a neighbor did not want to sign his petition, he repeatedly went back to that house until they did sign.

After much time and effort, he was ready to go the house of this black family and give them the petition. He got dressed in a suit and tie, and armed with pages of signatures, went to the house and rang the bell. A very large, powerfully-built black man answered the door. My uncle quickly hid the petition behind his back, and held out his hand to welcome the man. You see, this man was my uncle’s hero on the Buffalo Bills’ football team.

Several years ago, at our Hawaii couples retreat, there was a man, who I will call Joe, who looked with disdain at the local people who lived in the area. Joe was a CEO of a large company on the mainland, described himself often as “a very important man,” and felt that these “hippies” were lazy and worthless. Many of these locals had long unruly hair, colorful clothing, and were typically gathered at the beach drumming, dancing, juggling, or fire spinning. Joe spoke often about how much he disliked them, even though he hardly ever saw them, and had no idea what they did when they weren’t at the beach.

One day Joe went to the beach alone without any of our group with him. There’s a steep trail that must be climbed down to get to the beach. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but one must be careful. When it was time for Joe to leave the beach, he started climbing the trail, but slipped and fell, dislocating his knee. Joe lay there helpless and in enormous pain. Very soon, one of these “good-for-nothing locals” spotted him lying there in pain and ran to help. When this long-haired young man discovered the extent of Joe’s injury, he ran to get some friends, and together the men carried him all the way to the top of the cliff, which is quite a journey, especially carrying someone in pain. They put Joe in a car and drove him all the way back to the retreat center, helped him into his bed, and then notified the retreat center that he was hurt. Fortunately, one of our group members was an emergency room physician, and he pulled Joe’s knee back into position again. Joe was deeply humbled, and to our whole group he stated, “I have been so wrong in judging these locals just because of their hair and lifestyle choices. When I really needed heroes, they stepped in and helped me.”

When my mother was 87, three years before she died, she lived in a little apartment above our garage. She believed in exercise, and each day when it was not raining, she drove her little car to the beach and walked along the sidewalk. At that time at Rio del Mar beach, there was a group of homeless men who would sit on the wall at the entrance to the beach. These men sat there all day and talked together. My mother learned their names, and each day would stop and talk with them. Soon they asked her if she would like to sit on the wall with them, and she gladly accepted, sitting with them for maybe a half hour each day. She liked them very much, and truly enjoyed their company. After a few months, they asked if she would like to be an official member of the “Wall Sitters’ Club.” My mother accepted and felt it was an honor to be included in their conversations.

One day some ladies from her church walked by as my mother was laughing with the men. The ladies were shocked to see my mother there, and even though she wanted to introduce them, the ladies rushed on by. Later that day my mother received a call from one of these ladies who said, “Louise, you must be careful, and you should not sit on the wall with those men. They are homeless, and could cause danger to you.” My mother replied, “I trust that God loves them just as much as He loves you and me. Those men have given me the gift of their friendship, and I am giving it back.”

There’s the potential for a hero and a friend within each person we meet, regardless of their skin color, their religion, their sexual orientation, or the fact that they are a minority. We are all God’s precious children.

Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of many inspirational books.

Write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings, or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their website at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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