The Police Riot and the Tape Recorders — a Memoir

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MLK this hour of history
This hour of history – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scene: Calm on the streets the Night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Shot

“Dr. King’s been shot!” came the shout to the large gathering of youth and adult advisors in the church recreation room fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. 

Several hundred teenagers from Decatur’s public housing (“the projects”) were doing their normal thing after Teen Town when Melvin’s shout from the stairwell changed everything. “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”

Teen Town was an outreach program of First Presbyterian in downtown Decatur, Illinois and the Decatur Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Charles Young of OE., a former Chicago gang member, and I, the 26 year old Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian, oversaw the program with a cadre of adult volunteers.

The room was hot.  What do do?

We quickly rounded up tape recorders, organized the kids into small groups, and gave each group a tape recorder to speak their hearts and minds to anyone who might listen. There was anger –“I told you the m—-fs would kill him! Malcom’s next!” (“Malcolm” was Malcolm X.) There was shock. There were tears. There was shouting. But there was no violence in Decatur that night. A young reporter for the Decatur Herald paid credit to Teen Town’s importance to the larger community. We shared the tapes with the city authorities, the Superintendent of Schools and teachers, and the Decatur Chief of Police as a way of deepening the majority white population’s education in blackness.

Scene: The Police Riot on the Church Parking Lot and the Kerner Commission Report

Photo of members of the Kerner Commission with President Johnson.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.08051
Some Kerner Commission members with President Lyndon Baines johnson (1967)

Not long after the night one might have expected an “urban disturbance,” the same site became a different scene. Two kids came to fist-a-cuffs just after Teen Town’s 10:00 p.m. closing time. Again a voice yelled news to the lower-level recreation room: “There’s a fight outside!” We sent Melvin upstairs to stop the fight. Moments later we saw the racially-inspired police violence reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) erupting on the church parking lot: Melvin in a choke-hold behind the paddy wagon, billy clubs flying, white cops spraying mace into the crowd, Teen Town teenagers whose only crime was that they were black running for their lives.

Forty store windows were broken out that night. The church and chief of police went toe-to-toe on the front page of the Decatur Herald. Facing loud cries to shut down the program, the church board voted unanimously to stand behind Teen Town and our partnership with the Office of Economic Opportunity.

First Presbyterian Church was itself a kind of death and resurrection. Before 1953 it was known as “Power’s Towers” referencing Jack Powers, the CEO of the Staley corporation. I was a place of white privilege and power whose members worship Sunday morning and went out to rule the city for another week. By the early ’50s its membership had shrunk to less than an unsustainable membership of less than a hundred. Then something happened that transformed a dying church into a beacon of racial justice and peacemaking.

In 1953 First Church’s new minister, Rev. Jay Logan, and an African American foundry worker walked the short distance from the church to the YWCA across the street to sit-in at the YWCA segregated lunch counter. By the time I arrived in 1967, First Presbyterian had become a vibrant 1200 member multi-racial congregation. It grew because two disciples of Jesus put their feet and rumps where their mouths were, followed by a great cloud of witnesses who dared to do the same.

In this tumultuous time of wrestling with white privilege and choke holds, the Kerner Commission conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and the commission’s call for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” seem prophetic.

Today I’m remembering Jay Logan, and Ruling Elders Jim Smith, Art Tate, Ken Varney, Larry Baer, and Ralph Johnson who quickly gathered the tape recorders five decades ago, and weeks later bore witness to their faith in the midst of a police riot… without flinching.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 22, 2020.

Easter Morning

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The painter’s brush, the poet’s pen, and the musician’s composing take the heart and mind into the space of wonder and joy that is Easter.

Easter Morning verse

EASTER MORNING
a double acrostic 


Either Jesus really did rise or
All his followers made up the worst
Series of lies in history... Poor
Thomas certainly was right to doubt
Even after hearing tales: what four
Reached the tomb (or five?) Who saw him first

Matthew says two women; Mark says three
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Reports of what eye-witnesses can see
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Never can be trusted. Luke said one
In the road joined two who could not see --
Not until he broke the bread...No one 
Got the story straight! Conspiracy?

Even grade school kids could do as well.
And Luke throws in Peter saw him too --
Somewhere unreported... Who could tell
That this jumble of accounts could do
Enough to give faith and hope to all.
Resurrection? Who could think it true?

Maybe just the simple: those whose eyes
Open to the light through grief, through tears…
Reminded of love, of truth, of grace…
Needing to be fed, hands out for bread ...
Inspired by the scriptures, in whose head
Grow visions: life can come from the dead.

- Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012 

Text set to music by Palestrina (1591)

“The strife is o’er, the battle won; the victory of life is won . . . . The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed: let loud shouts of holy joy outburst.

[“The Strife is o’er” is often sung to the tune Victory, adapted from a 1591 setting of the Gloria Patri by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina from a Magnificat tertii toni. An additional Alleluya refrain was set to music by William Henry Monk.”

Grace and Peace to you this Easter in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Life can come from the dead!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2020, Easter morning.

“Madness is in the saddle now”

“Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness: open your eyes and look around you — madness is in the saddle anyhow.”

Norman O. Brown,“Apocalypse: the Place of Mystery in the Mind” address at Columbia University, May 31, 1960

Every one of us is at least a little bit mad: sanctum and sputum

People of my Judeo-Christian tradition are prone to agree with Franz Kafka’s out of the ordinary observation: “the Bible is a sanctum; the world, sputum.” But, whether religious or not, many whose eyes are open and looking around agree with the sentiment that what we see in the world of 2020 is sputum.

The Bible which Kafka called a ‘sanctum’ was not the witness to wrath and vengeance. Nor was ‘the world’ the planet. It was society as we humans have configured it. I write with the Bible in one hand and Kafka’s works in the other. As I read their texts, It seems clear that madness is in the saddle in America and that this madness has turned to vengeance against those who voted to convict him, and to pardons and interference with the justice system, on a rampage. This madness has a history. So does resistance to it. You cannot serve two masters.

Belief means decision

Photograph of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his confirmation class, provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) addressed his Confirmation class (seen in this picture) in a sermon preached after when a minority party and widening fear had put a madman in the saddle.

“You have only one master now…But with this ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clear a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy. Your ‘yes’ to God requires a ‘no’ to everything that tries to interfere with your serving God alone, even if that is your job, your possessions, your home, or your honour in the world. Belief means decision.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Gift of Faith,” sermon to confirmation class, Germany, April 9, 1938.

Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness

Yesterday the American president granted a commutation and pardons to men whose offenses look like his own: abuse of power, betraying public trust, soliciting a quid pro quo, fudging tax returns, and lying to investigators. The timing of that announcement is cunning, coming as it does days following, and in the midst of a storm of protest about the president’s or attorney general’ intervention in sentencing of Mr. Trump’s loyal dirty-trickster friend Roger Stone.

Belief means decision

“Open your eyes and look around you.” Madness is in the saddle anyhow. Only a people seeking a ‘holy madness’ can knock him off our horse.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Chaska, MN, Feb. 19, 2020.

I will look for You – a Psalmic reflection

WHY AM I AWAKE?

The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.

picture of digital clock

I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.

The red numbers read 3:13.

I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.

MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
Art work by Andrej Mashkotsev with Tower of Babel in the backgound adds visual weight to "the little kings and usurpers.

I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.

You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.

“AN EMPIRE” – ANDREJ MASHKOTSEV

I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.

For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness,
and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]

Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.

Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]

Does it matter to You?

If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.

Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?

PAINTING “JOHN” BY LILIA MAZURKEVICH 

But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)

I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.

artwork "Hide-and-Seek" by Marieke Peters - Visual Artist adds visual impact to the Buber story and intent of the post.

“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).

HIDE-AND-SEEK, MARIEKE PETERS

I will look for You.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 6, 2019.

Stay Awake! An unspoken sermon

This sermon was written for a congregation of one the first Sunday after stepping out of the pulpit five years ago.

STAY AWAKE!

First Sunday in Advent, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].

It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious includes grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the nation and world, and the stupidity of the human race.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).

Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11. One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center resurrects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and virtue of the American economic system.

We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial and monument to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that has expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.

Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without the jungles.

Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, symbol of global dominance resurrected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.

Words and symbols are everything in this world.

photo of Tower of Babel by Master of the Duke of Bedford

Mr. Kimmelman opines, “But it [i.e. the World Trade Center] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”

It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.

Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. Maybe even love.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]

Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer and the production of figs. Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” among the multitude of creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s will not.

During this most puzzling of seasons – the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. It feels something as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ethnoi in NT Greek, i.e. the peoples] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]

The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.

In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, and the climate change clock ticks closer to midnight, deliver us, Good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity”.

Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]

This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it – all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger of it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well, new and fresh every morning.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Wipf and Stock, 2017) available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2019.

Church With Rachel

What can be said that isn’t being said over and over and over again and that adds something of value to public reflection on our time? Fellow Presbyterian minister John Buchanan’s personal story of worshiping with his granddaughter took me by the hand and led me home to church.

Hold to the Good

I sat beside Rachel in worship Sunday. Rachel is my 24-year-old granddaughter. She is a young woman with Down Syndrome. She is part of a remarkable program at National Louis University, lives in university housing, works part time with infants and toddlers in a day care center. She rides the El and the Chicago Transport Authority buses, loves to sing, knows the titles and words to every Beatles song and can dance for hours. Rachel starred in a motion picture, The Spy Who Knew Me, in which all the actors have special needs. It was produced by A.B.L.E.- Actors Breaking Limits and Expectations, which also puts on several stage productions per year including Shakespearean plays and original work. Many of the volunteers who work with the actors are from the Chicago theater community. 

Rachel greets me with more enthusiasm than anyone else, throws her arms around me as if…

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A Cry for Help!

G.K. Chesterton‘s lyrics come to mind again in this strange year of 2019. Our earthly rulers falter, and the wall of gold entomb us.

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

G.K. Chesterton, O God of Earth and Altar. stanzas 1 and 2.

The God to Whom Chesterton cried out was not a god that never says “No!”. Nor was it the god of Western culture that justified colonial invasions and occupations, the god of God in Christ shrunk to fit the mortal confines of creed, race, and nation rolled into one. Brutal terrors of white supremacy and white nationalism like the attacks on mosques and synagogues, and the terrors in high places gilded in gold and wrapped in lies of tongue and tweet drive us to our knees. They lead us to speechlessness, or to cry out for the God Who does say “No!”

O God of Earth and Altar hymn Y0uTube reproduction.

“Bow down, O God of earth and altar; bow down, and hear our cry. Good Lord, deliver us!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2019.

For further reflection, see “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” p. 110-13, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).

The Level Playing Field: Ash Wednesday

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  What you have become is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point. Ash Wednesday is the leveler. The eraser. The antidote. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours. Today, the roosters comb their heads with ashes and stop crowing.

Roosters strutting and crowing in the barnyard

If it often seems that the roosters are in charge of the barnyard, today reminds them and us that, in the end, they are not. Neither are we. Ash Wednesday levels us all to the baseline of zero. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” No matter whether you’ve crowed or cowered, no matter the story you tell yourself about yourself in comparison to others, you are no exception. Every reason for pride or self-loathing, and division, is erased by a pencil bigger than our mortal selves.

Whether our stories are re-written by a better Author will continue to be one more matter of dispute and division, but there can be no reasonable doubt about our mortality. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the meantime, before the roosters stop strutting and crowing and all the cock combs fall to the leveling plain, those who see the face of God in the compassion of Jesus remember the ethic appropriate to those still living in the barnyard:

“As they were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The roosters strut and crow, and you think you are dependent on them. Don’t be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.”– (Luke 22: 24-26, GCS translation)

Today, I offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will do the same, for the sake of life itself.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

Amid the Flood

Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

Gratitude in Place and Time

Blake_jacobsladder

William Blake, Jacob’s Dream

Thanksgiving 2018 arrives as a welcome interruption. It invites us into a sacred pause in this time and place of national division. One place to pause is the story of Jacob wrestling with God, the Nameless Presence (Genesis  ), and the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” The Genesis story is Jacob’s dream the night before he would come face-to-face with the estranged brother he had every reason to fear. After many years of separation, Jacob is about to face the brother he had tricked and had stolen Esau’s right to the family inheritance. Jacob does not want to meet his brother. Neither do we Americans who will sit down to a turkey dinner with family members on the other side of the political fence from us. Discussion of Jacob’s Ladder might bring an insightful Thanksgiving 2018 around the tables where Donald Trump is the turkey the family is afraid to carve .

The origins of “Jacob’s Ladder”origins — African slaves singing in the cotton fields under the plantation owner’s nose — gives a different meaning to the song. Jacob’s Ladder and the biblical text from which it comes represent a great reversal in human consciousness. After Jacob was defeated by the Nameless Presence, his spirituality took a 180 degree turn. “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!” His encounter wth his estranged brother turns the tables from fear and the rule of violence to the unexpected gift of reconciling love.