I recognized the older gentleman when he walked into the coffee shop. He smiled warmly and greeted a number of people in the shop. I hadn’t met him, but I knew who he was and I wondered if he was for real. I worked up the courage to walk over and introduce myself ( I am by nature an introvert and meeting new people is hard for me, much less meeting someone like this).
This man was legend in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was living. His story was one that said that we human beings can make actual, real choices to make the world better. Years before I met him, this man began receiving threatening phone calls: menacing, vile, and unrelenting. This man was at the time the cantor of one of the local synagogues. The caller was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. But instead of returning hate for hate, this man began returning love. For every call of hate, he returned on of love. He was just as unrelenting as his adversary. Eventually, almost miraculously, it got through. The menacing caller was not well, physically or emotionally. One time he called and did not threaten, he asked. He asked, how can you keep saying you love me when all I’ve ever done is threaten you?
This man in the coffee shop did more than just make compassionate phone calls. The caller recanted his devotion to the KKK. Because of his failing health he lost his place to live. He had no family, no friends, and now was alienated from a group not known for their tolerance of defectors. So this gentleman I wanted to meet (and his wife, it should be said) invited this other man whose whole life had been steeped in hatred, they invited him into their home. They loved him and introduced him to a whole new way of living, which he followed until he died.
That was the story I knew, and so I wanted to know the man. Could he be real? He was very real, and not in any larger-than-life sense. He was as human and flawed, and searching in life as any of us, as I was. But that is what makes all the more compelling for me. This flawed, genuine man offered someone who hated him love instead of hate. It gives me no excuse that I can’t do this. It is not the extraordinary humans who change the world. It is the ordinary ones.
This man’s name is Michael Weisser, and a book was written about his experience (“Not By the Sword” by Kathryn Watterson, Northeastern Press, 1995). I learned that Michael is gentle man for whom love is an ordinary, everyday way of living. He welcomed me and my wife into his circle of friendship and we are both grateful for that.
Saint Benedict said that hospitality is welcoming everyone as if they were Christ. Michael would use different words, but he is one of the best practitioners of hospitality I have met. Someone has asked me how we learn to be hospitable in this violent, hateful world. I only have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that it is an exercise of trust: trusting that deep down the world is a good place and somehow or another God’s love (of whatever brand or denomination) will be there for us. The other is simply this: just do it. Make the choice that today I will not hate, I will not let fear determine my actions. Hospitality is not superhuman. It is the best of human.