Not long ago, I was reminded of what a myth it is that people can't change, that generations of behaving a certain way only leads to more of the same. Friends of ours have made enormous efforts as a couple, and as a family, to help their neighborhood be a better place for kids. Once a thriving, middle-class community to which the husband's grandparents immigrated, it has, in recent decades, fallen into sad decay. But little by little, the couple's home - that house his grandparents bought long ago - became a safe haven for the neighborhood's kids.
As our friends and their own three children watched their home evolve into a de facto Boys and Girls Club, they decided to be intentional about it. They bought the house next door (an affordable prospect in a neighborhood where few chose to live) and put a pool in their backyard. Over the next decade of summers, many kids gathered around that pool. The warm welcome they received there included rules, limits, and an opportunity to develop self-discipline that most found nowhere else.
The organized fun those kids experienced revolved around the couple's efforts to offer them the opportunity to develop what Martin Luther King Jr. once called "the content of their character," and to understand that this is the real purpose in life. Helping kids do this meant devoting their home to these activities every summer and offering scaled-down versions after school and during school vacations. It also meant being available at all hours and gradually assisting many of the children's parents, who came to trust them as family.
None of it was ever easy, and the sacrifices were huge. But our friends say they can't imagine any other life, and that their own marriage and family life is stronger because of it.
But that's not the whole story. When I visited them recently, the husband nodded toward a city bus stop as we drove past and said, "That's where it all began."
Over dinner, the two of them continued the story that began with their courtship and decision to marry shortly after high school. The husband described how, as they were standing at that bus stop one day, making big plans for their future together, he had said something offhandedly.
A car full of men with faces as dark as most of their neighbors today had driven by. Without even thinking, he'd uttered a racial slur. It was something he'd heard fairly frequently in his family and among his peers.
"I'll never forget the look on her face," he told me as he glanced at his wife beside him. "It was a combination of disbelief and anger, disappointment and sadness." That look had made the biggest impact on him of all, unleashing changes he could never have predicted.
His wife explained that she had grown up with her family's foster son, who was black. The circle of her family's African-American friends was also wide. Hearing her future husband say something like this seemed unthinkable. And it was unacceptable. She'd told him, "I don't think I can marry you."
At the time, her husband noted, any remorse on his part was motivated strictly by the desire not to lose her. "But I also didn't want to lose the love, trust, and respect for me that I saw leave her eyes when I'd said that," he said. "I also knew that I wanted the mother of my children to be someone who had the strength of conviction that she had. It was brave to take a stand like that, because she really loved me, and what I did was a big disappointment to her."
Like the efforts they later made to help their neighbors' children, nothing came easily, or overnight. But my friend did have an epiphany that day, he told me. "I realized that I had more choice about what I could do, and think, and believe, than I had understood. A lot of my actions and beliefs came from the way my family and those I'd grown up with saw things, and it was my responsibility to recognize where I'd been influenced by that, and to decide for myself."
Standing at the bus stop that day, he couldn't have imagined where such a willingness to change would lead him. Not only did his grandparents' house eventually become an interracial community center, but his circle of family and friends looks much different than it might have had he chosen a different path. That circle now includes a black son-in-law and three lively little granddaughters he and his wife love very much.
The kind of change that moves away from blind imitation of the past is nearly always an act of real moral courage, however small it may appear at first. But as my friends - and their many friends - can testify, it initiates a quietly powerful momentum that can move the world.