Rebirth by Ray Perreault

Ephesian philosopher Heraclietus said, “If one does not hope, one will not find the unhoped-for, since there is no trail leading to it and no path. “ In a philosophy class, my professor, Bob Castiglione, had a priest come by to talk about hope. In the question-and-answer period, I had a question, “Isn’t hope antithetical to action?” Dr Castiglione turned to the priest and said something like, “I told you they were tough.” I’ve grown a little since then and I have seen how hope and action can work as a team.

So, I wonder if anyone here has heard of Scott Shepard, Derek Black, Arno Michaelis or Christian Picciolini. These are not the usual type of person that we talk about here in church. You see, every one of them is a former white supremacist, or former skinhead, or former nazi.   Each one has renounced hate and now works to repair the damage that they feel they’ve done. There are a lot of people that have made this journey.  All have either said or done terrible things and by doing so, each has poisoned our society in some way. I read a little about their transformations and there are some common themes.  Mostly, I was reminded of Dr King’s observation “… this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. Here is a little about some of them.

Derek Black’s father had created Stormfront, one of the most widely read white supremacist sites on the internet. That is the atmosphere that he was raised inn as a child.  He decided to attend New College in Florida. It was a liberal, multicultural institution at least until the current Florida governor took control of it. He admitted that he went there to cause trouble. A group of students in a chat room hatched a different plan. Here it is a little about it from a Washington Post article:

“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.

“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”

“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”

One of Derek’s acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek’s radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.

“What are you doing Friday night?” he wrote.

That student was Matthew Stevenson.  He was one of the few Orthodox Jews at the school.  He invited him to Shabbat. It was traditional in the Hebrew readings but mostly attended by a mix of Christians, and atheists and blacks. They decided that rather than challenge Derek, they would simply include him in conversation. 

It didn’t happen all at once, but it planted a seed in him. It’s said, If you’re kind to someone you might forget in five minutes, but they might remember for the rest of their lives.  It took time, people, after all, rarely change all at once. His change, would alienate him from family and friends he grew up with – from his own father. Not a small thing at all, but now he speaks about his past and works for unity and inclusion.

Another, Scott Shepard was a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. He too abandoned hate. He befriended Daryl Davis is an African American musician who tries to open the minds of Klan members through friendship.  Now they work together because they found that they had the same mission.  At the Martin Luther King Center, Scott Shepard formally apologized for the terrible things that he had said about Dr. King.  He engaged in a dialogue about it that is available on video. I want you to know that he and his family have received death threats because of his actions.

Another one of those men that I mentioned Arno Michaelis was a skinhead that called for Racial Holy War. After he abandoned hate, he cofounded “Life After Hate.” an online magazine. He said, “Forgiveness is a sublime example of humanity that I explore at every opportunity, because it was the unconditional forgiveness, I was given by people who I once claimed to hate that demonstrated the way from there to here.”

Christian Picciolini was the other cofounder of Life After Hate, he had run a record store that sold white power music. He has written several books about leaving hate behind including “Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism” published in 2020.

All of these people were changed through engagement with others, through friendship or dialogue and the resulting self-examination.  Folks like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama seem like the quintessential definition of goodness and compassion as virtue. Dr. King reminds, though, that everyone has good and evil, love and hate side by side within them and we make a decision about which qualities to present to the world. It is that choice determines who we are.

I’m not sure how often that I have heard the word redemption enough or maybe at all in a Unitarian-Universalist church. To paraphrase Thomas Starr King, “The Universalists think God is too good to send them to hell; the Unitarians think they are too good to go” but to surrender that term “Redemption” to the afterlife is a huge mistake. The lives of the reformed show that it is an essential quality of this being alive. As a lukewarm atheist, I believe that.  

These stories of transformation are as important as those about sages and saints. Maybe more important, to us, not because they are inspiring, but because these are the people that we currently share our world with.

Somehow, these people and many others rolled back the stone that entombed their hearts and emerged into the light, a new life. That is the meaning of Easter, resurrection as a powerful metaphor for a kind of enlightenment.   It tells us each spring that there is renewal. It reminds us to use the methods that Jesus preached, parable and dialogue and example, with others, and within ourselves to transform all of our lives and in doing so – our world. 

Each of us, any day of the year, can die to old ways of living and, through love and forgiveness, arise burnished and shining as though reborn. I really believe that.

And my old fallback, Franz Kafka said, “Paths are made by walking.”  Our actions shape our lives and the world we live in. Sometimes they help shape others, this reminds me, as an old song goes, “there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

And always remember as the philosopher said, “If one does not hope, one will not find the unhoped-for, since there is no trail leading to it and no path. “Let’s walk into the future creating that path.