An experience in the summer before my first year in college had one of the most profound impacts on me of any in my life. I was fortunate to have had the privilege of participating in what was called Faith and Life Institute. It took place during the first three weeks of August, and those who attended were taught a master’s course in either New Testament or Old Testament Theology. I had chosen the Old Testament, the professor teaching us was from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, and he was brilliant.
Our month’s turbo course on one part of the Bible was set in the Sierra Nevada foothills at a camp called The Community of the Great Commission, located on Chicken Hawk Ridge, just above an old gold mining town named Foresthill, in Placer County, California. It was a ruggedly beautiful place, covered with pine trees, providing vistas of majestic mountains, canyons, and rivers. And in my life, nothing has ever smelled so wonderful as the bear clover that filled the air with a perfume all its own.
I would like to say the Bible course was what impacted me so much. But I cannot. What forever changed me was living for the first time in my life, for three weeks, away from home, parental control, peer influence, and my small town lifestyle. Those of us who had come together in that place were from all over California, and we became a community, a society. It was probably a sociology master’s thesis in the making, but none of us realized it at the time.
In looking back at the young men and women who were there, it is easy to remember the leaders who rose up from among the ranks, and followers who went along with whatever seemed to be the most popular choice of any given moment. Friendships were formed, love blossomed and love failed; conflicts arose, with some being resolved, while other combatants still may be waiting for that chance to duke it out just one more time. There were scenes fraught with intensely alarming displays of anger, heart melting shows of forgiveness and restoration, baffling moments of genuine kindness poured out on an adversary’s head, while the softest, most gentle souls morphed before our eyes into hateful, vile enemies of what was acceptable, right and proper.
And the life altering event during that time? Between August 11 and August 17, 1965, were the Watts Riots of Los Angeles, California. We were up on a mountain top, studying how to love and live peacefully with our fellow-man, and the entire neighborhood of Watts was coming apart. The reason? Race. Six days of unparalleled violence left 34 people dead, 1,032 injured, and over $40,000,000 in property damage. Racial injustices of the day exploded in the destruction and carnage that screamed time had come for an end to a population’s repeated subjection to police brutality, exclusion from jobs with a decent wage, and affordable housing.
While the Watts Rebellion was playing out in the streets of Southern California, my friends and I realized immediately who among us was sympathetic to their cause, and who among us was not. As a small, youthful community we found ourselves faced with individual beliefs and responses dictated for the most part by our upbringing, by generations of behaviors imprinted upon us when the cement of our minds was still very, very wet.
We also had a few among us who believed differently, or at least beyond the borders, from their family’s standard outlook on the race relations of that day and time. We dared to speak out for justice, inclusion, correction, reparation. There were many passionate, yet reasonable solutions offered. We actually believed change could be affected by believers who would simply come together in a unified, humanitarian manner that reflected the tenets of our faith, and the intentions of our futures, living side by side, peacefully and gratefully celebrating our sameness and our differences. We wanted one brotherhood of mankind. No divisions, no schisms, no separations; all living in harmony and prosperity.
There were powerful discussions, confrontations, agreements, and adamant disagreements that August on Chicken Hawk Ridge. I learned first hand an impassioned plea for reason, for civility, for love can fall on ears turned deaf when the very core of a belief system is challenged with ideas or actions diametrically opposed to those upon which lives have been structured. I saw adult men and women weep as dissension among students grew, and they were overwhelmed by the challenges being posed to them; and I experienced the oppression of leadership run amok when fear of ones true self being exposed became the dominant force, the most compelling reason for action.
I believed we were on a high course, a mission that would put feet to what we proclaimed on Sundays. Little did I know that our plans for accomplishing a healing of the races, and ultimately world peace, were going to be derailed by some ridiculous shenanigans of fellow campers who did not exactly share the same passion for heaven on earth that rest of us did.
It all culminated in a serious meeting being called one night for both staff and students, and a promise being elicited from each of us. For life. We were young and malleable, and persuaded to make a promise never to reveal the details of some fellow students’ behavior during the unrest at our camp. We were lectured about the dire outcome to our Institute if word ever leaked out about what they had done. There supposedly were people in high places who were looking for any reason at all to call our camp done, over forever. And we needed to do our part to protect it by taking an oath we would never reveal to anyone, for any reason, what had happened.
In hindsight, I do not believe my agreeing to keep our camp’s secret was harmful in any way to anyone. I think the adult reaction to the kids’ behavior was excessive, and self-serving. There was an elitist attitude connected with that school, and no one wanted to be perceived as not in intellectual and spiritual control of something they thought was so important. Personally, I saw it all as a tempest in a tea pot, and was not surprised, nor really cared when kids acted like kids. But, I did take my oath seriously, and never have violated it. There is something to be said for integrity, even when it was forty-nine years ago, and we were naive and trusting.
Before our camp was over, the riots in Watts ended. We had been shaken in our beliefs and attitudes, we were forced to acknowledge to each other, and more importantly, to ourselves exactly where we stood on the reality of race relations in our country, our neighborhoods, and in our personal lives. I left that place a little more knowledgable in the Old Testament, but a whole lot more knowledgable in who I was as a human being, a Christian, and a neighbor.
I will never forget those pivotal days of that August, and I will never forget what it means to set a new life direction, and stay the course, no matter what. The key to making it work and not giving up is to realize and adjust to whatever may come, because we will be challenged and fought along the way. But all these years later, we will make progress if we stand and continue to believe, because Bob Dylan had it right, the times they are a-changin.