Omar was my big brother – tall, smart, and athletic, who always had a quick joke or intriguing story to share.
He was also black.
Mom introduced us when I was 11 years old. I had come home from church camp and Omar was at mom’s sewing machine, stitching a colorful shirt. He looked up from his work, giving me a toothy grin.
“Hey, little bro!”
“Hey,” I replied, not sure how to respond to a black guy in our utility room.
He didn’t miss a beat. “This is a dashiki, a garment native to Africa. Soon as I finish this one, I’m gonna make one for you.”
And he did – a boldly-striped number that fit like a glove.
Omar had come to us from Chicago through the ministry of a parachurch organization that sought sponsors for underprivileged students. We provided room and board while he attended classes at a nearby university.
This took place in my hometown of Oklahoma City in 1967, the year that the Detroit Riots erupted. Despite a burgeoning civil rights movement, racial tensions remained high, and the very next year, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated. When word got out that a black man was living at the Winter address, some of the neighborhood kids were barred from coming over. Once, when we went roller skating, Omar strutted his stuff, even gliding backwards. As I stood there, awestruck by his skills on the rink, I overheard someone growl, “Look at that n****r showing off. Who does he think he is?”
I was scared and offended. I couldn’t understand how some white people could be so ugly. Omar had become my big brother. He taught me karate and I taught him chess, something I would later regret because he would start beating me on a regular basis. Once, on a weekend, he camped out in the backyard. Just before we dozed off, he turned over in his sleeping bag and said, “I can’t tell you how great it is to have a little bro like you. I love you, man.”
“I love you, too,” I replied.
I had the flu when Omar tramped into the house one evening, wearing moccasin boots. A group of hippie friends came in with him, all sporting long hair, beads and flower vests. They flashed peace signs and when they all left, Omar said, “Get well, lil bro.”
That was the last time I saw him. For a while, I harbored hope that he would return and we’d go back to practicing martial arts, jogging by Lake Hefner, and cracking jokes. Later he sent a letter from Chicago and I cried, knowing he wasn’t coming back. After that, we never heard from him again.
On this day, I fondly remember Omar – not only for the love he showed to an awkward pre-adolescent, but for the courage of a black man coming to white suburbia in the late ’60s. I was a pretty sheltered kid, so I didn’t fully understand the depth of racism back then (and couldn’t, since I was a white youngster in WASP-y suburbia). Undoubtedly Omar endured more insults and shunning than I saw with my own eyes.
On this day, I give honor to my parents, who took a bold step of faith in inviting a man of a different race into our home. Even in the years before Omar came, I don’t ever recall them putting down people of color. I think Omar sensed the love in my folks, because before too long he started calling them “Mom and Pop” – even in public – which I’m sure elicited some raised eyebrows.
Most of all, on this day, I think about a man who was gunned down in his prime, and not because he pushed hate. Quite the opposite. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the unusual step of preaching love and nonviolence, even in the face of furious opposition. He backed up his words with actions, never taking up arms, urging his supporters to stage peaceful marches and sit-ins.
This powerful preacher from Atlanta, Georgia modeled his revolution on the ways of a first-century carpenter from Galilee. It is often overlooked that King’s inspiration came from Jesus. His wasn’t just a civil rights movement, but a spiritual revolution with God’s love at the core. He once said, “There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago…but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, ‘This isn’t the way.'”
“There is a power in love.”
The most powerful love in the universe isn’t doled out on the basis of creed, color or accomplishments. If it were, it couldn’t be called “grace.” It is a lavish love, freely offered to Antifa and Proud Boys and everyone in between. This cruciform love can break the heart of overt racists who march in supremacist rallies to subtle racists who believe that white privilege isn’t a thing. Grace can redeem a sinner, and open the eyes of those who think they have no sin. It was a love that a poor wretch like me discovered in my late twenties, and a love that I’m still discovering.
On this day, I think about Omar, and my parents, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most of all, I think about the love of God, and how it can truly change the world.