Expect the unexpected

Sports can spring surprises. On the first day of the FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia astonished the football world by defeating Argentina. Although Argentina recovered to qualify for the final 16, two other highly rated teams were eliminated: Belgium was stunned by Morocco; and Japan defeated Spain (although Spain still qualified) and knocked out Germany in the process. There will doubtless be more upsets in the coming days! (Since I wrote this blog, Morocco made World Cup history by beating Spain and then Portugal to become the first African and first Arabic-speaking team to reach the semi-finals.)

And immigrants are playing an increasingly prominent role in international football. About one in six players at the World Cup were born in countries other than the one they are representing. Forty-four percent of the French team are immigrants or descendants of immigrants; sixty percent are people of color, some from the French West Indies. The father of the star player Kylian Mbappé is originally from Cameroon and his mother came from Algeria. Many other teams reflect similar multiculturalism. Seven of Canada’s 26-member contingent are first-generation immigrants. When Alphonso Davis was selected to join the team he tweeted, “A kid born in a refugee camp wasn’t supposed to make it!” His parents fled to Ghana to escape the civil war in Liberia and the family later were taken in by Canada. Soccer offers a window into migration patterns. Maybe it will play an unexpected role in breaking down prejudices and expanding our appreciation for diversity.     

Image: The Hill

Politics has also delivered some surprises recently. Democrats did much better in the US midterms than the polls and pundits had predicted. And despite concern about potential interference and voter intimidation, state election officials – both Republican and Democrat – reported a virtually flawless process. Most election-deniers went down in defeat. Large numbers of young people turned out. The American people sided with democracy.

Analysis and statistics are important, but I am learning that a little humility and willingness to lay aside assumptions can be useful. As we often say in community building work, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Unexpected people can be pioneers of change. Those who laid some of the foundations for racial healing in Richmond, Virginia in the late 1970s were an unlikely crowd. Most were white and somewhat conservative. Yet, they reached out to every new member of the first Black-majority city council. Helen Rumple, a retired secretary, invited Councilman Walter Kenney and his wife for tea in her modest home. Kenney, who later became mayor, said it was the first white home that he had been invited to. It was the start of a city-wide process of relationship building that led to Kenney leading the city’s first walk through its racial history in 1993.

And who could have imagined that in 2015, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, long known for its racist editorials, would declare that Virginia should take the lead in a national truth and reconciliation commission? I recall sitting in the office of Todd Culbertson, the editorial page editor, and exclaiming, “I can’t believe I am in the office the Times-Dispatch having a conversation about reparations!” 

If the former heart of Confederacy can choose a new direction, why not Texas? The state is often viewed by liberals as a lost cause because of its reactionary policies such as its refusal to extend health care to those who need it most. But who could have predicted that Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, would be the president to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965? As his biographer Robert Caro wrote in a 2008 commentary, leaders of the civil rights movement deeply distrusted him. Johnson had been such a successful strategist against civil rights that he was seen as “the young hope of the elderly Southern senators in their desperate battle to maintain racial segregation.” During his first 20 years in the House and Senate, he had voted against every civil rights bill – even bills aimed at ending lynching. However, Caro, notes, some of those close to Johnson knew there was another side to him. They often heard him speak passionately about his experience as a 21-year-old teaching the Mexican American children of impoverished migrant workers in the little town of Cotulla.

Martin Luther King, Jr. watched Johnson’s historic speech to Congress at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides. During all the years of struggle, none of them had ever seen King cry, writes Caro. “But when Johnson said, ‘We shall overcome,’ they saw him cry.”

My wife and I moved to Texas three years ago. We quickly realized the need to lay aside any preconceptions or easy stereotypes. As a separate country, it would have the 10th largest economy in the world. While the fossil fuel industry still wields enormous influence, Texas is now first in the nation in wind-generated electricity. The population of this vast state (it takes 14-16 hours to drive across it) is growing at a furious pace. Less than 50% of Texans are non-Hispanic whites. Houston is the most diverse metro area in the country with 142 languages. The state reflects in outsized ways the polarization and contradictions of culture and politics seen across the country. A 2017 article in the New Yorker magazine was headlined “America’s future is Texas.”

What inspired and unexpected breakthrough could Texas give to the nation now? Is it possible that one Republican leader – perhaps even Governor Greg Abbott – might have the courage and compassion to proclaim guns as a public health crisis, and that the lives of our children are more precious than our cherished “rights”?  Texas could astonish the country by leading a movement to begin to end the uniquely American scourge of unchecked slaughter in our streets, schools and homes.