TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Inspired By A Young Man Who Loves It Here

This past weekend, while I was shopping at one of the big-box stores in Fargo, I noticed a young black man who appeared to be in his early 20s. This lad was helping everyone within “hello” distance and had a smile that lit up the room.

I watched him for about 10 minutes. His mood improved my own so much I walked over and struck up a conversation. He told me he was from North Carolina. I asked him how he liked our area, since he was so far from home. He replied without flinching, with that incredible smile going all the time, “I love it here.” I pressed him for his reasoning. He told me the people are warm and friendly; jobs are plentiful; and — most importantly — he loved local law enforcement because when he waves and says “hi,” they wave back.

Perhaps he exaggerated (or maybe not, since I’ve not been to North Carolina), but he implied there wasn’t much communication between the law and people of color in that state — and certainly no small talk. After listening to him, I gained a much better understanding of life in the Deep South from the viewpoint of one individual.

There are those in this community who would not have spoken to this young man under similar circumstances. The sadness of that is it’s hard to understand the lives some have to live if you don’t speak to them.

The young man did not know me from the man in the moon, yet his response was as open and friendly as those from other people of color I’ve met since retiring from the bench. But I’ve also met many young men who have felt the same type of prejudice right here in River City. That’s sad. I’m referring to Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants whose only apparent problem is that they aren’t the same color as we are.

The only color that matters is “red.” We all bleed that color. For my purpose here, that designates what it takes to be an American. What clothing we wear and how we wear our hair (or shave our heads) does not show who we are as a people — just what our individual tastes may be.

I personally don’t care if you believe in God, in Allah, in any other Creator … or don’t believe in the afterlife at all. If you are a good person, live an honest life and treat others as you wish to be treated, you are making this world a better place to live. If ever we’ve needed these types of people, it’s now more than ever.

My conversation with that young man from North Carolina piqued my interest in the state he came from. The North Carolina Legislature has been trying to set the clock back on civil rights. It is particularly active now in the time of President 45, who doesn’t recognize there are three co-equal branches of government. As he systematically tries to destroy the criminal justice system and remake it in his own image and likeness — the courts are once again reminding him and his supporters that this country is governed by the rule of law. God help us if that ever changes.

As in many states, North Carolina’s voter suppression attempts are being stomped on. That state accepted a variety of government-issued photo ID cards — drivers licenses, passports and military ID cards. However, in a not-so-subtle attempt to keep minorities from voting, this state would not accept public assistance card used disproportionately as identification by minorities in North Carolina. Legislators also tried to cut early voting days and end same-day voter registration. There was nothing subtle about their attempts to discourage and limit certain voters. Were it not for the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against them, they would have succeeded.

It’s one thing to be prosecuted because you have done something wrong. It is quite another to be persecuted because you exist.

Some might say that I take bigotry and prejudice personally because of the legacy of my father, Judge Ronald N. Davies. They’d be partially right. My father turned the spotlight on the problems of bigotry and prejudice for me, and it has never dimmed. I am so proud of that.

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When my wife went to the lake this weekend with one of my daughters, each brought a dog. I stayed home because I was going to (and did) cut and apply weed killer to the lawn. Our dog chews crabgrass like a doper smokes pot, and I didn’t want to take any chances with him getting into the treated lawn. So Maureen will be hearing about my adventures at North Fargo Hornbacher’s for the first time as she reads this column.

Apparently Saturday must have been Tattoo Day for grocery shoppers there. One young lady was showing off some writing and some kind of picture emblazoned just above her (slightly exposed) boob line. At my age, the body parts were of no interest. But as I tried to glimpse what the writing said, this lady— not a teenager, but in her 40s or 50s — looked me right in the eye and said, “Do you like what you see?”

With the speed of light. I replied, “Don’t flatter yourself, I wouldn’t have to squint if the print was as large as you-know-what.”

That was not the end of my violating social taboos. In front of me in the checkout line was another woman, a younger one, with an exposed back. I looked away at something as she stood there talking to her friend. When I glanced back, her tattoo caught my eye — it looked just like a real spider. I let out a whoop and a holler and jumped back before I realized what I was looking at. I had to explain to the startled teen how I am deathly afraid of spiders. I don’t think she, the clerk or the others who witnessed the event stopped laughing until after I’d left the store.

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Here’s a special shout-out to Justin Benson, Erik Benson and my grandson, Rhys Luger, for becoming Eagle Scouts at the Boy Scouts of America Troop 214 ceremony on Mother’s Day. Until I saw the list of accomplishments required to earn this honor, I had no idea of the dedication each of these young men demonstrated to achieve his goal.

There is no doubt in my mind these young men will succeed in life. Their achievement is also a testament to their parents who supported them. Awesome job, young men! Amen.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘Shoebox Christmas’

The whole story started 10 years ago, at about this very time.

I was at a meeting for Churches United for the Homeless, where I was serving my first year on the board. The executive director was bemoaning the fact that First Link, the organization in charge of distributing gifts to people at Christmas, had made some changes in their program.

In the past, gifts were distributed to children as well as “special needs” adults. However, that year, they decided to change the program and focus only on children. This meant that several hundred developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, elderly and indigent people who had previously received gifts at Christmas would get nothing.

The director was looking for someone to step up and help the shelter provide gifts for the residents on Christmas morning. I immediately volunteered, claiming the title “Chief Elf in Charge of Christmas.” However, I also said I was concerned about the others who would fall between the cracks and worried about what would happen to them.

A couple of days later, I received a call from a woman I had never met. She would go on, several years later, to become the first female mayor of Moorhead, but at that time, Delrae Williams was like me — a regular citizen who simply wanted to make a difference and help people who would otherwise be forgotten.

She told me she heard, through the grapevine, that I had been quite indignant about the change in the FirstLink policy and she shared my concern. She was wondering if the two of us could partner together to somehow provide gifts for those special needs adults who were being forgotten.

We brainstormed on the phone for a while before settling in on an idea. We decided we would contact the local Hornbacher’s grocery store and see if we could put up some containers where people could drop off shoeboxes full of items like socks, jerky, personal care items, gift cards, crossword or word find books, etc. that we would then distribute to organizations whose clients were being left out, without any gift for Christmas.

After receiving permission from Hornbacher’s and arranging for the church I was serving in Casselton, N.D., to be a rural drop off point, we divided up the local social service agencies to find out who would like to receive these shoeboxes and Operation Shoebox Christmas was born.

Delrae and I had a few things in common as we set about on our mission. We both have a lot of connections and will shamelessly use them to help causes about which we care.

We also had the perfect skill set for our endeavor. Delrae, the accountant, had spreadsheets helping us arrange when to pick up the shoeboxes from the grocery store and to what agency they should be distributed. She tracked how many we received, the gender for which they were designated and where they were delivered.

As a preacher, I was comfortable getting the word out. I wrote letters to the editor, explaining what had happened and what we were doing about it — making an effort to focus more on the solution than the problem. I spoke to the media — both radio and television — shamelessly promoting this opportunity to give back. I sent out emails and encouraged everyone I knew to give.

Between the two of us, we also persuaded friends and family to help us with the pickup and delivery of the boxes, which became quite an endeavor as word of our project spread and the containers collecting the shoeboxes began to overflow.

By Christmas Eve, less than five weeks after we had brainstormed the project, more than 800 shoeboxes filled with gifts had been collected and distributed around the Fargo-Moorhead area, so many boxes, in fact, that most people were able to get two.

A few weeks after Christmas, Delrae and I were invited to meet with the leaders of the FirstLink Program and the Salvation Army at the United Way in Fargo.  When we arrived there, it was the first time we actually met in person. All of our work was done over the phone or via email — a good reminder that sometimes people are able to get a lot more done without “meetings,” simply be being action oriented and efficient.

At the meeting, concerns were expressed about the cost and time commitment involved in the program, if they were once again to expand it to include “special needs” adults. Delrae and I simply let them know that our total expenses were about $75 — the cost of the containers we placed at the Hornbacher’s and that we both worked full-time jobs, so this was just an additional activity for us at Christmas, one we both found incredibly fulfilling.

In the end, we must have made some sense because the next year, and every year since, “special needs adults” have been included in the Holiday Giving Program.

What had started as a couple of indignant women upset about what we perceived as an injustice ended up becoming an amazing celebration of the goodness in the community simply because we were willing not to simply complain about what wasn’t, but make a way for what could be — to focus on the solution.

As I think about how I am trying to cope with the realities of a changing America, of the unleashed hatred and racial and ethnic slurs, of the fears of so many as they worry about whether they will be left behind or left out, of the concerns about the last, the lost and the least falling between the cracks or out of the safety net, I sometimes struggle with feeling overwhelmed.

There is so much to do. And I am just one person who often feels like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in an unjust world with unfair systems.

And then I remember our “Shoebox Christmas.”  I may not be able to change the whole world, but I can change the world around me, with a little effort, creativity, determination and a good “partner in crime.”

So rather than complain, or retreat into sullen silence, or be rendered immobile with overwhelming fits of despair, I will continue to forge ahead, doing what I can, where I can, and hopefully find others to join me along the way, as we try to make world around us a better place, one shoebox at a time.