This is a guest contributor post by Judy Benson, St. James’, New London.
We also interviewed Judy Benson last year, read that interview here.
Happenstance brought Angie and me to Wadsworth Falls State Park on that lavish June afternoon. It turned into a chance encounter with grace.
Friends since childhood, we decided to meet at the park for a hike because it was near where her daughter would be taking a four-hour test for her nursing license. Angie and Nora had just driven from their home in New Jersey through the heart of the New York City megalopolis, so time outdoors would be a welcome interlude before the return trip.
After our parking lot reunion without the usual hugs, we found the well-worn trail through the woods to the waterfall. Along the way, we chatted about our families and jobs, and also about the eruption of protests since the George Floyd killing. The rush of anger and resolve from the Black Lives Matter march I had joined with my husband two days earlier was still fresh in my mind. The protest Angie tried to join was rained out, but she was determined to find another and had been communicating with her boss about diversifying their workplace.
We grew up together in Dover, N.J., attending public schools there with roughly equal numbers of Hispanic, African American and white kids like ourselves. I would be naïve to say racial tensions never flared, but I honestly don’t remember any. “Live and let live,” seemed the unspoken motto. Peers from the whiter, wealthier towns around us looked down on Dover, but thanks to some straight-talking high school teachers we knew Dover had something rich and rare in its diversity. Even if we didn’t fully appreciate it then, the years since have only intensified that realization. Today, we both still live in diverse communities and enjoy longtime friendships with people of all colors.
But neither of us were feeling too comfortable with ourselves since current events blared “white privilege” alongside “I can’t breathe.” What’s an effective way to acknowledge all this pain and injustice, then take meaningful concrete action? Simply cogitating on what’s wrong, I told her, seemed like a waste of time, more like avoidance than responsibility. I needed to find how to play my part. She agreed.
Then the trail ended at a paved road. Where was the waterfall? We saw some arrows pointing the way. It took us across a grassy field, then down some rustic wooden stairs.
There it was. Magnificently tumbling off the rock cliff into sparkling pools below, the waterfall held a gathered congregation of humanity in thrall. Afternoon sunrays streamed through the canopy. Angie and I found a spot along the banks near three young African American men, who smiled and chatted as one waded in the water. On the other side a mom spoke to her daughter in Spanish. Children splashed in the pools. Others drenched themselves directly beneath the waterfall. I’ve had many precious experiences in nature over the years, but never in the midst of so much diversity. The mix looked just like Dover.
What were we witnessing but God’s grace? I turned to Angie, tearful. This is so beautiful, I told her, just to see people playing, hear them laughing, receiving the gifts of nature. After so many days of turmoil, we could all just soak in the wonder of living for a few moments together here. It’s the reason to keep reaching for more, for better.
A few days later, we exchanged emails. Angie had been to a protest and initiated a diversity hiring initiative at work. I had gotten the OK from my boss to devote the next issue of the magazine I edit to issues of diversity in the sciences, and environmental racism. It was just a small start, but it felt good. The waterfall of God’s grace had led the way.