In the Academy Award winning film Forrest Gump, there is a scene in which Forrest Gump and his best friend Jenny reconnect at a Vietnam War Protest Rally. He has just returned home from serving in the war and she is there as a protestor. Though fictional, the rally mirrored that of the actual one which took place in Washington on October 21, 1967. Odds are, if I had been around as a college student during that time I would have been like Jenny: at the rally, screaming at the top of my lungs how I feel about war and rumors of war and those who have any parts of it all. My throat would have been sore from yelling derogatory statements about those serving in the military and no one could convince me that my scope of thinking might be flawed. Because as a college student and twenty-something year old, all I knew was that my convictions were right and those who did not agree with them were wrong. Then I met a Marine being honorably discharged after completing his tour of duty; my scope of thinking, and my life, changed forever.
We became friends, best friends. Unfortunately for him this meant at times listening to my rants about the “atrocity” of enlistment and fielding countless questions from me as to how and why he could do such a thing. Fortunately for me I had befriended an incredibly patient and understanding person who chose never to rebuke or retaliate but who did one day say, “Stop. Now it’s my turn to speak.”
He grew up a little boy with brown skin in Forrest City, Arkansas, named after the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His maternal grandfather, a White man, had to often exercise caution when going into public places with his mother, a bi-racial girl growing up in a city still segregated. I listened as he shared memories of the division with which he grew up, names he was called, classmates whose parents liked him but whose homes he was not allowed to enter. As a child, he sometimes saw the worst in people. As a Marine, he saw the best in people.
My ignorance was brought front and center as I listened to him tell of men laying down their lives in the field to protect one another while they fought to protect this country. I understood then, more so than ever before, that death never discriminates: White men died in the arms of Black men, Black men died in the arms of White men. Though many, like my best friend, had come from segregated communities, their love for this country united them and they fought hard alongside one another to defend that love; and sometimes the price paid for that love was death.
I married that best friend, who sat with me through many conversations and gave me the freedom to express my opinions but also taught me that my opinions are subject to change as my understanding of things changes. When we met I had already spent a lifetime forming beliefs that, though at times were challenged, remained a stronghold in my life. It was not until after I truly opened my heart to what was being said and opened my spirit to feel the pain with which it was said, those strongholds began to fall.
"Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get," Forrest Gump says in what has become one of the film’s most famous scenes. We never know who will come into our lives and help us see things in a different light, help us understand that it isn’t always black and white. We never know when an opportunity might arise for those lifelong strongholds to be shattered in a way that causes our hearts to celebrate and those around us to be infinitely impacted by the change that has taken place. Today, I celebrate that God saw fit to change my heart and my life through the words and actions of a man, a Marine, who loves his country, defended his country, fought for his country and honors his country.
Thank you Andre and all of you who serve and have served these United States of America.