I didn’t know I was “oil field trash” until the point was driven home to me as a child in elementary school. My dad was an itinerant oil field laborer, known colloquially as a “roughneck.”
We followed the oil rigs, moving every few months. I lived in Crane, Andrews, Brownfield and Odessa in Texas; Elmore City and Stroud in Oklahoma; and Newcastle, Wyo., all before the sixth grade.
While waiting for the school bus on a crisp autumn day in a small West Texas town, an older boy told me, “Hey, white trash, your bus stops over there.” He pointed across the street.
Another said, “He ain’t white trash; he’s oil field trash.”
I waited across the street as the bus came and went.
But that’s not the whole story. In every town, there was a United Methodist church. I gravitated to these. They had scout groups, youth activities, vacation church school, choirs and Christmas pageants.
In virtually every place, they were welcoming and safe. They called me by my name. I wasn’t “oil field trash.” I was Larry.
A church that makes outsiders feel welcome embodies the grace of God, a grace freely given, and extended to us without regard for our status.
Today, more than ever, we need that grace. The world needs that grace to heal the divisions that cut across our lives.
We see this need everyday. A continuous stream of news about racial conflict, political marginalization, economic exploitation, the denial of rights based on cultural profiles, and the outright bullying of everyone from small children to elderly people reveals it. Sometimes such behavior is based on little more than paranoia and pure meanness, but always it damages the human spirit.
We live in a polarized world, increasingly defined by “ins” and “outs,” “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s a world that we’ve inherited, but it’s also one that we’ve helped create. The responsibility for changing it rests with us. That’s where grace comes in.
The grace that I experienced as a child came through the outpouring of love from others. Where would any of us be if not for the grace given us through loved ones, family members, friends, and at times, complete strangers? Perhaps God’s highest purpose for us is to serve as channels of grace in that way.
The problems we face as a society and world will not be solved by intellect and political craft alone. The rhetoric is too loud, the suspicions too deep. Grace is the only power that can lift us up, mend our wounds and help us move forward together. It is the only power that can lead us to acceptance and understanding of one another.
Extending grace, however, requires us to reach out and make someone else’s life better – regardless of whether we approve of what that person believes or represents. That’s the thing about grace: It’s unconditional.
It also transforms lives. The acceptance that I experienced in churches as a child ultimately led me to choose a career in the ordained ministry.
Those small-town congregations offered safe haven to the scruffy son of an itinerant worker whose family followed the rigs, never staying more than six months anywhere.
They offered transformative community and, because they did, I experienced the transforming love of God. For this, I will forever be thankful.