I have never told this story publicly until now. It has a very offensive word in it, which I have not concealed because it is the point of the story.
In the congregation I formerly served was a woman I will call Ethel. Ethel was married to a guy I will call Fred. They had no children. Fred died after a long decline, and Ethel, who was already a little wacko, developed obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Fortunately, she had the wealth to deal with her peculiarities.
She could be exceptionally generous. She gave the synagogue her house when she moved into assisted living. She offered to buy us a Torah scroll; when the scribe gave her a choice of two, she decided to donate them both. Once, she gave me personally an armload of small appliances in their original boxes that she had ordered from a shopping channel on TV.
But there were other aspects of her personality that were not so endearing. Ethel would scoop refreshments into her purse after worship services even though she could easily afford the food she needed. She despised her sister and did everything she could to express it. The way she spoke cattily to you about other people was a pretty good indication that she spoke cattily to those other people about you. She had a distrust of banks and carried stock certificates in her purse (the one with the refreshments) because she considered it more secure than a safe deposit box.
Ethel got older, sicker and stranger. In an attempt to put her estate in order, a group from the synagogue mobilized to dispose of the junk she had hoarded in her small assisted living room. An attorney went about collecting her assets to create a will. A lovely African man became a sort of personal assistant to her. She had bought a new car when she moved, but after driving it less than a thousand miles, she gave up driving, so she gave him the car. (She did not sign it over to him – she just handed him the keys and told him to take it.) I was named executor of her will, overseeing an estate worth over three million dollars.
Here, then, is the summary: Ethel was old, sick, crazy, and rich. She was generous, often impulsively. And she entrusted me with distributing her hoarded wealth.
One day I got a call from the facility where she lived that her car had been stolen. Someone had noticed that it was not in the spot where it was always parked. I came over with the president of the congregation to ask her about it, having heard that she had given it to the young man who assisted her.
Please be ready for the offensive word.
“Ethel,“ I said. “Do you remember what happened to your car?”
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “The nigger took it.”
Old, sick crazy, rich, generous. Trusting enough of me to put me in charge of her money. I was virtually alone with her. The easiest thing in the world at that point would have been to chalk up her indiscretion to old, sick and crazy, lest the trust that left me with a checking account holding three million dollars be withdrawn.
Here's what I said.
“Ethel, you did not just call him a nigger! You may never, ever use that word again. It is a terrible word, and there is no excuse ever to use it.”
She said nothing.
Why did I do that? Because that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay. Never. O. K.
Ethel is long gone (and her money, donated to a non-profit of her choice, wound up lost in a Ponzi scheme). I have shared this story privately a very few times, but I share it publicly now.
Whether referring to race, faith, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other human attribute, that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay.
Never. O. K.