“But I tell you, love your enemies.” Jesus
I was shocked the night my father casually revealed to the family that he had purchased a pair of shoes for the likes of Genie Arneson, my mortal enemy. He dropped the bomb when all of us were sitting around the kitchen table, enjoying our evening meal and engaged in casual conversation. When I heard it I was flabbergasted. Could it be the same Genie Arneson who was in my fourth grade class at school? How did Dad even know him? Where did he meet up with him? And why in heavens name did he take the kid shopping?
I was raised in a small rural town where the term “gang” referred to a group of elementary school kids who played together after school. There were good gangs and bad gangs. The bad gangs were typically the ones that bullied the good gangs. Genie Arneson led a bad gang and he was the biggest bully of them all.
Just weeks before my father’s disheartening news, I had gotten into the one and only fist fight of my life. It was with Genie. After school he and some of his toughs were picking on my friend Jimmy Smith. Now any gang member worth his salt is loyal to his mates. So I didn’t hesitate to come to Jimmy’s defense and jumped into the fray. Genie was a bigger, stronger, seasoned fighter and got the best of me. It is a fight I am proud to this day that I fought even though I lost. Jimmy and I ended up high tailing it to my house with Genie’s gang in hot pursuit.
I hated Genie. He was a scruffy, unkempt kid with a nasty attitude. I swear he looked and acted just like Scut Farkas, the bully and Ralphie’s nemesis in the movie “A Christmas Story.” His clothes and manner of dress matched his demeanor. They looked like cast offs and in my opinion so was he.
When I picked my jaw up off the floor that night at the dinner table I asked my father how he could do such a thing to me. I felt that his showing any kindness to a kid like Genie was a stab in my back. My father proceeded to explain, quietly laying his fork aside, leaning forward with his arms resting on the table, looking at me with understanding eyes, sharing openly from his compassionate heart, he told me about the Arneson family.
If there is one trait that I will forever admire in my father it was his compassion. It was not uncommon for him to weep when reading the newspaper about someone who had experienced misfortune. He always made it a practice to stop whenever he saw someone stranded along the road. On many an occasion our trip time table went out the window when Dad stopped to help someone.
It turns out my dad knew much more about Genie and his family than I ever imagined. For one thing, unlike me, Genie did not have a father. In addition, his mother was struggling to provide the social, emotional and physical support that Genie and his other brothers and sisters so desperately needed. Consequently, they were living in abject poverty.
I thought Genie’s shabby dress was an expression of his rebel heart. Little did I know how disadvantaged he was and how to the contrary, his appearance and behavior were more likely an expression of a needy heart.
Things were different between me and Genie after my dad bought him those shoes. My opinion of Genie began to change. Something in what my father shared deeply touched my heart and I found myself, like him, viewing Genie as a person worthy of understanding and compassion. Seeing Genie each day at school in those new shoes became a friendly reminder to extend him love and forgiveness rather than judgment and condemnation.
The shoes provided by my father also changed Genie’s attitude toward me. He was different after that. The antagonism and bullying attitude disappeared and before the school year was out we were friends. Neither one of us ever acknowledged anything about the shoes. But to this day I know what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes and the power it has to change hearts and relationships. I would guess that Genie learned the same thing. Thanks Dad! That is a lesson I treasure even today and will carry with me into eternity.
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