I have a hard time listening to many of these people, because I often don’t recognize anything Christian in their rhetoric. I regularly find them to be mean-spirited, harsh, uncharitable and often dishonest. Are these the traits of Jesus Christ? I am not a Christian, but I was raised in a Christian family. I know by example how to recognize the acts of a true Christian.
Besides my mother, the most important person in my life was my paternal grandfather, a self-taught Pentecostal minister who died in 1995 at age 92. I loved the simple trappings of his calling: black suit, starched white shirt, black bow tie, spit-shined shoes, wide-brimmed hat and Hoyt’s Cologne. And his zipper-protected, leather-bound Bible was always nearby.
Blacks and whites adored him. I began to understand why when I was about 12 years old. He used a corner of the bedroom he shared with my grandmother as his office. He worked at a desk made of citrus field boxes and a half sheet of plywood. I rarely went into their bedroom, but one day as I swept the floor there, I saw a framed copy of the Beatitudes on the wall above the desk.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
My grandfather walked in while I was reading. He stood silently behind me. I had read the Beatitudes before and knew they were the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew. But there above that makeshift desk, in my grandfather’s private space, the words came alive. I sensed the humility, the charity and the brotherly love in each line.
My grandfather put an arm around my shoulders and told me that the world would be a better place if everyone lived in a way that reflected the Beatitudes. He said I did not need to read anything else in the Bible the rest of my life. The Beatitudes were enough.
I had an illustrated Bible, a gift from my mother. That night, I read the Beatitudes over and over before falling asleep.
How could anyone, except Christ, live such a pure life? The next morning, at breakfast, I saw my grandfather in a new light. This simple man, a fruit picker who always wore a smile, lived the Beatitudes.
His church was a tiny clapboard structure alongside a muddy irrigation ditch. He never had more than 30 members. He never accepted a salary, and he used the offerings to keep the church repaired and to buy wholesome food for migrant farmworkers in a nearby camp. He gave away most of the vegetables in our garden. He invited gay people to attend church and asked other members of the congregation to treat them respectfully.
On several occasions, I accompanied him when he drove homebound older people to the doctor and dentist. He never had much money, but somehow he always had what he called “pocket change” for those “down on their luck.” During the height of the civil rights movement, he told his parishioners not to resort to violence even when white people brutalized them.
I must acknowledge that my grandfather’s generosity and childlike character often angered my grandmother and my father. And I must acknowledge that I did not grow up to be like my grandfather.
He was a true Christian. He lived a life that reflected the essence of the Beatitudes.
Who among our presidential candidates and other lawmakers can say with straight faces that they live the essence of the Beatitudes, that they are true Christians?
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.