His fist was fast approaching my face, his eyes filled with hate and his face twisted with anger. On a chilly but sunny April afternoon in Coventry I was about to be attacked by a stranger simply for the colour of my skin. At that moment, my eyes welling up with tears, I asked the simplest question,
“What have I ever done to you?”
In that spilt second the fist fast approaching my face fell to his side, and I noticed his face fall too, quite literally. His eyes opened wide and his mouth fell open, all the taunt lines on his face fell away and his expression of hate was replaced by a deep look of care and concern.
“I am so sorry, I am so sorry,” he said, and as the tears now flowed freely down my face he pleaded with me, “Please don’t cry, I am so sorry.”
At that point I can’t remember if I replied. I just marvel that in that moment he changed from a raging animal into a brotherly figure. He started yelling to his friends, “Leave them alone! Leave them alone! Get in the car!” There was a fourth person who had been driving around, I hadn’t even noticed till then.
“What’s he on about?” I could hear his friends shouting. They must have thought he had lost his mind.
But they were retreating and getting into their car. As he got in he kept saying he was so sorry. At that point a couple seated in their car close by was emboldened enough to get out and shout at the group as they drove off. It was a nice gesture but pointless really, they were speeding away already. I heaved a sigh of relief wiping away my tears as the car turned the corner.
It took a great amount of courage for us to continue on to the fair. I was totally shell shocked, fragile. But we felt avoiding the streets and public places could become a habit, we didn’t want that. It would also be giving in, I didn’t want that either. So after much discussion and venting, we went on.
Later that afternoon I caught sight of them at the fair, my heart froze again and I was scared – but there were many crowds around us. His friends passed us with sheepish expressions on their faces, they made every effort not to glance in our direction. I hope and pray what he did that day had a lasting positive impact on them all. Our eyes met for the briefest moment across the carousel. He had a hint of a smile on his face, like he was communicating that it was safe, that it was ok… I think I tried to smile back, to be honest I’m not sure if I was able to muster up a smile. I never saw him again. Wherever he is I hope he is well and I will be forever thankful that his clenched fist became a hand of protection.
That phrase sent to Coventry is so appropriate. I never did like Coventry but I learnt a heck of a lesson there. I learnt that we all have love and care within us, we just need to tap into it. That humanity is greater than hate and division, the power of humanity is phenomenal. That no matter how far apart we seem to be, we can all connect, care, and come together, it is a choice that we make to love or to hate. I hope he also learnt something that day… Perhaps that racism is simply wrong, that essentially we are all the same, and that he was much bigger than the racist bigot that he thought he could be.
When the German Luftwaffe dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on Coventry in 1940 they destroyed St Michaels Cathedral, and while a new Cathedral was built it did not replace the ruins, it was simply connected to them. Today in the ruins of St Michaels stands a large wooden cross that represents two mediveal timbers that survived the bombardment. And inscribed behind the alter are the words ‘Father Forgive’. It is, they say, a sanctuary dedicated towards reconciliation.
Perhaps that is how I should remember Coventry, as a sanctuary – a place that will forever hold a moment that embodied an incredible experience of human connection, understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation.