There’s an experience from my childhood that crosses my mind every year on Father’s Day.
When I was a kid, my dad pastored in a low income neighborhood in the city of Flint, Michigan. Flint has always been a rough town, but during the eighties when my family lived there, it had the highest murder rate per capita of any city in the country.
If you ever met my father, you would agree that he is by definition, the most “suburban” man alive.
He buys all of his clothes at JC Penney.
He wears chinos and golf shirts to relax.
He wears a suit and tie to work.
This is my father. The style guru of suburban fashion.
When summer rolled around each year, I had no choice on certain days but to go to the office with my dad because my mom also worked full time. My parents always told me never to go off the church property because the neighborhood was very dangerous.
One day I was sitting in the reception area at the church office coloring, and my dad came out of his office wearing a pair of cross trainers, tube socks pulled up to his knees, a pair of pleated khaki shorts, and a tshirt that read, “Don’t mess with Texas,” (his home state).
He was also carrying a basketball.
He said, “Come on, Ryan. Let’s go over to the park and play ball during our lunch break.”
The park my dad was talking about was the kind of park that everyone called a “park” but it really functioned more like an open air drug market.
There were no children in the park. Children didn’t go to this park.
It was not green.
It had no working swing sets or jungle gyms.
It was a barren landscape covered in dead, brown grass littered with beer cans, whiskey bottles, and used drug paraphernalia.
But there was a basketball court.
As my dad and I exited the church and crossed the street, I could see a very intense game of basketball happening at the park. I could hear curse words and shouting.
The guys watching the game from the sidelines were drinking something out of little paper bags, the same kind that my mom would pack my school lunch in. The music coming out of the boom boxes sounded very different from the church music my parents would play on our tape player at home. The lyrics were angry and violent.
As my father and I entered the park, the game stopped and everyone looked in our direction. Two foreign beings had just invaded a forbidden turf. A balding white man with a ten-inch combover, bad shorts, bad shoes, terrible socks, with a basketball in one hand and his child’s hand in the other.
Dad walked right into the middle of the game, stuck out one of his hands, and said to the guy playing point guard, “Hi. My name is pastor Phipps. I work at the church across the street. I’m on my lunch break, and I was wondering if you would mind if my son and I played basketball with you?”
A hush fell over the court as an awkward handshake of two very different people took place. After what seemed like years, the guy my dad was speaking to told two of the guys on his team to sit the rest of the game out and my dad and I joined their team on the court.
It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, but dad seemed happy about the whole thing. The guy playing point guard threw me the ball and said, “Here kid, you take the ball out.”
I even scored (or rather, everyone let me score).
As we kept playing, the atmosphere of that park shifted. It felt less dark and less foreign.
It was the same feeling I would have when our congregation would sing songs together at church. It was the same feeling I had when my family would sit at the dinner table and we would laugh and tell stories. There was camaraderie. There was shared experience. There was...dare I think it? “Friendship.”
A line was crossed. A barrier was breached, and two people groups that were formerly divided by cultural norms were all of a sudden mixing, playing a game together.
I will never forget this experience long as I live.
As I’ve aged, my opinions have become very different from that of my father.
We differ politically, theologically, philosophically, and in just about every other area of knowledge that exists for humankind to ruminate over.
This has been the cause of many good dinner table debates over the years during the holidays. Neither of us willing to budge, but my dad never seeming upset- that same happy look on his face. Two people of different stripes exchanging ideas in the spirit of friendship.
My dad has always had that gift. He can walk up to anybody, even someone who disagrees with him or thinks he’s strange for approaching them, and show them that love is bigger than our differences.
I struggle to believe the things my dad believes about God at times.
I can never get on the same page with him politically.
But the way I’ve watched him cross lines and break cultural norms over the years for the sake of building bridges across divides has left an indelible mark on me.
To this day, nothing makes me ache more inside than to see people dividing, separating, and afraid of one another. And I have my dad to thank for that.
In some strange way, though we believe very different things, there’s something about my dad’s beliefs that go far beyond the boundaries of doctrine and continue forward into a kind of love that’s difficult to put into words. But the results of that love are easy to see. It looks like friendship, unity, and above all, people mattering more than principles.