A few days ago, six of us were eating and talking about Rob Portman, the US senator from Ohio who had just announced that after a lifetime of opposing gay marriage, he had changed his mind.
His son had come out, and he had given gay marriage more thought, and I was dissing him for this, not for his change of opinion but for seeing the light only because his son, not someone else’s, was gay.
And that’s when my friend and teacher John O’Neil made me see the light. “It takes a face to change a heart,” he said quietly.
I should have known this. My granddaughter Lucy has Down syndrome. Her face changed my heart. Before she was born, I knew no one with intellectual disabilities. Now I do. And so do my friends. And because we know and love Lucy, we care about all these other kids and adults we never really saw before. Kids and adults we never took time to see.
Nancy and Sheila Nolan are in their sixties. They have muscular dystrophy. They’re in wheelchairs. They’re on vents. Years ago, when a friend said I had to meet them, I thought, “What will I say?”
We had tea and brownies fresh from the oven, and we talked and talked. And, yes, they needed help with things. But we all need help with things. They changed my heart.
Molly Bish, Lacey Packer, Maura Howard, Kristen Hatch, Cianan Murphy. All children I never knew. But I sat in their homes and listened to their parents tell their stories and peeked into their bedrooms and looked through photo albums. And each of them changed my heart and made me care about issues — predators and murderers and people who drive drunk and spinal muscular atrophy — issues I might not have cared about if not for them.
People of different color. Men and women. Straight and gay. Young, old. Pretty. Not pretty. Big. Small. Tattooed. People who can’t lift their heads or move their legs or say a word.
Every one, more the same than different.
It takes getting to know someone to realize this. Getting to see past preconceptions and stereotypes. It takes realizing that there’s no “us” and “them” — that we’re all in this together, that the divisions we make, the boundaries we create, all the ways we separate ourselves from each other, are imposed.
You can tell people this. You can argue and preach. But the surest way to understanding is personal. It takes a face to change a heart.
I watched a movie the other night that brought all this home. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is about two 8-year-olds who find each other in Germany during World War II. One lives in comfort on the outskirts of a concentration camp with his sister, mother, and his German commandant father. The other child is Jewish and a prisoner in the camp.
Neither child has a clue that people are being gassed in the camp. They are innocents. The German boy thinks the camp is a farm and that the barbed wire is there to keep the animals in. He thinks the number on his friend’s striped pajamas is part of a game. He doesn’t understand why his friend can’t come outside the fence. And he doesn’t realize that the foul-smelling smoke coming from the crematorium is thick with the ashes of human beings.
The boy in the camp doesn’t know about this either. He knows he’s hungry and locked up because he’s Jewish. He knows life is hard. But that’s it. The boys talk. They play checkers. The German boy sneaks his friend food. Their friendship is a secret.
Hearts are changed in this film, some for better, some for worse. And some too late.
But our salvation is that hearts can be changed.
“Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective,” Rob Portman wrote in an essay for The Columbus Dispatch.
A face offers that perspective, especially when it’s a face we love.