Remembering Roger every day

Published 9:02 pm Thursday, July 27, 2023

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In middle school, I was a bully. There’s a tragic element here, because, for so much of elementary school, I was bullied. I was the different one, the weird one. I was the one pushed against the lockers and jumped in the bathroom. But when it was my turn, when I was a little older, a little cooler (or so I thought), I turned down a path of cruelty. I decided it was my turn to be the bully with what little power I thought I had.

I targeted a high school freshman who we’ll call Roger. He had all the makings of a target. He was soft-spoken and gentle with everybody. He was even gentle and loving in how he responded to my bullying. He never raised his voice, nor balled his fists. He never pushed back. He simply took it like it had no effect at all.

There’s a longer story here, so I’ll get right to the point. On August 22, 1999, I felt like God was calling me to be a preacher for the rest of my life. It was like a fire shut up in my bones that I couldn’t ignore. Alongside that call, there was something else, like a shadow. It was the sense of guilt, of shame even. I knew that, before I could make this change in my life, I had to make things right with Roger. I had to face him and own up to my own selfishness. That very night, before I had the opportunity to make a right go at reconciliation, he died tragically in a car crash.

When I got the news, I was stunned into silence. How could this possibly be? What do I do now? The only thing that felt like the right thing to do was going to his funeral. When I arrived, I was stunned once again. This boy, only a year older than me, had all the same interests: comic books, video games, Star Wars, etc. He was buried in his favorite Return of the Jedi cap, and when I saw it on his head, I had a sobering realization: if I hadn’t been so caught up in using my power for cruelty, Roger and I could have been fast friends. He was a poet, too, and some of his works were read at his funeral. They were beautiful, more beautiful than you could imagine coming from the heart of a 15-year-old boy.

If I had been willing to see beyond my own judgment and prejudice, I could have been friends with one of the sweetest souls to ever walk this earth. Approaching his mother, I asked her forgiveness for how I tormented her son. She hugged me and, with tears in her eyes, said that Roger had told her he had forgiven me already, and she would do the same. She kept the embrace for a while as we cried together without saying anything. Reflecting now on her response, it makes sense why Roger was such a beautiful and loving soul.

That was a tough lesson for me to learn as a teenager, but it’s one that has stuck with me for life. I think about Roger almost every day and wonder what our friendship might look like as adults. Would we share poetry we wrote when we were enamored with a sunset? Would we meet for coffee and debate which Star Wars movie is the absolute best?

I often think about the lesson he taught me about the right use of power. Roger had every right to turn around and punch me, but he didn’t. It never even crossed his mind. He chose to spend his power and energy on bringing life and joy to the people around him. That was far more important than wasting his energy on a bully.

His witness to me is a big reason why I keep fighting for those on the margins, those whom society excludes. His witness to me is a big reason why I make the resolute choice to put good into the world, to use my power to help those who have none, and to set aside my prejudices in order to find the common humanity within everybody, even those so far apart they can barely see each other.

Roger teaches me every day about being a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ. In Roger, I see a living witness to the power of love. In Roger, I see the kind of person I hope to be: a fellow traveler in this harsh world who leaves people feeling better than they did before.

We miss out on so much beauty when we close ourselves off to people we think less of or believe should be excluded. How about you? What could you let go or, how could you better use your power, in order to see the beauty in all the faces around you? Do you have a Roger you need to make peace with?

Chris Adams is the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.