The flames shot skyward like they were reaching for the moon. The beautiful colors of orange and yellow mixed with blue in the flames ate away at the wooden cross that was planted in the front yard of our Monroe street home in Dearborn, Michigan in the summer of 1968. The sound of voices in the early summer morning hours on our front lawn brought Mom and Dad out of their restful sleep. Dad rocketed to the two bedrooms across the hall that housed the four kids. Mom sprung out of bed as she saw the reflections of the fire in the front yard on the ceiling and walls of her second story bedroom. She jumped to the window only to see a blurry glow of fire in the yard below. Her ejection from bed was done without her cat-eye glasses so her vision was limited to shadows and flickering lights. Her mind recognized it was a fire somewhere down below but, her near sighted eyes could not focus as to what was on fire.
Mom panicked thinking that the wooden plantation style porch was on fire. Curiosity and fear dragged her away from the window to get her glasses that lay on the night stand. As she put on the glasses and came back to the window, visual and mental clarity came to her at once. The voices she heard came from those that constructed and set fire to the wooden cross. The fire came from a 6 foot high cross in the middle of the spacious front lawn. A small measure of relief came to her as she realized the fire was no danger to the home or the family of six that lived there. She was still concerned because she could not locate the voices that she had heard. She was concerned that they still may be out in the yard somewhere.
Mom ducked down away from the window hoping she had not been seen. She crawled to the door of her bedroom and down the steps to the phone in the living room. She purposely dodged the windows in case the voices were looking for a human target and safely made it to the heavy Bell telephone in the living room. Quickly she dialed the police who said they were on their way. As she waited, Dad quietly came down to report on all the kids. They were all sound asleep and had no knowledge of the front yard fireworks. The voices from the front yard had disappeared and the fire was slowly dying as it continued to attack any part of the cross that would support it.
The apartment building next door began to come alive as light after light came on. The street was now early morning quiet again. A male from the apartment complex slowly emerged. He was headed straight for the cross that was fading away. When he reached the cross, the thin, young, white man violently kicked it down. His body language told of his disgust for this disrespectable, cowardice act. As the cross crashed to the ground regurgitating sparks and ash, the young man walked away.
A while later the Dearborn Police arrived. They took the report and they too quickly disappeared. It took them longer to get there then it did to complete the report. They left, being sure not to leave any compassion or sympathy for the shaken parents.
As the sun rose on the charred and broken cross my parents wondered who would do something like this. They did not waste any time wondering why. In the last 8 months, neighbors and friends gave them very candid feedback in response to what they did. Disapproval clanged loudly over and over and over again.
In November of 1967 my parents brought me home for the first time. I traveled from a foster home in the neighboring city of Detroit to the parsonage of Richard and Judy Hofmann. He was a white associate Pastor at the nearby all white St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. They carried me through the door of their colonial home to meet their three eager biological children, two boys and a girl. The children ranged in ages from 1 to 5, and now added to the mix was a 3 month old biracial child. That child was me and my presence in that house would start a controversy no one would have predicted.
Being a Pastor and the wife of a Pastor, my adoptive parents, who I have always called Mom and Dad, were living what their Christian faith had taught them; when someone is in need you help them. When someone needs a helping hand you offer yours. Unfortunately, Dearborn was not a city of Pastors and we would all soon learn not all Pastors and/or Christians were eager to extend their hand.
They never found out who left the flaming cross and I tend to believe the investigation ended before the Police finished their report. I laugh to myself today when I see in a neighbor’s yard a large wooden animal that has been erected in celebration of someone’s birthday and has a catchy sign attached to that says something like, “Lordy, Lordy, Cathy is 40 today.” or “Oh joy it’s a boy.” This is a way for people to acknowledge and publicly celebrate something. Then I think back to the present I got in Dearborn. Maybe those that left me that cross just didn’t know what else to do.
It is easy when someone has a baby. You bring them diapers, a sippy cup or maybe a teething ring. When someone gets married it is even easier. They have a list to pick from at a local store. The dilemma comes when a white family in one of the whitest cities in America during the civil rights movement brings home a biracial child that looks more non-white than white. What do you do to make an 11 month old biracial boy feel welcome? How do you deal with the nightmare that boils inside you because your biggest fear has moved in next door? Soon this infant would be calling his friends and Dearborn would be consumed by its mirror image, Detroit. A flaming cross seems like the perfect way to say “WELCOME TO DEARBORN”