BY DANIEL TOWNSEND
I have a life-changing relationship with an extraordinary person. It started back in 2002. Justin's life and beliefs still touch me.
Growing up in Mississippi, I have encountered my fair share of racism over the years.
I recall a time, about 20 years ago, when my brother and I were in high school. He was very popular among the ladies, and went out with several girls, certainly far more than I ever did, and not all of them were white. I remember one occasion when one of my brother’s friends, after hearing about his current girlfriend, approached him and asked him, in disbelief, if it was really true that he “was dating a n----r”.
Inter-racial dating just wasn’t done in our small Mississippi town. We even had a segregated prom. Of course, the public school we attended couldn’t promote a segregated prom, so the school simply didn’t host any dances at all. Because the prom was technically a non-school related, private event, those who organized it could do whatever they wanted to.
Thanks to my brother’s open-minded influence, I came to see how wrong all of this racial hostility was in high school. However, I came to see it only in a very surface level sort of way. I came to see it much more vividly in college, thanks to a life-changing relationship with an extraordinary person.
Justin isn’t ordinary by any standard. He was born with a debilitating medical condition known as Neurofibromatosis, which means tumors are growing in his head. They aren’t malignant, but they cause his face to be disfigured. They cause him to be deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. They cause him to need a trache tube in order to breathe. On top of all that, he also has Glaucoma, which meant he is blind.
Given his sobering medical history, one would have expected him to be a withdrawn, “somber” kid back when we met. That’s certainly what I expected in 2002 when I was assigned to be his volunteer for a week at Camp Barnabas, a summer camp in Missouri for children and adults with disabilities.
Justin, 12 years old at the time in 2002, blew my expectations out of the water. When he got off the charter bus that had brought him from St. Louis, I greeted him at the bottom and told him my name. He patted me on the head and said, “Why are you so short?” With that, I knew it would be a fun week.
The first thing Justin wanted to do was go to his cabin and unload all of his stuff. He asked me if there was a c.d. player in the cabin, and when I told him there was, he proceeded to put his Chubby Checker c.d. in and do the twist. After that, he asked if we could go to the water fountain and fill up his water gun. He wanted to go attack his brother, who was in the conference room. By the time he’d been at camp 15 minutes, he’d done the twist, soaked his brother, and convinced me that I was in for the ride of my life this week.
What does all of this have to do with race? Well, Justin’s dad is black, his mom is white, and he is blind, so you can imagine Justin has a unique perspective on race.
I remember as the night of the big camp dance approached and campers were lining up dates to escort, Justin met a girl in the dining hall and arranged to take her to the dance.
Later in the cabin, as he was excitedly getting ready for the dance, he asked me, “Is she black or white?” For him, the girl’s race was just an after thought. The date was already arranged.
Though he hadn’t intended to teach me anything profound about race relations, he had in his own nonchalant, unassuming way.
He exemplified to me what it would look like to really not care what a person looks like, to just treat people as people.
This relationship with this kid, the kind of relationship Mission Mississippi is always championing, had changed my life.
When Justin left that week to go back to the Missouri School for the Blind, I couldn’t help but feeling like he had been the one to open my eyes.