by Fred Axelgard
When I was a little boy, about age 4, we lived in Taiwan. I attended a Chinese-language pre-school, and one of my favorite things to do was to help raise the Taiwanese flag as the school day began. I understood very little of the language, and really had no idea what the flag-raising meant. But the memory of it is important to me. I can look back and see myself as a small child surrounded by other small children who were different from me, at a very happy time in my life.
A few years later, my family traveled to Jerusalem. This was the early 1960’s, and Jerusalem was a divided city. I remember standing on the street in front of our hotel in Arab East Jerusalem, and meeting a young Palestinian boy. He was about my height, with dark hair and dark eyes. Again, I did not speak his language and I never saw him again, but somehow that little boy has stayed with me. The thought that has stayed in my mind, alongside the memory of his face, is that whatever I would encounter in my life somehow had to take account of his life. I knew we would have very different lives, but that did not matter. Existence would not make sense to me unless it meant that his life was as important to God as mine.
One more experience. Many years later, I found myself in a bus going across the Sinai Peninsula. Around me were peace negotiators from Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and a dozen other countries. We had arranged to visit an installation that was set up to monitor the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in the hope that this would show these negotiators how Arab-Israeli peace could be achieved and maintained. I remember very well an Egyptian general saying very slowly how much he hoped that his children and grandchildren would grow up in a region at peace. The thought I have kept next to this memory is how deeply he felt this hope. He breathed it out from deep inside.
What do these experiences have to do with kindness in Provo? I have found, somewhat surprisingly, that Provo is a very international city. Many many people here have had their own experiences in other countries, among other cultures. These experiences have shaped them and, consequently, they have shaped the community that we have become and are still becoming. Difference acknowledged, difference accepted, difference appreciated, difference emulated: these dynamics are at the heart of who we are as a community. Think of them as never-ending processes, as predictable and refreshing as the breeze that blows down out of Provo Canyon every morning. We are changing every day, we are encountering differences every day, and we are being shaped by these differences – yes, every day.
So the thought I’d like to leave is that we have the ability to open up and be attuned to the differences we see in the people around us. These differences might be racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, political, or educational in nature. Let these differences and these people remind us of experiences from the past, and the many different pathways that have led to us becoming who we are. Perhaps like me, you’ll be reminded of promises that you made to yourself long ago, about the people you wanted to remember and the way you wanted to live your life. And then think about the place you would like Provo to become.
Fred Axelgard’s father was a global dairyman from Carbon County. Fred played Little League baseball in Iran, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, and Utah. After many years in the Washington DC area, he and Robyn moved to Utah County in 2013. They have five children and fifteen grandchildren.