The house was fully engulfed in flames when Christina Redding pulled up in her car. Eerie colors lit up the night sky as fire danced from the roof to the ground. Although she was forced to park a considerable distance from the burning structure, she could feel the intense heat on her face when she stepped out of her vehicle. It appeared that the fire crews had given up all hope of saving the home and were now concentrating on trying to keep the flames from spreading to the adjacent properties.
It was a strange situation for Christina because she could not help but feel pleased to be on the scene of an actual story. However, she immediately began to experience subtle pangs of guilt over finding pleasure in someone else’s misfortune – but with a small amount of effort, her guilt was easily ignored.
Now twenty-four, she had been a reporter for the metropolitan newspaper for almost a year, and yet it seemed she was never assigned to cover anything sensational. She had just finished seventy-two hours, in rotating eight-hour shifts, at the local zoo waiting for the birth of a baby giraffe. It was hardly the in-depth reporting that builds a journalistic career.
But there was something about fire that always caught everyone’s attention. Visually it was striking, but it also symbolized loss in heartbreaking terms that anyone could understand. The loss of possessions, the loss of a home and even the loss of life.
Fire equaled tragedy – and tragedy sold newspapers.
Christina steadily made her way through the frenzied activity to get as close as the emergency personnel would allow. Once she was in full view of the raging inferno, she was shocked by the complete destruction of the stately home. She had covered a few grass fires that burned assorted outbuildings, and she once saw a barn go up in flames just after the livestock had been led to safety, but this was different. This would inevitably have a human toll.
But she quickly reminded herself that she wasn’t here as a spectator. She had actual work to do. Christina looked up and down the street and saw a group of people watching the destruction and discussing the event among themselves. She thought they would be a good place to start, so she decided to approach them to ask a few questions. But as she was walking in their direction, something caught her eye near the front porch of the burning house. What she saw disturbed her and immediately reminded her that covering this story was nothing to be happy about. She had a sinking feeling that this was going to be far more serious than she had originally thought.
For the next twenty-five minutes, she spoke with the group of neighbors, who watched in disbelief as the house burned. When Christina finally walked away, she was stunned by what she had heard. She’d taken extensive notes and gotten names and numbers to follow up with, but she was so disheartened by what they’d said, she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to talk to them again.
Suddenly she was no longer interested in what this story could do for her career. Christina now had a genuine concern about human nature and our tendency to disconnect from those around us.
Ninety minutes later she was back at her desk, entering the information into her computer. But the report on a common house fire was turning out to be something completely different. She did not know if her editor would use her story, but she was determined to write it.
Seventy-two hours later, her article was printed on the newspaper’s Op-Ed page.
by Christina Redding
At the outset, let me make it clear that I am not writing this to be judgmental. I did not personally know any of the people mentioned in this story, but the facts surrounding this tragic event clearly indicate how far we have to go to create an inclusive society where every person is treated as an equal citizen.
Recently one evening, I was dispatched to cover a house fire in an older part of the city. It was a middle-class neighborhood of modest homes with well-kept yards featuring large shade trees that had grown to maturity over many decades. Unfortunately, the age of the electrical wiring in the residence is the suspected cause of the fire.
When I arrived on the scene, it was obvious that the home was going to be a total loss. I wanted to get information about the individuals who lived there, so I started walking over to a group of people. That was when I noticed a long ramp leading off the porch. At that moment I knew that someone in that house used a wheelchair. I could only hope that they had not been home when the fire started.
As I began to speak to the neighbors who’d gathered together to watch the tragedy unfold, several things quickly became clear. Unfortunately, there was a man who lived there that used an electric wheelchair, and, shockingly, not a single one of his neighbors knew his name. This was startling because the man, along with his wife and two children, had lived in the house for eight years. During that time, their daughters had finished school, gotten married and given them several grandchildren.
The neighbors said that even though the man was frequently outside on his porch during good weather, none of them had ever spoken to him. It turns out that there were two reasons for this. First, he had a disability that they did not understand and that they refused to learn about, and secondly, he was African American. It was pointed out repeatedly to me that they were the only black family in the entire neighborhood. Apparently, this meant that, in the eyes of his neighbors, he had two strikes against him.
Several of the people admitted they had been upset when they found out a “black family” was going to move in, and they told me that a few people on their street decided to move. Then, when they found out the man also had a disability, it was just too much. They wanted nothing to do with him. In fact, as the conversations progressed, it became apparent that this person was known only as “the black man in the wheelchair”. No name, no respect. Just a convenient way to label a human being.
One individual actually complained that he didn’t understand why those people wanted to move into his part of town anyway.
But there was a very important reason why they moved to our city. Nine years ago, while working in the construction industry, the gentleman was severely injured on the job. He required a series of advanced surgical procedures and other specialized treatment that was not available in the small community where they lived at the time.
Struggling with life-altering challenges, the family relocated here in search of hope. But instead of being accepted with compassion, they were shunned with indifference and intolerance due to factors they had no control over. The man was rejected simply because of who he was. His humanity was denied.
A couple of people told me they felt uncomfortable because of the man’s disability. Several of them said, that for a long time, they were not sure if he could even speak. I asked them if they had ever spoken to him to find out. They admitted they had not, and they confessed that when they finally learned he could talk, they were too embarrassed to approach him because they had ignored him for so long.
As it turned out, the gentleman not only could speak, he had many varied interests in life that he was waiting for the chance to share with others. But that never happened. It is important to note, however, that whether or not he could express himself with spoken language should not have made any difference. Being nonverbal is not a reason to avoid interacting with a person.
Two days after the fire, the heartbroken wife of the deceased graciously agreed to be interviewed for this story, She told me that her husband never understood the reluctance of his neighbors to approach him or to even acknowledge him. She confided to me that he was disappointed and saddened that his family had never been accepted in the community. She said they often talked about moving because they didn’t want to live where they were not wanted, but they were trapped here by financial circumstances.
Nevertheless, her husband continued to believe he would eventually connect with someone in the neighborhood. So, day after day he waited on his porch, never giving up hope that a person would stop and talk with him.
I don’t believe that hope was unreasonable, because the neighbors I spoke to are not bad people. They are average citizens just like you and me. They get up and go to work, they’re active in the community and they are focused on raising their families. Many of them are people of faith for whom their church is the center of their lives. But despite their basic decency, they could not bring themselves to accept someone they perceived as being different. They believed it was impossible for them to have anything in common.
They were mistaken. And, because they had little experience interacting with people who were not exactly like them, everyone suffered.
How many friendships could have been made during those eight years? How many opportunities to form life-changing relationships were lost due to misjudgment, misconceptions, and misunderstanding?
And, although it is unpleasant to consider, I cannot help but wonder if this person would have been accepted as a white man with a disability – or as a black man without a disability. Apparently, it was the combination of the two that kept his neighbors from reaching out to him.
Whatever the thinking, it was not right. The sadness and regret of the neighbors as they watched his home burn was evidence that they now realized how unfairly they had treated the man and his family.
It is to their credit, that each of the individuals I spoke with gave me a written release to use their story in this report. I contacted them again after I interviewed the man’s wife, and when they heard her thoughts, they were able to see the situation from a different perspective. Without exception, they all wanted our readers to learn from their mistake.
But at this point, I must confess that I too stand accused. When I arrived at the awful scene that night, my initial thoughts were only about myself. I was actually glad to be covering a serious story because I thought it would be good for my career. My selfish preoccupation, which for a brief time blinded me to the reality of human suffering, is indefensible. It is sickening to admit that I stood in front of a burning home and only considered the possible heartbreak in terms of how it would affect me.
So, I am just as guilty as the neighbors of disrespecting a human being who deserved better.
With that in mind, the least I can do, in response to the personal disappointment I feel over my own behavior, is to introduce you to the person who was mistreated by all of us while he was living and even upon his death.
Sixty-three-year-old Calvin Lee Jensen, who tragically lost his life after valiantly fighting for so many years to reclaim it, was a husband, father, grandfather, decorated veteran and a person with quadriplegia.
Although I cannot speak on behalf of his neighbors, I can honestly say that, in my case, I am now a better person for knowing MR. Jensen’s story.