laguna beach

The Christmas Watermelon: When Seeds of Hate Land on Your Doorstep

“Mayberry-by-the-Sea.”

That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif.

It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. It’s a sun-drenched village on the Pacific coast, where the high school sports teams were known for years as “The Artists” (until changing it to the “Breakers,” as in a surf break, in recent years); where there is probably more macrame than there are guns per capita, and where the father of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, lived for a time before he got busted for pot possession the day after Christmas 1968 and split.

Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying—in whatever way you can—to make the world a better place.

My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place—a progressive blue island in the sea of scarlet red Orange County — not just because of the weather and the vista (both beautiful), but because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son, who was in grammar school when we moved here, is a black child who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause because of how we understood Laguna to be.

And when we arrived, sure enough our neighbors—the kind-hearted Hobbits of our Shire—greeted our little family with open arms.

My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated.

When our son left the house to ride his bike or go to the soccer pitch, or, as he got older, ventured down to the beach with his boogie or surf boards on his own, I didn’t worry. Or at least I didn’t worry in the way so many mothers of black children must worry every time they leave the house, and in some places, even when they’re still at home. I didn’t worry about my son’s physical safety, beyond a rogue wave or crossing Pacific Coast Highway barefoot to get to his favorite surf spot.

And when he became a teenager, we gave him more freedom and independence, and a few months ago when he earned his driver’s license and started driving the family car, my heart beat faster and I worried more than I had when he was little, but off he went without incident, insha’Allah, as our Muslim friends might say. We’ve taught him about keeping his hands on the wheel and in plain sight if ever he were stopped by police; how to ask permission to reach slowly for his wallet to fetch his license and registration. And when he’s not coming off the beach in town with his locks full of sand and salt water, we’ve asked him, please, not to wear his hoodie up.

It’s not fair. We know. And it shouldn’t matter. But it does. So please don’t wear it up. We’re just trying to keep you safe. It’s not you. It’s them. We don’t worry about you in Laguna because here everybody knows you. But out there …

And our son complies, without complaint. Because he is a good kid, respectful and kind, and he doesn’t want his mother to worry. Because as a tiny child, he lived alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi—one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world—and he has a tremendous sense of self-preservation.

Because my son is wise beyond his years—beyond the years of most of us.

While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.

And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.

On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.

Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.

My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”

“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.

I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.

More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.

“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.

There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.

Not long after we put away the food—who could eat?—my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled—strapping athletes that they are—while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.

All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.

Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break—it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too—until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in African nearly a decade ago.

On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.

Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items — including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant — to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.

You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.

So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea.


The author and her son looking at Victoria Falls in Zambia in 2013. Photo by Iris Bourne (www.irisbourne.com).

This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.

Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.

That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Vasco was targeted in a racist incident. It was the second. The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist. Words were exchanged. Video clips from Django Unchained and Captain Phillips were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.

We knew one of the boys—he and Vasco had been friends when they were in grade school but, as children do, had drifted apart when they hit adolescence. The other two were unfamiliar names and faces. We never heard from any of the parents offering apologies or anything else, which we thought was odd at the time. But life moved on quickly and so did we, figuring we had learned some hard lessons from the incident and so had the boys.

Sadly, we appear to have been wrong. Two of the boys from the incident last year also were involved in the incident on Dec. 27 at our home. And let me just call it what it was: A racist attack.

It also was an escalation from last year, when only words were exchanged. This time, the incident took place off campus. The boys planned, conspired, targeted, and came to our HOME. They lobbed a heavy object—with its obvious racial connotations—at the door, after unsuccessfully trying to lure our son outside. One of the boys involved in last year’s incident is the thug who yelled, “F — you, n —!” as they drove away like an elite suburban lynch mob.

History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not — who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.

Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.

But they learned them somewhere.

Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.

I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the President-Elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

With our children in particular—even if you have people at home saying to them, “That is not how we behave; that’s wrong”—such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.

We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.

But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.

The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.

I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation.) Our family was solidly middle-class then as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.

The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town, became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—the “top klansman” in the nation.

It was a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up, that I thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, contrary to my memory that he was “run out of town” when neighbors discovered his bigoted proclivities, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.

I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make in writing this: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.

I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.

To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.

In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:

“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”

All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.

We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward—and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.

I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”


 
The author’s son standing in Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park not far from his adopted Jewish grandparents’ home in Montana. Photo by the author.

“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice—only you can do that.”

That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.

A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.

Because they are Jewish.

Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.

In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Georgia. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.

Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…

I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?

While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge.We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.

We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth-and-reconciliation that our vicar, the Rev. Lester MacKenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach—who, when he was the same age as our son, lived as a black person under the apartheid system in South Africa—has taught us so much about. Father MacKenzie is walking closely with Vasco and reminds us that, no matter how quickly many of us would like to rush to kumbaya, we can’t get to real reconciliation until we first have truth.

This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.

You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this?

Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.

Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.

He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”

I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.

I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.

Every day, though even more acutely on the day we celebrate the life of a man who gave his life so that—generations later—my son could enjoy freedoms he never got to see his own four children experience, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.

And a child shall lead them…

 

Full Transcript of Cathleen Falsani & Maurice Possley Interview re: Racist Incident in Laguna Beach

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW BETWEEN CATHLEEN FALSANI AND MAURICE POSSLEY
WITH TWO LOCAL REPORTERS IN LAGUNA BEACH, CALIF.,
REGARDING THE RACIST INCIDENT AT THEIR HOME ON 12/27/2016:

(The interview transpired between Cathleen, Maurice and two reporters from Laguna Beach media outlets in the parish offices of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and in the presence of the Rev. Lester MacKenzie, St. Mary’s priest in charge. The transcript is complete but the reporter’s names have been removed for the sake of privacy. The interview began with Maurice reading his statement, copies of the statement were given to them [and can be found HERE].
Then the conversation opened up to questions from the reporters.)

Reporter 1: “How has the school responded?”

Maurice Possley: “Without characterizing or without being specific, they are responding, I think, in a very appropriate manner, given that this did not happen on school property and on a break. There are measures that will and are being taken. But as you know, these are juveniles, although we know who they are. The disciplinary or what will become the disciplinary actions are something we will be aware of on a confidential basis because these are juveniles.

Reporter 1: “So the administrators have said there will be some punishment?”

Cathleen Falsani: “They are working through the repercussions.”

Maurice: “Let me just back up and say something about last spring.”

Cathleen: “OK. There are two boys who are involved in this who also were involved in an incident in a classroom with our son racially harassing him.”

Reporter 1: “Also reported?”

Cathleen: “Yes. Not to the police, but to the school [Laguna Beach High School]. And the school dealt with it in what we felt was an appropriate and swift manner. The two boys clearly did not learn much from that incident. Our son has had almost no contact with either one of them since. I mean, it’s a small high school. You see people. One of the boys was, when the boys were little —so in grammar school—they were very friendly. But I’m not friends with my fifth-grade best friend either. Kids grow apart. There was never a big falling out or anything. They move in different social circles, they play different sports.

Reporter 1: “OK.”

Cathleen: “So, that was very distressing to us to learn that those two boys were involved in this again. And, in fact, the one who threw the racial epithet was one of the two boys.”

Maurice: “And just to make it clear, the other of the two boys knew where we live. It’s not difficult to find out where people live, but when you see what the video [time stamp from video at the grocery store] says and they are up at our house before 9 o’clock”

Cathleen: “It takes seven minutes to drive from that grocery store to our front door. They came directly to our house.”

Maurice: “They didn’t waste any time.”

Reporter 2: “So it was premeditated, what they were going to do.”

Cathleen: “It is my understanding that the other boy who was involved in the incident last year, told the boy where our house was because he had spent time at our house a number of times before. So the fact that it was an escalation for at least two of these boys from what happened last year on school property words and some actions, though nothing physical—”

Reporter 2: “You’re talking about the previous incident? It was just verbal?”

Cathleen: “Largely, yes. [To go from last year’s incident] to coming to our home, premeditated, deciding who they were going to target, how they were going to target him, what kind of fruit to throw—and obviously there is a racial component to picking a watermelon that was not lost on them—that is an escalation that is troubling and is also a reason why we are speaking out publicly the way we are. Because history tells us that if left unchecked, these kinds of things tend to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically fine and unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not—who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, and call it out, and try to stop it.

“The fact that this happened in Laguna was, to me, shocking because that is not the quality of the character of this town. That has not been the experience we’ve had living here. We arrived with Vasco 7 ½ years ago only a few months after he arrived in this country.

Reporter 2: “And how old was he at the time?”

Cathleen: “He as nine.”

Reporter 2: “And today?”

Cathleen: “He is 17 today. The story of how we came to adopt him is well-documented. You can find lots of information and I can send you links online if that would be helpful. But he is a very special person. And when we arrived here in this very beautiful and very white place—and I grew up in Connecticut—

Reporter 2: “Equally white—

Cathleen: “Equally white although perhaps slightly less so in the part of Connecticut that I’m from, but still. He wasn’t—nobody wants to be ‘tolerated.’ I mean, you tolerate a bad had cold, you tolerate a boil on your butt. As a human you don’t want to be tolerated, you want to be loved. And this town embraced him and celebrated his arrival, and our family. And that has been, by and large, our experience the entire time we’ve lived here. So to have something like this happen was shocking.

Reporter 2: “Can you speculate to the reason, timing-wise? Is it because they’ve become teenagers? Or is it the political climate?”

Cathleen: “We have no idea, but we are all aware of whatever is happening in the zeitgeist right now. It’s a fairly dark moment for us, and we’re afraid that because people in power and in the public eye who are in positions where they are meant to be respected for whatever reason, whether they’re political or cultural or other reasons, have, of late especially, have been using a lot of language that is mocking, is hateful, is disrespectful. And I think with our children in particular, even if you have people at home saying to them, ‘That is not how we behave; that’s wrong,’ it’s in the air like sarin gas. We all breath it.

“And so who knows? With some of the boys who were involved in this, we know them and we know their parents. And I think it’s fair enough to say that for at least a few of the ones we know, that they would learn this at home?—I can’t fathom that. But we can’t control all the influences on our children’s lives, or what they consume in terms of traditional media, social media. We know there’s a problem with bullying in this country. We know there’s a problem with bullying at this his school. There’s a problem with bullying in most high schools.

“At the time I was in high school (and I’m in my 40s) we’ve done a lot as a society to combat bullying. We’re aware of it. Kids are trained early that it’s not acceptable. We talk about it. We didn’t talk about it [when I was in high school] apart from saying so-and-so is a bully. But it’s still there and it’s corrosive.

“So I don’t know. I don’t know why they did this or why they decided two days after Christmas was the right time for them to do this.”

Reporter 1: “But Cathleen, it’s more than this is bullying. It’s racial.”

Cathleen: “Oh no, make no mistake: this is a racially-motivated hate crime.”

Reporter 1: “The police have yet to say that. They will not say that.”

Cathleen: “No, they probably won’t until—“

Maurice: “I think what we can say is that it is a police matter and I believe—they’re limited because it’s still ongoing and they’re juveniles—but I expect that this will be referred to the district attorney’s office.”

Reporter 1: “They all are. The cops don’t prosecute.”

Maurice: “Well, police can make a decision not to send it over—“

Cathleen: “Or how to send it.”

Reporter 1: “There is a prosecutor who specializes in hate crimes. Has he been referred?”

Maurice: “I don’t know. The boys were just interviewed on Monday. If you take into account that before any kind of referral could be made, you’d have to do paperwork. So I don’t know the timing, but I’m very confident that it will be referred if not hand-walked [to the district attorney’s office.]

Reporter 2: “So they waited until the school year started on Monday?”

Maurice: “They asked us to keep it as quiet as possible because what they wanted to do was to get together with school officials when school was back in session. They knew, because we had told them, of the prior incident (and by ‘they’ I mean the prior bullies.) And people were on vacation. So they wanted to get together with school officials to coordinate it.”

Reporter 1: “What was the discipline of [the boys] in the first incident?”

Cathleen: We actually don’t know. They cannot tell us.

Reporter 1: “Was there discipline?”

Maurice: “We believe there was. This is my speculation: is that it was in-school suspension. But we don’t know that for sure.”

Reporter 1: “Alright. That’s the question.”

Cathleen: “The school district can’t tell us.”

Reporter 1: “Well, ya know, some of that, those suspensions, they does show up in the school board agenda, when there’s an expulsion or when there is a long suspension. They do become public records. They’re never identified.”

Cathleen: “But honestly, we don’t know.”

Reporter 1: “So you don’t know for sure whether that there was discipline?”

Cathleen: “We were told there was disciplinary action taken. We don’t know what it was.”

Reporter 1: “OK. So you were told this by [the LBHS vice principal]?”

Maurice: “It might have been [the vice principal]. If it wasn’t [the vice principal] maybe it was Vasco’s teacher or another administrator, but I’m not sure.”

Cathleen: “I’m fairly sure it was [the vice principal.]

Reporter 2: “Was they told to apologize or was there an attempt to apologize at that point?”

Cathleen: “Last year? I think it was—I mean they were told to stay away from him. But I recall that at least one of the boys asked if it would be OK for him to apologize and we said yes and he did. The other two didn’t, as far as we recall.

Reporter 1: “So there were three kids involved first incident?”

Cathleen: “Yes. And the boy who apologized last year was not involved in this incident this year. We also never heard from any of the parents, last year.”

Reporter 2: “Really? That stuns me.”

Cathleen: “This year, because, like I said, we know some of the parents, we have asked the police and the school to tell them [the parents] to please wait until we say it’s OK for them to approach us about anything. It’s just too soon. While we appreciate that there are people who immediately want to apologize and to ty to make amends, we’re self-caring for our family. This is not ‘We’re angry and we don’t want to talk to you,’ but sometimes when people come to apologize they need more from you than you need from them. And we just don’t have a whole lot of reserves to give to anybody else right now. We will.

We’re meeting in the offices of the church where we worship. We are people of faith. We are Christians (or at least we try to be Christians) and reconciliation and redemption are idea of our faith. As you can see the way we’re talking right now, we’re not spitting angry. Are we angry? You bet. But we’re not looking for revenge, we’re not looking for retribution, we’re not looking for the boys’ lives to be ruined in some fashion, we’re hoping, just as Maury said when he read [his statement], that this is a teachable moment, a learning moment for all of us. But some of these lessons are very painful. This has not been easy for our family. This has been painful for my child.

Reporter 2: “How is he doing?”

Cathleen: “Remarkably well. He is—I said to somebody yesterday, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up. He has these deep reserves of peace and calmness and wisdom that are not only well beyond his years, they’re rare in any human. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has handled this with such grace and thoughtfulness.

Reporter 2: “What was your immediate reaction when it happened?”

Cathleen: “I called the police. Maury mentioned my brother, who is an Air Force pilot, was sitting in the living room. We had just ordered a curry and were sitting own to watch ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ because we watch it every year and my brother hadn’t been here in time for Christmas. We have a sunken living room and we were sitting down there. And the front door is open because it’s always open. And Maury is the one who got up and went to the door just as the watermelon landed. He turned around and said, ‘We just got punked. Somebody through a watermelon.” And my brother and I immediately said, ‘A WATERMELON?!’ I immediately went for the phone. My brother immediately went outside to take a look at what had happened. Vasco was just sort of stunned. He knew that a watermelon meant something different than a roll of toilet paper being thrown at the house.

“He spent the first nine years of his life in Africa, so there are some thing—well, in fact there are many things about racism in this country that he didn’t absorb, thank God—so at some point later we had to explain to him the nuances of the racial connotation of the watermelon. That was heartbreaking.

“But he is—the night it happened, he went down to his room and wanted to be left alone, which is unusual. But he was writing in his journal. A little while later I went to check on him again and said, ‘Are you OK? Can I make you a hot chocolate? I’m so sorry, honey. Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t understand why anyone would hate me like this.’ Words a mother never wants to hear her kid say.

“So he, more than ‘What’s going to happen to them? What are the police doing? Are they going to be punished?’ —more than anything what we’ve heard him says is, “At some point I would like to speak to these boys and ask them why they did it.’ He doesn’t understand the thought processes that went behind the choices they made that night.

Maurice: “One of the things we’ve talked to him about is, What is a victim? And what we stressed is that he was a target, not a victim”

Cathleen: “He’s not a victim. Because a victim is something that you can almost absorb into your identity, and he’s not that.”

Maurice: “It can become like a cloak.”

Cathleen: “There is a fear that can come attached to that word that we don’t want him to feel. And we don’t think he does. He is a pretty brave boy. I know [Reporter 1] knows more about his story than [Repoter 2] does, but just the two-cent version: He was born in Malawi. Both of his biological parents died, we believe, by the time he was about five or six. He spent a considerable portion of his life living on the street as an orphan. And he was also born with a congenital heart defect and he was in very poor health for most of his life; and when we met him in 2007 when we happened to be traveling in Africa as journalists, he was dying. It’s a long story and I can send you some clips if you want to know more, but the fact that he survived long enough to make the trip to Chicago, where we lived before we moved here, to have heart surgery is a miracle. His doctors have all said he is an incredibly strong person physically. Even when he had the lung capacity of an end-stage emphysema patient he could still—I remember our son-in-law teaching him how to hit a baseball, and the second time he did (and this was before he had the heart surgery) he hit the ball over the roof of our garage in Chicago. He is a strong human being, and deeply, deeply kind.

“If you ask any of his friends at the high school, any of his friends, anyone who knows him here in Laguna beach, or who has known him throughout his life, one of the first things people say about my son—and I’m not just saying this because he’s my precious baby angel and he is—is that he is incredibly kind. And he’s not going to lash out in anger. And he thinks about things very deeply. He’s not a loud person. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he’s not the class clown. He’s not the one who’s going to be the loudest in the classroom. But he’s been even quieter than usual lately because he’s thinking.

Maurice: “For us, he’s lived with us for almost eight years, but we still learn things about him. It was interesting to see when the police came to the house with the video from the [grocery store] to ask him if he could identify any of the boys, and he was able to identify four of the five. And the detective said, as we were kind of hanging back, he asked [to Vasco]: ‘What do you want to happen?’ I kind of involuntarily twitched and my first reaction was thinking that it was kind of an unfair question and pressure. But to his credit, [Vasco] said: ‘I’m still processing this. It’s too early to talk about that.”

Reporter 1: “Hmm. That’s a very mature answer.”

Cathleen: “It was. And this was maybe two days after [the incident] happened. We didn’t coached him to say anything.”

Maurice: “The way it unfolded, he we were there but we were hanging back. We’d talked to him about what happened, obviously, but didn’t tell him what he should say or feel.”

Cathleen: “And because we wanted the cops to be able to do their jobs, we had to ask him and ourselves to not talk to people about it. So he went all of Christmas vacation as a 17-year-old boy and didn’t manage to blab to anybody about what happened. Toward the very end, he did tell his two closest friends, but not about the police. Just about what had happened. So he’s exhibited a herculean amount of self-control, far more than his mother has. He is an extraordinary person.

“We’re blessed to have a community of friends and chosen family for him, many of whom live here in town. He’s got two godfathers who live here in town and are wonderfully supportive. One of them has two boys who have come through the high school and are just a few years older [than Vasco.] [Father] Lester [MacKenzie] has been a great gift to our family and I would say a great gift to this town and he’s been remarkable in talking with Vasco. For many years we worshiped at Little Church by the Sea and [Pastor] Jeff Tacklind there is a dear, dear family friend and he’s been wonderful. And the friends we do have in town who know and who are starting to hear [about what happened], the support is—there aren’t quite words for how heartening and affirming it is, of many things but also of the quality and character of this town, which was a big part of why we moved here—to live in a town where people know each other’s names and care about each other. It feels like a community.

“Growing up outside New York City in Connecticut, I really didn’t have that. Living for years in Chicago I might have known one or two neighbors’ names. But living in a small town now, where, for better and for worse, we know each other’s names and business, has been, until just recently, has been a beautiful experience.

Maurice: “Can I just say that, if you don’t know much about my background, I couldn’t be characterized as a lifelong died-in-the-wool supporter of police. I work on and write about wrongful convictions and that often takes you into the territory of police who make mistakes, some intention and some not. I’ve never had any dealings with the police department here [before]. But the response to this has been not just reassuring. Detective Cornelius Ashton and his partner have been fantastic. I don’t know if you know you much about him but he is the first black police officer on the Laguna Beach Police Department. Ever. And he has been, just dealing with Vasco, superb.

Cathleen: “Both he and his partner have been amazing. I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but the first time Cornelius came to our house to talk to Vasco, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. We’ve never done this before, so our living room is to levels—they sat up above and I sat down below listening. Cornelius was there for about 40 minutes and spent 99 percent of that time talking to Vasco about Vasco’s character and reputation in town, and what Cornelius knew of it when he started asking people questions about it and what he learned, and how, as a young African-American man how proud it made Cornelius to know that Vasco has that kind of character and reputation. Cornelius is a person of faith as are we, and he talked about God’s hand and call and essentially purpose in life, and what trials such as these can do to your character, and how they can be used as opportunities to make the world a better place, help the people around you. And none of this was putting any pressure on Vasco. He was encouraging him in a way that I couldn’t believe it was a cop talking to him. It was so far beyond the call of duty, and I mean that in the very best of ways. His primary concern, and we’ve talked with Cornelius now many times, is always for Vasco’s safety and wellbeing, holistically. How is he doing? How is he feeling? If he needs anything, any time, if he just wants to talk. ‘Think of me as a big brother.’ It’s been just beautiful.

“I was a reporter in Chicago, too. I dealt with police too, though not as often as my husband did. I’ve never had bad experiences, but I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself a fan until now. They’ve been just fantastic. From start to finished.

Reporter 2: “You mentioned that knew four out of the five boys have been identified.”

Maurice and Cathleen: “No, he only recognized four out of the five boys from the videotape.”

Cathleen: “The fifth boy’s identity we learned on Monday and that’s when we realized it was one who had been involved in the incident last year and that was very upsetting. We had to tell Vasco who the fifth boy was.”

Reporter 1: “What about your description that they had gone out to eat together? Where did that information come from?”

Maurice: “We were given that information and that information emerged—“

Cathleen: “From interviews with police and school officials.”

Reporter 1: So the interviews with the police and school administrators? OK.

Maurice: “Yes. That’s the story that has emerged. Part of the story is so there’s a label on the watermelon and I Googled it and it’s a local farm. So who would buy from a local? …

Cathleen: “I called and talked to the [grocery store] night manager (because this happened close to 9 p.m.) and asked if they carried that brand of watermelon. Yes they did. Strange question, but does anyone remember anybody buying one today? Yes. In fact a group of boys had bought what not long before. And we shared that information with police and that’s how they got the video, inside and outside. And it’s very clear images.

Reporter 2: “Could you see, were they laughing and joking?”

Cathleen: “Yes. And carrying it above their heads. And it was from the video that we were able to identify and police saw and were able to identify that they all were wearing various items of athletic team [spirit wear] from the high school.

Reporter 1: “So what, did you think they had just come from a practice?”

Maurice: “No, no. They were wearing sweatshirts and shirts—I mean how bad of a criminal can you be if you’re basically advertising where you’re from?”

Reporter 1: All the LBHS spirit wear stuff? So they weren’t exactly hiding?

Cathleen: “No. But clearly unaware that they were being videotaped.”

Reporter 2: And clearly not thinking that what they were about to do was terrible or worth worrying about.

Maurice: That’s the question. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. They bought a watermelon and they threw it at the black kid’s house. They bought other stuff, which we believe, we don’t know, probably was used elsewhere, because no toilet paper was thrown at us or no eggs or no eggplant. So that’s concerning, but it’s not part of what we’re aware of. So when you take the trouble to do that, and you come straight to the [our] house, and you use the ‘n’ word and an obscenity, and two of them were previously involved in a racially-motivated incident on school grounds—there’s no doubt in my mind what the intent was. Now, they might not have thought it was in league with burning a cross, but it’s an act of hate based on race.”

Reporter 2: “It’s sad that they didn’t realize what they were doing was—“

Cathleen: “It’s shocking that they didn’t realize what they were doing was as bad as it was. So there are differing degrees of who was driving and who threw the thing and who said what.

“But a word about some of the passengers, if I might. You know, there’s culpability, legally and otherwise, on different levels. What keeps sticking in mind, knowing some of the boys, is that none of them stopped and said let me out of the car or said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘This is a terrible idea’ or ‘I feel sick’ or make an excuse.”

Reporter 1: “How do you know that? How do you know that didn’t occur some place along the way?”

Maurice: “We assume that didn’t happens some place along the way because the story is they were all there.”

Reporter 1: “They were all there.”

Maurice: “The story is they were chanting his name as they drove up the hill.”

Cathleen: “And as they drove away.”

Reporter 1: “And how do you know that?”

Cathleen: “We were told that from police and school officials.”

Maurice: “What we have and what we’re telling you is based on what we’ve learned through our conversations with the police and school officials.

Reporter 1 or 2 (hard to tell which because there was cross-talk): I mean chanting his name as they drove toward your house.

Cathleen: What got our attention, because we live in a particularly quiet spot, and it was evening and the front door was open and we’re all talking—who got the Massaman curry?—and the movie is about to start and where is my papadam? And I said, ‘Is that someone yelling?’ It sounded as if someone was having a fight. And one of the voices, I remember, sounded kind of high pitched, which put me on alert—is a woman in trouble? — and that’s when [Maury] started to walk toward the door.

Maurice: I heard Vasco’s name called…

Cathleen (interrupting): And I didn’t hear Vasco’s name. My brother did. Vasco did hear his  name called at some point. I just heard the yelling and that’s what brought us out there.

Maurice: “But it was stillt he tenor of ‘VASCOOOOO’, trying to call him out.

Cathleen: But louder and taunting to call him out. So but what we learned after police and school officials talked to all five boys, this is what was reported to them, they were chanting his name—‘VASCO! VASCO! VASCO! VASCO!’—as they drove up the hill, down our street, and then as they pulled away, which is when one of the boys yelled what he yelled, which we didn’t hear.

Reporter 2: “That gives me chills.”

Cathleen: “Yes.”

Reporter 2: “I mean, that’s like a …”

Cathleen: “Lynch mob?”

Reporter 2: “There you go. I was going to say The Klan.”

Cathleen: “In a pick-up truck, too.”

Maurice: “It’s a mob mentality, too.”

Cathleen: “I mean it’s gross. All of it is gross. And as we’ve said, this was awful and jarring and shouldn’t have happened, but we are keenly aware that our son is safe and whole and at the high school right now, but there are a lot of parents in this country and elsewhere whose children aren’t, because they have been physically attacked, harassed, killed, because of the color of their skin.”

Maurice: “Again, to stress, we are sitting here now because we didn’t want this to become the subject of over-the-fence, back-alley, gossip and misinformation. I hate to say it but in a growing time of fake news, we didn’t want this to come out in dribs and drabs and in forms of misinformation. So we are here to say this is what happened, please be aware of it. Let’s do something to stop it.”

Cathleen: “Everyone needs to be vigilant.”

Maurice: “I believe—we’re both journalists. We believe sunshine is a great curer of ills if you feel that you’re subject to scrutiny.”

Cathleen: “But also know, you are the only media we’re talking to. I could have flipped a switch and had the entire media establishment descend on this town. We’re not interested in that.”

Reporter 2: Don’t you think it’s going to happen anyway?

Cathleen: “It might.”

Maurice: “And if it does, we will respond. But our instinct was—“

Cathleen: “But this is OUR town. And YOU’RE the media here. If you hadn’t called we probably wouldn’t had called to say hey let’s talk.”

Maurice: “If people are reaching out and it doesn’t take long for word to spread—“

Cathleen: “I mean, how long did it take? Half an afternoon before people started sending you emails about what they’d heard? So there we are.

Reporter 1: “So I mean, as much as you want this to be a teachable moment, don’t you also expect the backlash? You’re calling out five kids as racists.”

Cathleen: “Well, five kids drove up the street chanting my son’s name and threw a fucking watermelon at the front door of my house, excuse my French. I’m not calling them racists.”

Maurice: “They engaged a racist act. We’re not saying these kids are racists. They committed an act of hatred based on race.”

Cathleen: “Vasco has an uncle who lives abroad and is a very wise man. He sent him a note the other day talking about hating the act, abhorring the act, not forgiving or forgetting the act, but the perpetrator—at some point you have to get to forgving them. They’re not monsters. They’re 16-, 17-year-old boys who did something stupid. But it wasn’t just stupid. It was hateful.

“Maury and I are not afraid of standing up and saying this is what happen. The police and the district attorney’s office and the school district can call or categorize it or label it in whatever way they do. This is what happened. Labels don’t do much for me unless it’s a can of beans or an explosive device. I mean, for humans labels are whatever.

“What they did, in my mind, was clearly racist. Are they racist? I don’t think the answer to that question is particularly helpful. They’re boys.

In terms of people’s backlash? We’re not afraid of that and we’re not expecting that. There are always a few people who do not act as their best and highest selves. There are people who are going to be fearful. And make no mistake: there are racists in this town, there are racists everywhere. There are people who are motivated by fear and hate everywhere.

But we can’t let that dictate what we do when we know something is right. And to hide this, to slink away, to allow ourselves or our son to be intimidated, would be the wrongest lesson. And we couldn’t do that.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly, by the way. How are we going to talk about this? Are we going to talk about this? What are we going to do?

Maurice: “The thing is, we didn’t choose this. We were targeted. And we decided we are going to respond.”

Cathleen: “And this was not a falling out at a party. It wasn’t a fisticuffs in a locker room after a game. This wasn’t somebody was dating somebody’s girlfriend. No. This was seemingly out of nowhere and they came to our home, two days after Christmas, and this is what they did. And you know, people reading this, make of it what you will, but this is what happened.

Reporter 2: It wasn’t at a party. This is more invasive.

Cathleen: Yes. When what happened at school last year happened, we were not happy. And that was the first time anything ‘racial’ had happened with Vasco. And as a white mother of a black child, I knew—I’m an eternal optimist, but I knew—at some point, something was going to happen. And in some ways I think we were really lucky that it took this long. I mean, it could have happened when he was 10 or 12 or 13. Anytime. He’s becoming a man now.

Reporter 2: I thought, how did those kids even know about the watermelon thing?

Cathleen: Isn’t that interesting? It’s kind of an old-timey thing. But I had a conversation with I won’t say whom, but with a friend as is my right in the privacy of her home, and her younger son overheard some of it and said, ‘Oh, I know all about watermelons.” His mom said, ‘You do?’ His mother grew up in the south and she said, ‘But we’ve never talked about it.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s all over social media lately about how all African Americans love watermelon.’ So I don’t know which social media that is or where that comes from.

Reporter 2: There have been some memes about President Obama and watermelon. I wouldn’t be surprised if those have gone viral.

Cathleen: “Lovely. So this young boy who has grown up in Laguna and, whose parents certainly wouldn’t teach him anything about that, says, ‘Oh I know all about that.’ He didn’t know why or what the connotations are, but he said it was ‘all over social media’ that ‘All African Americans are “addicted” to watermelon.’

Reporter 2: And that’s the watered-down version of it.

Cathleen: “Oh believe me, I know. We had to explain the nuances of it to Vasco a little later on.”

Reporter 2: “I was wondering what the origin of that depiction was.”

Cathleen: “One would hope it wasn’t something that any of the children learned at home. One would hope.”

 

[small section redacted for privacy of outside parties]

 

Reporter 1: “Would you be surprised to hear about racial incidents at the high school previously, not involving your son?”

Cathleen: “No. We’ve heard from some Laguna Beach High School graduates about incidents that we had not been aware of.

Maurice: “In all honesty, that played into our decision to not stay quiet about this. We have to speak out.”

Cathleen: [One young man] “urged us to do so. ‘You have to,” he said. ‘It’s been swept under the rug for far too long,’ he said. It’s not an epidemic but it has happened and he was aware of it.

Reporter 2: “How many African-American students are at the high school?”

Cathleen: “I’m not sure. We have to look that up.”++

Reporter 1: “How long ago did that student graduate?”

Maurice: “Four years ago.”

Reporter 1: “How many racial acts did he say he was aware of?”

Cathleen: “Three, I believe.”

Reporter 1: “So what does that suggest to you?”

Cathleen: “That we have a problem. And that we have a problem everywhere.”

Maurice: “Look at society. I spent most of my life living in Chicago, that has been and is to this day one of the most segregated cities, particularly north of the Mason Dixon line. Race drives so many conversations to this day across this country. We just had an African American as president for eight years. Did that change anything?

Cathleen: “Even he said in his final address last night, and I’m paraphrasing, but it wasn’t the magic pill some people thought it would be. But it is better. Some things are better than they were 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.

Maurice: “But we don’t talk about it here. You don’t feel it here.”

Cathleen: “We don’t talk about it here because we don’t have very many children of color.

Maurice: “It’s ‘not an issue’ because it’s such a small minority here. A minority of a minority. And that’s driving this, our feelings about [what happened]. Just because it is whatever the number is—10, 12, 25—whatever it is out of 1,100 or whatever the enrollment is. I mean it’s more than just African-American kids who are minorities. There are kids from the Middle East, there are kids from Latin America—

Cathleen: “And we’ve heard stories about kids who are Middle Eastern or perceived to be Middle Eastern or perceived to be Muslim being harassed, about LGBTQ kids…

The idea to pretend that it’s not happening in Laguna because it’s Mayberry-by-the-Sea, and it’s so beautiful and we’re all so happy and we hold hands because we’re hippies—which is how I describe the place often and not really tongue-in-cheek because that’s how it feels a lot of the time.

To pretend it’s not happening here is delusional and really not helpful, and it lets it grow and fester. Is it the prevailing culture? No. But it does happen here and we need to fix it.”

Maurice: “And these are kids. They’re gonna learn. And some of them have not learned, apparently. We can only hope that the learning curve flattens out a little bit here.

Cathleen: “I started to talk about the kids who didn’t get out of the car that night. What’ the quote? All it takes for evil for flourish for good people to do nothing, to stay quiet. That’s what I keep thinking about with two boys in particular.

Maurice: “There’s a line the moving ‘Mississippi Burning’ where Gene Hackman, who’s the kind of the old Southern sheriff now in the FBI says, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ and Willem Dafoe, who’s the straight-laced guy, says, ‘If we don’t, who will?’ So that’s’ something to keep in mind, certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?’ So it’s something to keep in mind. It’s certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?

Cathleen: And obviously we are speaking to you today because Vasco is a minor. He can speak for himself, but we’d rather he not, that’s also his choice right now. He knows we’re doing this and we have his support, and he knows that it’s important to not hide it. And people have asked what might be helpful for him—from kids to grownups to folks on the other side of the world. Just expressing your support for him.

Maurice: “He said, ‘What do I say when people come up and say they’re so sorry this happened?’ and we told him, ‘Just say thank you.’ People want to express their support for you. They aren’t in your shoes but they feel badly that this would happen to you or happen at your home, and they want to self-identify with you. And all you have to do is say thank you.

Cathleen: “We are expecting that we will hear all kinds of support and that, at some point, we might be able to channel that support into some kind of action in our town. Whether it’s something that originates at the high school with other students…We’re hoping this isn’t the end of the conversation. Yes, it’s a terrible thing that happened and we’re exposing it to the light because that’s’ what you do. And at some point perhaps this will transition into a way to make sustainable change.

Maurice: “Kids, people need to understand that they have a voice. They can have a voice. Some think, ‘Well, it doesn’t make a difference what I say.’ It does. It does.

++[Ed note: The latest publicly available demographics say the black population of the LBHS student body is about 0.8 percent of 1140 students. So about nine.]

-30-

 

 

 

 

Text of Maurice Possley’s Statement to Local Reporters Re: Racist Incident at Our Home

The following was the statement written and read by my husband, Maurice Possley, about the events of 12/27/2016 to two local newspaper reporters in Laguna Beach, Calif., the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 in the office of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where our family worships: 

“On December 27, two days after Christmas and just 15 days ago, our son—and our home in Laguna Beach—were the target of a hate crime because our son is black. He was targeted because of the color of his skin.

“We are here to today to tell you what happened, to denounce such behavior as repugnant and offensive, so that our friends, our neighbors and our fellow citizens will understand that even though we live in the bubble of Laguna Beach, we are not immune to hatred.

“And that it must stop now.

“This is what we know:

“Earlier on the night of December 27, five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to a grocery store where video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items—including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant—to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate.

“Chanting our sons name in unison, they drove to our house where they stopped and called our son’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside and then hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.

“Inside, we were sitting down to eat a celebratory meal with my wife’s brother, an Air Force pilot who had returned recently from a six-month tour of duty fighting ISIS. It was his fourth such tour of duty and the first time he’d seen our son—his only nephew—in more than a year.

“You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.

Shards of watermelon on the ground outside our front door and in our carport after the racist incident two days after Christmas. Photos by Cathleen Falsani.

“On Monday, the five boys were questioned by Laguna Beach police and Laguna Beach high school officials. All have made statements implicating themselves in this hateful behavior.

“We want to praise the police department and school officials for their prompt action and full attention to this matter. At this point, it remains under investigation and therefore we will have no further comment about it or what punishments—legal and civil—the boys may receive.

“We want to emphasize that we are speaking publicly about this matter because we believe that this kind of racist, hateful, intimidating behavior is not what Laguna Beach is about. We are not here to talk about retribution or to paint ourselves or our son as victims. Because he is not. We are not. He is not. Our family was, however, targeted precisely because of the color of his skin and not the quality of his heart or character.

“Make no mistake about it. This was a hate crime.

“We are here to let the people of Laguna Beach know the facts of what happened to us and call upon everyone to stand together to send a clear, articulate message that this kind of hateful act is not tolerated in Laguna Beach. Not because of the color of someone’s skin. Not because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Not because of their religion, their ethnicity, or country of origin.

“Moreover, we are speaking out publicly with the hope that by doing so, we can help stop this from happening again. To be silent might embolden others to consider to commit similar hateful acts, believing there would be no consequences for their actions—that they can get away with it because their potential target would be too afraid or ashamed to go to the police or to call them out publicly.

“To remain silent is to give tacit permission for others to engage in similar corrosive behavior. We will not be silent.

“So let this be a teachable moment for our community. We’re known as a community that not only “tolerates” diversity and individuality but EMBRACES it.

“Let’s embrace everyone—not just those who are similar to us, or with whom we agree politically, spiritually, or in any other way.

“We have to try harder as a community. We must do better as a village, as models of behavior, character, and values for our children.

“The actions of these five boys do not define Laguna Beach and should not. We must have ZERO TOLERANCE for any acts of hate, no matter who the perpetrators are or how they express their vitriol.

“We are better—more generous, open- and kinder-hearted, than this, Laguna. Hug your children. Be kind to each other. Welcome the stranger. Reach out to those on the margins. Speak up when you see or hear anyone being mistreated.

“Love is stronger than hate.

“Thank you.”

 

God Girl on the Radio, Again: KX93.5 with Billy Fried

Had a ball last night in a far-ranging conversation with radio host Billy Fried talking about pretty much my whole life story, and my most recent visit to Nepal. It’s a long one (81 minutes long, to be precise).

Have a listen HERE.

Secret Church: Welcome home…

Secret Church: Welcome home…

For more than fifteen years, I didn’t go to church.

I mean, I did — a lot, in fact — but that’s what I did for a living.

The sweet Episcopal church I attended my last year of college and for a while after fell victim to the acrimony that continues the haunt the Anglican Communion. It split. Factions formed, sides were taken, harsh words were spoken, a biblical/spiritual/communal tug of war ensued.

It was awful. It was hurtful, the worst that the church has to offer.

I had had enough of Christians shooting their own. So I left.

My hiatus was about 15 years longer than I had expected it to be.

But after the wounds of that split, and countless others that brothers and sisters in Christ had inflicted on me and on each other, I was gun-shy. I love God and Jesus and all that Jesus told us to do and be while he walked among us in the flesh. But I no longer trusted his alleged followers to not be appalling.

In hindsight, that was pretty unfair. We may be believers, of one flavor or another, but we are all human and we all make mistakes, stumble, fall, drag others down with us, relish our hypocrisy, compare ourselves to other Christians rather than the One we are supposed to be looking to as the perfect example of how to be human and faithful.

A few years back now, I tiptoed back into the fold. I found a home in a sweet Episcopal parish not too far away from the one that had shattered like a cheap wall mirror so many years before. I learned that this parish, too, has split some years before, but what remained were not sharp edges and bitterness. What I found there was love, acceptance, true community and abundant grace.

About 18 months ago, on a visit to Laguna Beach long before the thought of living here had ever crossed our minds as a remote possibility — “I can’t believe people are actually allowed to live in a place this staggeringly beautiful!” — I visited a church here where a few of my dearest friends worship.

Little Church by the Sea.

Really. That’s it’s formal name.

Whatever that conjures in your mind — a certain sweetness and humility, a laid-back-ness, a groovy loving kind of vibe, a welcoming place where the pastors wear flip-flops, perhaps — is spot on. Even though the denomination to which Little Church belongs is one that is, on paper at least, an uncomfortable, itchy, pinching fit for me, the love in this local church — a community of faith in the truest sense — won my heart.

My family moved from Chicago to Laguna last summer to live in community. With old friends, new friends and, in large part, with the folks at Little Church. It beckoned to my heart. It called me home.

We are blessed with a handful of marvelous pastors who share the shepherding duties, and although the pastorate of Little Church is still a boy’s club, my hope springs eternal that that may change, perhaps even sooner than later. (As an aside, when I was looking at the Little Church Web site earlier today and clicked on the link that read, “Women in Ministry,” it took me to an error page. “Page not found.” Once upon a time, I would have been livid. Today I just thought it was really funny. Ironic. Very us.)

I have to bracket stuff like that. But every church I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime has some things that every person must choose to bracket, put aside and stay, or not. And leave. And keep looking.

My family has found a loving, faithful home in this most unlikely of places (at least for me.) I even joined the prayer team. I KNOW! I’m all-in for this church. And no one is more surprised by that than yours truly. And no one is more grateful.

One of our lead pastors, Jeff, was my friend long before he was my pastor. Along with Clarke — the children’s pastor who led my son to the Lord a few weeks back — Jeff was one of the first new friends I made in Laguna, introduced to me by two of my dearest friends who I’ve known since we were college kids together. I immediately liked and trusted Jeff and he has never, not for a moment, given me cause to second-guess my first impressions of him.

He is an epic blessing to me and my family. He’s also one of the finest preachers I’ve ever heard.

Earlier this month, Little Church began a lengthy teaching series on the Book of Job. Yes, groan.

But each of the teachers who have taken us through a chapter or two each so far of what may be one of the most troubling books in Hebrew Scripture, have done a stellar job with their difficult assignment.
Last Sunday, it was Jeff’s turn. He was charged with the task of explicating the 4th Chapter of Job.

What Jeff gave us, a remarkable gift, is, simply, the best sermon I’ve ever heard. Yes. The best.

And I say that as someone who went to church for a living for more than a decade and has been “churched” from the day I was born.

Jeff’s sermon was magnificent. Humble, funny, literate, astute and deeply, deeply true. Quintessential Jeff, really.

I believe it transformed me in a powerful way, in a way that I hope will continue to reverberate through my spirit for the rest of my life.

I stand in a threshold, about to embark on a literal epic journey. There are so many unknowns and the accompanying temptation to be terrified and try to clutch the reins until my fingers bleed. But Jeff, well he recalibrated how I see my life, how I see my story — the one God is writing. I see only the daily rushes, if you will, and sometimes I wonder if the narrative is holding together. Is my story a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller? Science fiction? Cath-sploitation, David Lynchian in its weirdness, or B-movie lackluster?

What Jeff explained so beautifully is that we’re not the ones writing the screenplay or the story of our lives. That job is God’s alone. God knows the beginning and God knows the end and God knows intimately the vast middle, where we all dwell.

Jeff read a quote from the author Sue Monk Kidd toward the end of his sermon. As the words left his mouth, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

Ms. Kidd says:

We seem to have focused so much on exuberant beginnings and victorious endings that we’ve forgotten about the slow, sometimes torturous unraveling of God’s grace that takes place in the ‘middle places.'”

Grace — like the bracing blast of a Pacific swell — crashed over me. It woke me up.

In my middle place.



Thank you, Jeff.

You are a gift and a beautiful vessel of grace to me.

I’m so glad you’re walking with me on this journey, quoting CS Lewis and Henri Nouwen and St. Freddie of Rupert and many other giants of the Communion of Saints, living and gone, along the way. Inviting me anew into truth, love, joy, grace. Into community. Into The Communion. You help to make it so dang attractive.

Thank you for your humble wisdom and your tender honesty.

Thank you for your overgrown cardigans, that hand-thrown pottery coffee cup in one hand and your floppy Bible in the other.

Thank you for your flippity-floppities, your humor and  kindness.

More than anything, thank you for your friendship.


Dear Reader, please take 47 minutes and listen to Jeff’s take on Job 4. It is glorious. And I promise you, you’ll be changed for the better. It’s a great story. And so is yours.


As for Little Church and all its beautiful souls, I am joyfully indebted to you. You have welcomed me back into the family, like the Father who sees his prodigal son coming and runs out to greet him, shouting for his staff to fire up the barbeques, bust out the good wine and get ready for an rocking homecoming party.

I didn’t think I’d find this place again. I didn’t think I’d find the secret church.

But I did.

Thank you, Jesus, for whispering to my heart, “It’s ok, Cath. You’re safe here. You’re loved here.”

Little Church is the kind of place I wish everyone who is afraid of getting hurt  by church could experience — even once.

Come be welcome … into so much more.

Secret Church

By David Wilcox
(Listen HERE)


This great cold steel
that bars the way inside
was molten when the Blacksmith
was still living
This dead heavy door
that’s oak by oak
and all the way a cross is unforgiving
This inscription tall
on that pristine wall
behind the steel so rusted
says, love remains
to break the chains
of those who would dare to trust it.
Meet me here any night
There’s a secret church
that’s gathered
by these gates of steel
a gathering of refugees
enough to feel
that we’re warm inside
with our candles in the wind
Though we’re standing on the outside
of these walls alone
the secret church
feels taller than cathedral stone
The doors may be locked
but they’re just doors
Come be welcomed
into so much more
Come be welcomed into so much more
Then the wind turned strong
when the gathering was done
and the chains upon the bars
began to falter down to the floor
From the center of the door
fell the lock that was
placed on the altar
The inscription tall
on the pristine wall
behind the steel so rusted
says love remains
to break the chains
of those who would dare to trust it.
Meet me here any night
There’s a secret church
that’s gathered
by these gates of steel
a gathering of refugees
enough to feel
that we’re warm inside
with our candles in the wind
As we’re standing on the outside
of these walls alone
the secret church
feels taller than cathedral stone
The doors may be locked
but they’re just doors
Come, be welcomed
into so much more
Come be welcome,
come be welcomed
into so much more

Pursued by the hound of heaven:
Remembering Mark Metherell

It’s hard to believe so much time has passed.
We’re coming up on the second anniversary (April 11) of the day our sweet Mark was killed in Iraq.

On Monday evening in Laguna Niguel, Mark’s mother, Pam Metherell, gave a heart-rending, spirit-lifting talk about faith, family and Mark’s passing.

Mark would have been very proud of his mum.

He is so dearly missed by all who knew and loved him.

Up there in the heavenly realms, surfing with Jesus.

Part One:



Part Two:

Part Three: