Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I come from White America, and I was in my early thirties before I made my first African American friend — or any friend who happened to be a person of color. In Estelline, South Dakota, where my family lived in the 1960s, the local sports teams were still known as the Redmen, yet I never met any Native people. In Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, where we lived in 1970s, there were Hispanic folks who came to help work the farm fields. Back then, however, most of them were there only for the summer, not integrated into the school system and the community. At St. Olaf College, there were a few black African students, from countries like Ghana, but really only a handful. Valparaiso University School of Law was similarly monochromatic when I was there in the 1980s.

When the Rodney King riots broke out in May 1992, I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, completing a master’s degree in European history. As at St. Olaf and Valparaiso, most of the people I encountered at the University of Iowa and in the community were white. But in 1991, I had become friends with Theresa Riffe, an African American woman originally from Des Moines who worked at the Prairie Lights bookstore and befriended many of the international students who came to the university. When the campus was rocked by a terrible multi-victim shooting by a homicidal graduate student in the fall of ’91, Theresa was at the forefront in helping the community heal. She was a good friend of the wife of one of the victims, physics professor Christoph Goertz, and was there for her in that time of grief.

In the summer of 1992, while I was in southwestern Germany studying at the Goethe Institute, I had occasion to visit Theresa in Paris, where she was making an extended visit. She loved the City of Lights and was very much in her element there. We huffed and puffed up the steps of Notre Dame together, along with a couple of other friends with Iowa City ties, and saw the sites in a city teeming with tourists on the first weekend in June.

Fast forward four years, to late August of 1996. I had just arrived in Boise, Idaho, where my wife, Diane, and I were about to spend a year during her ministerial internship. A mutual friend called with the tragic news that Theresa had unexpectedly died, apparently from a condition related to diabetes. The mourners at her funeral comprised a unique cross-section of Iowa City society, bridging the barriers that so often divide people. All of life is meeting — or should be.

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