On the corner of Fourth and Walnut (about a half-mile from where I was born) in downtown Louisville in 1958, monk and contemplative Thomas Merton experienced a mystical revelation where he suddenly awakened to his oneness with all of humanity. He writes in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” Perhaps some of you have felt something similar to this before, that not only are we made to be one with the divine but also one with one another, with all of humanity. No story that I have encountered in my journalism career has epitomized these ideas like the stories revolving around a softball tournament in Roanoke, Virginia (which took place last weekend), which raises money for mission work in Paraguay. No story like the Briscoes (who began the tournament) and their relationship with the Kurrles (the missionaries who the tournament helps fund).
Two families, a world a part, who rarely see one another, yet have been united since Twila Briscoe roomed with Tabita Kurrle, the matriarchs of their families, 50 years ago at Anderson University… A tournament that has transcended time, and even generations, raising money for Paraguay as the mission’s financial lifeline for over three decades… A demonstration of unity in the human race. A profound reflection of oneness in the Triune dance. When my mentor and former boss, Chad Briscoe, first introduced the tournament to me six years ago and suggested that I could write a book about my findings, I honestly thought he was crazy. A book about an obscure softball tournament in Roanoke, Virginia? And even more obscure, Paraguay? Who in their right mind would even dare to read such a thing, not to mention actually buy it? But all it took was one tournament for me to find myself compelled (and maybe even a little addicted) to discovering its layers of stories. I began attending the tournament every year. Gathering stories, then writing. Gathering stories, then writing. I tried writing a third-person biographical/historical narrative about the tournament, but after a couple of years, I set it aflame. I tried writing a more-colorful third-person narrative, but I eventually added that to the fire, too. (Now perhaps you understand why writers always seem so hopeless and distraught.) So I eventually just started writing about how the stories I had gathered impacted me as I ventured through my twenties, as my spiritual paradigm was shifting, as I was discovering my true self, which is Christ in me, the hope of glory.
Each year I attended the tournament, and each time I sat down at a coffeeshop to write throughout the subsequent years, I found my soul banging on the glass walls surrounding the idea of Paraguay—seeing it, but not being able to feel it. I longed for the day when I might be able to visit this place that I had heard so much about for a half-decade.
This past spring, my journey (and therefore the book, Quiet Dream, Violet Sky, which will be released in 2017) reached its crescendo when I had the privilege of visiting Paraguay with Chad and his wife, Jamie Briscoe. I witnessed firsthand the impact that the tournament has on the mission there—from the Guarani girl living in the shanties of Bella Vista who received a scholarship through the tournament to go to college, to the $23,000 transmitter that was purchased for the radio station so that missionary Marcos Kurrle (one of the main characters in the book) and his team could expand the station’s positive influence on the Paraguayan airwaves; from the entrepreneur named Elena whose business collects clothes from the rich, sells them to the middle class, then gives all the money to the poor, helping to narrow the socioeconomic gap, to Timothy’s School, a children’s school (named after the late son of missionary Norberto Kurrle, another one of the main characters in the book, who lost his wife and only son in a tragic car crash four years ago); from the many churches that we visited to the different schools and ministries that had expanded from the churches; from the missionaries and pastors who we met to the people who had been impacted by the teachings of those clergy. No matter where we went—from our arrival, when we were greeted by a rainbow stretching across a Paraguayan countryside off of Route 1, the same highway where Norberto had his tragic car accident years before, to when we rode back to Asuncion our final evening beneath a violet sky at dusk—people kept approaching the Briscoes and thanking them for running the tournament.
It is as if the Briscoes—and all who have made this tournament their own—have tapped into something profound, something central to the human experience, something where shades of the fullness of life are revealed. One evening while we were in Paraguay, we had a celebratory dinner at Marcos’s Obligado home. It was the first time that Marcos, Norberto and Chad—three best friends, the three main characters in the book—had been together in the same place since Norberto and his late wife Julie’s wedding more than 15 years before. Seeing Marcos, Norberto and Chad together was a moving, visual reminder of the depth of the story I had been discovering. Here they were, together in Paraguay, of all places, because their mothers roomed together 50 years before, in Indiana, of all places. I was looking at the second generation of this beautiful partnership—no, this union—between two families and two countries that are 5,000 miles apart. How random. How beautiful. How miraculous. But it was deeper than that. It was a symbol of what I wanted, too, even though my last name is not “Briscoe” or “Kurrle.” And I began to wonder if perhaps I was more Paraguayan than I thought, that maybe the people I saw walking along those red-clay streets were my people, that maybe those dilapidated shacks were my home, that maybe their pains were my pain, their joys my joy, their hope my hope, that maybe their world was our world. As Merton says, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” In today’s polarizing age, and in this mud-slinging election year, perhaps this story will be a reminder that we are all more one—more alike—than we’ve dared to realize or awaken to. Last weekend at the annual softball tournament in Roanoke, I once again had the privilege of enjoying watching the mysteries (and miracles) of union unfold. Because what’s ours is theirs, and what’s theirs is ours.
By Stephen Copeland
This essay was first published on copelandwrites.com.