By ERIC A. HOWALD
When Matthew Boger stepped out from behind a curtain at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, my reporter brain went into overdrive.
I was on a retreat with coworkers and Matthew was the first person to greet us as we arrived. He seemed a warm, amicable and sincere person. To me, nothing stood out about him in particular aside from the notion that he might be gay.
A day later, museum organizers put us in a dark room and cued up a video. In the opening moments, the camera is taken on a jog down a darkened street and the viewer hears Matthew’s voice telling us how he got up to run away, but his pursuers caught up to him in an alley.
He was beaten severely by a group of men for the crimes of being homeless, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gay.
Fortunately, Matthew survived the encounter and worked his way out of homelessness. Eighteen years later, in 1998, Matthew heard about a gay 21-year-old being beaten to death in Wyoming, an attack motivated by hate.
He decided soon after that he wanted to a find a place where he could use his voice in support of others. It wasn’t long before he was volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance.
At the same time, another LA resident, Tim Zaal, was experiencing his own epiphany. Tim was a white supremacist with a lengthy record that included being charged with a hate crime.
Tim’s son had learned to say the N-word and “Heil Hitler” around the same time he was learning “mommy” and “daddy.” Tim decided that what his son was learning from him needed to change. He started volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance.
At some point, Matthew and Tim ended up working on the same project, and sharing their reasons for volunteering at the museum. By that point in the video, most of us were fairly certain where it would lead, but the twist still hit like a sucker punch: Tim had led the assault on Matthew more than 20 years prior.
After a lot of work and effort – including apologies and acceptance – they are still lecturing side-by-side about their convergent paths.
After the credits rolled, Matthew came out from behind the curtain, talked about his experience and told us he would answer a few questions.
I keep questions on hand like other people keep lip balm or tissues, and I was cycling through them at warp speed. I felt honored when he finally called on me, after I settled on four words: How did you start?
It wasn’t much to go on, but Matthew figured it out.
“I started small,” he said. “I asked him how his day was going, or what his plans were and we were able to build on that.”
It’s nearly 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. The morning after Election Day.
I can’t sleep, or I won’t permit myself that small mercy. It’s as though I want to deny myself long enough that I can deem it sufficient punishment for being delusional and misguided. It’s never felt so naïve to want a little more unity, a bit of cooperation, or an ounce of empathy.
But Matthew’s words are on my mind. Tomorrow … today … soon, I’m going to start small.
To view the video described in this column, go to bit.ly/2fxXQFn
(Eric A. Howald is managing editor of the Keizertimes.)