One evening in June 1991, Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie, were unpacking boxes in their new home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had become the new Jewish Cantor at a Jewish congregation. The phone rang, and they answered it. “You’ll be sorry you ever moved in, Jew boy,” the caller said and hung up.
Soon a package appeared on their front porch. “The KKK is watching you, Scum,” read the note. Inside were pictures of Hitler, caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, blacks with gorilla heads, and graphic depictions of dead blacks and Jews. “The Holohoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you.”
When the family contacted the police, they said it sounded like Larry Trapp, the grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan in Nebraska. “He’s dangerous,” the police said. “We know he makes explosives.”*
When I first read this story, I asked myself, how would I have responded? How would I react if something similar happened to me and my family? Would I move? Would I ask for police protection? Would I ask the police to press charges? Would I buy a gun? What would I do?
Julie Weisser was curious. She wondered what made him so full of hate and bitterness. The police had told them that despite being in a wheelchair due to late-stage diabetes, he was suspected of several firebombings around Lincoln. She wanted to mail him verses from Proverbs every day but Michael thought that was nuts. Yet when Trapp launched a white supremacist TV series on local cable, Michael called Trapp’s answering machine and said, “Larry, do you know that the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like you who had no legs or who had physical deformities or handicaps? . . . Why do you love the Nazis so much?” Another time he called and said, “Maybe you should let all that hate go.”*
Michael kept leaving such thought-provoking messages but wondered what he would do if Trapp ever picked up the phone and answered. Julie thought Trapp was probably lonely. “Tell him you’ll take him to the grocery store,” she said.
And one day Larry did pick up when Michael called. “Who are you? What do you want? Stop harassing me.”
“I just want to talk,” said Michael. “I know you’re in a wheelchair, and I thought I could take you to the grocery store or something.”
Trapp was stunned and silent. “That’s ok. That’s nice,” he finally said, “But I’ve got it covered. Just don’t call back.”
“I’ll be in touch,” Weisser replied.*
a result a friendship developed and Trapp began to rethink his racist ideas. Michael and Julie brought a meal to Larry, and they talked face to face. Five months after the first threatening phone call, Trapp resigned from the Klan. Twelve months after that first phone call, Trapp converted to Judaism and moved in with the Weissers. Julie quit her job to take care of him. Fifteen months after the phone call, Larry Trapp died, but he died a changed man, changed by love and hospitality.
Racism is not dead. Sometimes it is overt. Sometimes more hidden. We see it in housing patterns, immigration debates and casual talk. The human tendency to think that certain categories of people are inferior persists in most of us. Confronting it is difficult but possible.
We should not be surprised that people like the Weissers who were immersed in the Scriptures of a God of love should react in this way. The Old Testament, after all, tells us to love God and love our neighbor. The Weissers took that seriously and acted on it. So can we, one small step at a time.
* David O’Reilly, “A Klansman Converted,” Gazette Telegraph (Colorado Springs, CO), 25 June 1995, pp. E1, E6. Based on Kathryn “Kristi” Waterson’s Not by the Sword (Simon & Schuster/Bison Books).