Have you ever watched chickens in a coop? You can see they do not tolerate differences in each other. If one chicken has different feather colorings, a darker beak, or just one eye, a few chickens will notice and begin to peck at it. They’ll start slowly at first. Then more chickens will join in, pecking faster and faster, until the different chicken dies or is rescued from the coop. People are more like chickens than we may realize; a couple of incidents from my childhood taught me this lesson.
I was born in Rigby, Idaho, a farming community of about 2,000 people. About four miles outside of town was a small junkyard. Rigby had a junkyard man, a little old Danish immigrant who couldn’t speak English. He didn’t have a name that I can remember; we just called him the “junkyard man.”
He not only ran the junkyard; he lived there. His home was made of plywood scraps and other junk he had gathered from the yard. He didn’t have any electricity and he lived all alone, except for some dogs to keep him company.
A few times each year he walked four miles into town for groceries. Most people respected him because he worked hard and did a good job. My dad’s mother was a Danish immigrant, so Dad always had a soft spot in his heart for the old man. Whenever we went to the dump, Dad would take him groceries, cookies, or other goodies.
Well, I remember one day when I acted like a real chicken toward the junkyard man; it was a Sunday in 1965. Somehow Dad, who was the bishop, got the junkyard man to come to church that day. I was about 13 years old. I felt real cool sitting there in church in my turtleneck shirt and 100 percent polyester suit, but then it happened. Dad brought the junkyard man to the bench where my family was and sat him down right next to me! I could hear my friends laughing. I was so embarrassed I didn’t even look at the man during sacrament meeting.
After the meeting, I left as fast as I could. Outside, my friends and I really started pecking at the junkyard man, and I was the worst. I told the boys that as the old man sat there I saw “cooties” crawling out of his clothes. I told them he smelled like trash, that his weird wool pants had moth holes in them, and all sorts of other insulting things. The more my friends laughed, the bigger I felt, and the more I “pecked” at him in our conversation.
Of course, he didn’t hear any of this. But about three weeks later, on a particularly cold Idaho night, the pipe of the old man’s coal-burning stove in his house broke. The house filled with thick, sooty smoke and he died in his sleep.
I don’t tell you this story to make you feel sorry for the old man, because his life was not really sad. He was a good man who contributed something to his community and made his own way. The sad part is that I remembered the mean things I said, and it was too late to apologize. I had picked on the old man only because he was different.
A year or two later I learned another lesson about chickens. Each fall in Idaho there is a big state fair that is open for one week. Part of the fair includes a carnival. Just before the fair opened one year, I was surprised to see that a family had moved into an old abandoned house at the end of our street. It had no windows, the doors were kicked off, and it was full of trash. It did offer a little shelter, though. The family staying there was with the carnival that came with the state fair.
They had a boy about my age named Billy, and we quickly became friends. But Billy was a little different than many kids, because he had a mild form of epilepsy. Whenever he would get excited or embarrassed, he would raise his shoulders, put his arms together over his head, and then uncontrollably hit his wrists and elbows together, jerking and twisting as he did. It was a sad thing to see, but it was okay because he was my friend.
Billy’s parents made him go to school whenever he could, so for a week he went to my school. One day I remember coming out of the junior high and hearing a lot of kids shouting. I walked to the side yard and saw about 50 kids huddled in a crude, loud circle, cheering on a fight.
In the circle I saw a big kid named Todd, who was known around town as a real bully and always seemed to be in fights. I couldn’t see the other person, so I moved closer. And then I saw Billy in the circle, curled up and lying on the ground.
Todd would kick Billy and then laugh when he lost control and started his seizure. All the other kids were laughing too. It was just disgusting. Acting out of anger, not courage, I stepped into the circle and yelled at everyone to leave Billy alone. Suddenly, Todd ran over and punched me in the face. I fell to the ground and everyone left.
Just like the junkyard man, Billy was picked on only because he was a little different.
The next day, the fair ended and Billy’s family left town. But a year later, I saw Billy again at the fair. He was running a coin toss carnival booth, calling out for people to throw their pennies, nickels, and dimes into dishes for a chance to win a prize. I wasn’t sure at first that it was Billy, but when he looked my way, we recognized each other. He stopped his work and ran over to me. He smiled, gave me a hug, and thanked me for helping him get out of the fight the year before. I will never forget the great feeling I had that day.
I hope these stories help you realize what a real “chicken” is. The chicken is the one or the many who pick at you and pester you to do something wrong along with them. Often they call you “chicken” when you refuse to participate. If you are picked on for living your religious or moral beliefs, you may feel a little left out; but hold firm, let it pass, and realize just who the real chickens are.
There is another simple and plain message behind all this talk about chickens, junkyards, and carnival people. That message is that Heavenly Father loves all people, regardless of how different they are, and so should we.
And when you think of people who are different, think of Jesus Christ. He was the most different of all the people ever on the earth. He was and is the only literal son of God. But the people of his time, like chickens, would not accept his differences. In return for healing their sick, they gave him a crown of thorns. In return for his offer to take upon himself all their sins, they gave him a cross to bear. The people of his day spoke mostly of written law and were most concerned with things of the world. He taught the unwritten law of the heart and spoke with greater concern for the life to come. For these and other differences he was crucified.
But they did not take his life. He gave it willingly for each of us, even with all our individual differences, because he loves us. He gave us a reminder of his commandment to love when he said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). If we can remember that and follow his counsel in dealing with the differences we find in each other, then we will more truly act as sons and daughters of God, and not as chickens.