This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for a sign in my neighborhood that’s no longer there.

I was reminded of the sign this month, when — just for a week — it returned. Six months after the huge Black Lives Matter banner that had been posted on the lawn of a Silver Spring church disappeared, the sign, which last year became both a beloved neighborhood rallying point and a potent discomfort provider, reappeared. It had been months since the nation’s racial reckoning had morphed from an in-your-face provocation into a deeper hearts-and-minds challenge. So Colesville Presbyterian Church had replaced the BLM banner with a simple “Welcome” sign. But I’d never forgotten how a banner whose slogan had for months given me comfort made someone else so uncomfortable that he sought to destroy it — and inspired a defender I had never have imagined to become its protector.

Of course, for countless Americans today, negotiating political discord, cultural divisions and everything pandemic-related has made “uncomfortable” a near-constant state. Uncomfortable didn’t begin to describe my angst in June 2020 when the BLM sign first appeared on Colesville Presbyterian’s lawn. George Floyd’s brutal killing was still agonizingly fresh. A deadly new virus was doing nothing to keep protesters of every shade — including one of my sons — from protesting. As a Black woman whose life was irrevocably altered by police violence, I found the banner — offered by members of a predominantly White church near my home — reassuring. Like the hundreds of thousands protesting Floyd’s murder, this unsought public affirmation of Black people’s innate value — by countless openhearted people who aren’t Black — felt surprising. It felt … good.

Yet remembering similar signs targeted at local churches a few years ago, I wondered, “Will this one last?” When the sign remained untouched for two weeks, I finally wondered:

Has something actually shifted in our nation?

I’m still wondering.

Fitness trainer Jim Nix, who lives down the street from Colesville Presbyterian, feels there has been a shift, in part because of how his efforts to protect the sign helped him make peace with his own feelings about race.

Nix, a White youth football coach whom I had never met before Colesville Presbyterian directed me to him, says he, too, was moved by the BLM banner’s message. So he was disappointed the morning he stepped outside and saw a yawning expanse of green lawn between the poles that had supported it. His response to the stolen banner? “Excuse the language,” he says now, “but it pissed me off.”

Nix was pleased when the church quickly replaced the lawn sign (the church has rotated over the past two years between the BLM banner, the “Welcome” sign and a sign featuring an LGBTQ-inspired rainbow flag; the week-long recent reposting of the Black Lives Matter banner was inspired by the Georgia trial of those on trial for the death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery). When the new BLM banner was defaced a few weeks after it was replaced, Nix conferred with church officials before purchasing a new, $110 version himself. When that sign disappeared, he bought yet another one. Determined to protect this one, Nix began padlocking the banner early each morning, taking it down and storing it at sundown. In early fall, someone — in broad daylight — snipped out the word “Black,” leaving “Lives Matter” as the sign’s new proclamation.

At this point, many people would have said, “Enough.” Not Nix. Many congregations would have decided that reposting the sign three times was proof enough of its commitment to their Black neighbors and church members.

Not Colesville Presbyterian. Interim minister Rev. D. Jay Losher said his flock saw their continued support of the beleaguered sign as “one more way to get the gospel out.” But for Nix, a self-described “tough SOB” who felt energized by this “cat and mouse” battle, the sign’s defacer became an adversary. Nix’s mission: catching the perpetrator in the act and “putting the fear of God” into him. “I’m a coach,” Nix explains, “somebody who’s going to fight hate with hate. I was thinking, ‘I hope I catch you … there’ll be hell to pay.’”

In late October 2020, Colesville Presbyterian’s leadership contacted Nix. Thanking him for his dedication — which had resulted in more than 30 appreciative community members contacting the church in support of the banner — they informed him that the sign would soon be removed in anticipation of the upcoming presidential election. On a bright afternoon a few days later, Nix walked onto his porch, glanced down the street and was jolted to see a man spraying something on the banner. Furious, Nix leaped into his truck, sped to the church and found himself face to face with the sprayer: a terrified 60-something White man whose face trembled behind his glasses. For months, Nix had envisioned his adversary as a “rebellious kid or an old, nasty-looking dude.” But the man quivering before him “could have been a church deacon — glasses, tucked-in, buttoned shirt,” he says. “It wasn’t some down-on-his-luck lowlife trying to piss other people off. It was my uncle or older brother.” When Nix shouted, “Dude, why … are you messing with the sign?” the shivering man replied, ‘It makes me uncomfortable.”

Uncomfortable? Nix, who had been “ready to throw [the guy] in the middle of the road,” was stunned. Frozen, Nix watched the man dart across the street and disappear into a store. The petrified tamperer’s response seemed emblematic of “exactly … what’s going on with White America,” Nix says now. “It defused me.”

Uncomfortable. Of course the perpetrator’s word disarmed Nix. Like me, Nix assumed that consuming rage or contempt was fueling the sign tamperer’s actions. And while such feelings probably contributed to this mild-looking man’s behavior, it was discomfort that he expressed. Who hasn’t felt uncomfortable over the past few years’ relentless expressions of race-related outrage, threats, cruelties and misunderstandings?

But few people’s uneasiness inspires them to steal or deface private property. Most of us live with our unease, reluctantly accepting it as a part of the strange new world we’re occupying. Or maybe it only feels new. In fact, for Colesville Presbyterian, posting the BLM banner was a natural outgrowth of principles of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity that the church, whose congregation is 32 percent non-White, was founded on more than a half-century ago. “The kingdom of God is inclusive,” Losher says, quoting Galatians 3:28, “barring ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,’ male nor female. We as human beings exclude people, but God does not. We embrace whoever wants to walk the path with our congregation.”

Parishioners chose to post the BLM banner because although the Constitution states that all people are created equal, “in our culture, there’s a different value put on different lives,” Losher explains. “Yes, all lives matter. That’s not the issue. It’s, are all lives equal in the eyes of the law and in their status in society? That’s the battle we’re fighting.”

Nix’s rage over the sign being tampered with was intensified by an inner battle of his own. For most of his life, Nix felt absolutely certain he wasn’t racist. As a fitness instructor, he enjoyed working with Black kids and adults. He had approved of both his brother and sister marrying African Americans. For decades, he delighted in coaching young Black men at area schools. But in 2017, after the deadly Charlottesville protest, Freddie Gray’s police killing in Baltimore and race-tinged controversies in the Trump presidency inspired more open discussions about racism, two Black female clients made Nix look deeper. The first, a middle-school teacher, challenged Nix after he made an offhand remark about “thugs ruining their own neighborhood.” She gave him “a 20-minute dissertation on the word ‘thug,’” Nix says, detailing “the history of the word, how it had a different meaning in the Black community. … Her passion touched me.” But Nix pushed back hard when the client suggested, “Jim, you’ve got racist thoughts.”

Days later, another Black female client described to him many Black mothers’ constant fears for their sons’ safety and their efforts to teach them how to survive in a society that too often targets them. Nix admits he was “blown away.” Recalling the other client’s insistence that he “go deep,” Nix says, “I went there.”

What he uncovered during his deep dive changed everything. “Oh my God, [racism] is there,” he says he discovered. “I was beyond devastated.”

Realizing that he had unknowingly harbored racist thoughts despite being raised by loving parents and having enjoyed working with dozens of Black people was deeply hurtful. “Somehow this was instilled in me … growing up in a society infected by white supremacy that keeps people ignorant and fighting each other,” he says. “It keeps us from seeing the beauty in all of us.” Supporting a neighborhood church’s loving message to its Black neighbors — in a world in which a surprising number of Christian churches worship a deity who embraced the poor and disenfranchised but still support intolerance — appealed to him. Colesville Presbyterian’s sign “countered the hundreds of years in which European churches disseminated the message that Black people were unworthy in God’s eyes,” Nix explains. “It was difficult accepting that [bigotry] is in me, too.”

The more he thought, read and talked openly about racism, the more he realized: “We’re in this together. White people are going through it, too … processing hidden feelings that go back hundreds of years.”

When the sign-tampering started, Nix felt he was “on a righteous mission.” Actually seeing the tamperer helped him realize that mission “wasn’t just to make amends [to Black people] but to fight back against what had been done to me. White people were victimized, too, because we didn’t know we were being taught. I never knew about the Tulsa massacre. Why didn’t I learn about it in school?”

He understands why his rage drained from him the minute he laid eyes on his petrified adversary. Fury was the opposite of what had inspired church members to post the sign. “They were coming from a place of love,” he says. His adversary’s terror reminded him that “hate is learned,” he continues. “Fortunately for most of us in White America, we know that it’s wrong. We really do. We can all ask, ‘Why did I look at that young Black man like that?’ We can recognize how easy it is to get caught up in other people’s hate.”

Nix sees the Jan. 6 insurrection as proof. “Not everybody there was evil or had hate in their heart,” he says. “They got caught up in fear-based rhetoric. Fear turns into rage,” he adds, which anyone who’s made terrible decisions in its grip knows too well.

These days, Nix says that whenever Colesville Presbyterian reposts the banner, he will do his “diligent duty” to keep it up. But if it’s stolen again, he’ll feel he’s done his part. “I’m not angry anymore — I have pity for [the defacer],” he explains. Witnessing his adversary’s naked fear resulted in him viewing him “the way I’d look at a drunk or a drug addict. … I think of how sad you must be to have to cut the word “Black” out of a sign.”

Or how uncomfortable. Even those of us who would never consider destroying private property are discomfited by a world in which so much is shifting — including us. I have many trusted White friends, yet decades of experiences with racism at times make me surprised by White strangers’ warmth. Nix laughs at the similarity between his astonishment that the man who tampered with the BLM signs resembled a pious church elder, and mine that the person who had gone to so much trouble to protect the banner was, like its defacer, “a 60-year-old White man. … We’ve all been filled with stereotypes.”

No kidding. The longer I live on this confusing planet, the more certain I am that it isn’t just others whom we know too little about. It’s also ourselves. Maintaining the banner as long as Colesville Presbyterian did resulted in parishioners of every shade “listening more to each other’s stories, building and deepening relationships,” Losher says. Tackling prejudices head-on “is what’s going to get us past all of this. We’ve been talking past each other for so long.”

And looking past each other. I was in grade school the first time I realized that my brown skin made me unseen — and assumed unworthy of being seen — by people who knew nothing about me. Why else would the movies, TV shows and books I adored feature no one like me or my vibrant family? Clearly, powerful people were looking right past us. Realizing that wasn’t uncomfortable. It was devastating.

Decades later, I’m a bit better at seeing and celebrating myself. But that little girl still felt comforted by Colesville Presbyterian’s huge banner and its suggestion: “We see you. You matter to us, too.” Though I’m confused by someone whose color and gender suggest he’s never felt as erased as that little girl trying to destroy it, I love the irony in another White man his age, discomfited by being unknowingly instilled with bigotry, fighting to save it.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the now-absent sign and its surprising-to-me savior. And I agree with Nix when he suggests that our shared discomfort can serve a sacred purpose: to make us challenge ourselves. Who hasn’t been taught to make diminishing assumptions about those whom society suggests we look past? Who doesn’t need to look deeper?

“You think you’re this really deep-down-good person until something unexpectedly shows you your complexity, your deficiencies,” Nix explains. Deep inside, he says, “We all have ugly. But that doesn’t mean we are ugly.”

Donna Britt, a former Washington Post columnist, is the author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”