This starts with me sneaking into church.
Not in 1981, when I snuck back into church after a 10-year absence. This was two Sundays ago, the first one of the New Year. I stayed home with a sore throat, then drove to get some meds, and coming back found myself a couple of blocks from the sanctuary at just about the time I calculated we’d be singing “Somos Uno”. Someone always comments when I’m absent from my station at the conga drum, so I figured I could slip upstairs (albeit in my sweats and a stocking cap), do my little drumming, and slip back out. So I snuck into church.
Glancing through the bulletin, I saw notices for “”Standing Together’: Public Event to Unite the Community in Response to Islamophobia and Xenophobia”, and for our new Sunday School class on the Refugee/Immigrant Crisis. I confess my immediate reaction was a sense of fatigue. The voices out there are so loud and angry and fearful. Maybe I could take a pass on this issue, just this time, you know.
I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in a Henrico County neighborhood called East Highland Park – I would say lower middle class. The N word seemed in everyone’s vocabulary except for my family – not allowed. My parents were interested, seemingly in total isolation, in the civil rights movement and became involved at a grass roots level. I mostly watched quietly, sometimes wishing they wouldn’t be quite so obvious. I recall traveling to a dinner in Prince Edward County where my dad had grown up: the restaurant door had a White Only metal sign – very neatly crafted. I wondered at someone feeling so strongly that they’d have a sign made and go to the effort of using tools to fasten it to their door. I couldn’t make it compute.
When I was 14, we moved to Ginter Park. My parents immersed themselves in GPPC and made friends from the seminary. Their civil rights interests and efforts were suddenly no longer isolated. They delighted in the company of fellow travelers. I dropped in from nearly all-white Henrico High School to nearly equal black-white John Marshall. We were not without issues, but there we all were, getting along at some level. I could imagine the N-slinging folks of my childhood drawing into an ever-shrinking cluster and, well – dying out.
Dr. King died instead. N-slinging morphed into ingrained patterns in corporate and civic life, fed by the same fear and ignorance. This morning, before my son’s 8th grade class recited Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from memory, their teacher commented on how much has changed since 1963 – and how much remains to be done.
I have friends who attended the Donald Trump rally at the racetrack. I have friends who are quite fretful of what they perceive as the agenda of the Muslim faith. These people have good hearts – they would come give your car a jump in the middle of the night – but I think they have bad information. My family watched the original three Star Wars movies over the holidays. After so many years, I’d forgotten that Darth Vader, of all people, redeemed himself in the end. And that Luke could sense the good in him. That’s important.
Even as a white person, even in my lifetime – it’s a long haul to think things might be getting better, and then to see where we are and to hear the voices echoing the fear and ignorance of more than 50 years ago. I think fatigue is fair. But maybe that’s what naps are for. Maybe that’s part of the good in listening to a multi-racial 8th grade class recite Dr. King – a powerful reminder that his agenda is known but not finished. Maybe that’s some of the value in once a year pausing to recall his life – and some of his many inspiring, invigorating words.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
The time is always right to do what is right.
Alfred Walker manages our blog and lines up the storyteller/contributors, except in a case like this.