People of Resilience

“A People of Resilience – John Lewis,” Bob Ryder

READING
Jeremiah 1:4-8 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

REFLECTION
Over these last few weeks our worship services have been focused on Black History Month.  The first official designation of Black History Month as a national event was made by Gerald Ford in 1976, but its roots go back to 1915.  According to History.com,

The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent. Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures.

It’s more than fitting that our nation take every opportunity – from the worship theme of a small congregation in Illinois to national proclamations and collegiate courses of study – to appreciate the contributions of our fellow citizens of African descent.  From academics to the arts, from the military to economics to sports, at every level of society from rural agricultural fields to space exploration to social justice to the highest levels of government, America owes whatever greatness it has achieved to our neighbors of African descent as much as to anyone.  Yet in the way of equality, for as much progress as has been made in roughly 300 years there’s still so much work to do.  Racial bias and willful ignorance still has an enormously pernicious effect on American society.  As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”  This makes it both a gift and a responsibility to recognize all that Americans of African descent have done to transform this nation into a better version of itself.  Black History Month is an important part of that need.

As I noted a few weeks ago, I wanted our observance to look at the history being made by our contemporaries.  Last week we learned more about the life of our own Jack Waddell as he shared his journey beginning right here in Bloomington and traveling across the world as a singer and actor, and as a voice coach to some of the most successful artists of our time.  The week before that Susan brought our attention to Bayard Rustin, who was a major force in organizing the march on Washington.  The week before that we thought about the peaceful social protest of Collin Kaepernick, who raised public consciousness about injustice perpetrated against people of color by law enforcement.  This week, I return to the life of John Lewis, prominent Civil Rights leader and member of the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional District.  I mentioned him briefly the day we began our series, the sub-theme for which is, “What does it mean to be a people of resilience?”  You’d be hard pressed to think of someone more resilient than John Lewis.  In addition to his many achievements, Mr. Lewis turned 80 years this past Friday, and as I mentioned previously, he was recently diagnosed with cancer.  It feels right to keep him and his family in our hearts this morning and in the months and years ahead.  Our nation owes him a lot.

Perhaps his most iconic achievement was the occasion on March 7, 1965 when he helped lead a prominent Civil Rights procession crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge during a series of marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. According to Wikipedia…

…an estimated 525 to 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and county posse waiting for them on the other side. County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.

Televised images of the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world.  Lynda Blackmon Lowery was 14 years old when she [was] brutally beaten by a police officer during the march, she had to get seven stitches over her right eye and 28 stitches on the back of her head. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 were treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday…”

Well, the courage it took to participate in such a march, let alone to take a leading role, is more than impressive enough on its own merit.  What leaves me all the more in awe of John Lewis is the sublime theology on which he based his activism.  Mr. Lewis and his contemporaries in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference studied the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr, who adapted the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi for the American Civil Rights movement.  Listen to some of the passages from Mr. Lewis’ Book “Across That Bridge – a Vision for Change and the Future of America…”

At a young age, I mourned for the experience of a more loving world.  My soul insisted that there was a better way.  Many of us who joined the struggle of respect for human dignity, both black and white, protestant and Jew, had been locked in cognitive dissonance for years.  By the time we were seasoned freedom fighters, it was more real to us than our flesh and blood, more real than our own lives, and more valuable than our own longevity.  We believed that if we are all children of the same creator, then discrimination had to be an error, a misconception based on faulty logic.  The idea that some people were inherently better was a delusion of the human ego; a distortion of the truth.  We asserted our right to human dignity based on a solid faith in our divine heritage that linked us to every other human being and all the rest of creation – known and unknown – even to the heart and mind of God and the highest celestial realms in the Universe.

This unity was an intrinsic, inseparable aspect of our being.  We had nothing to prove, our worth had already been established before we were born.  Our protests were an affirmation of this faith, of our belief that we could never be separated from this truth.  It did not matter that hundreds of years of unjust law and demeaning customs were tied to this wrong-headed thinking, or that the history of an entire nation had been shaped by this error in judgement.  We believed that if we were the chosen of an omniscient creator and we took a stand based on faith, that the forces of the universe would come to our aid.  No jail cell, no threat, no act of violence could alter our power to overcome an adversary if we did not waver.

In the Civil Rights Movement, we utilized the power of faith to move our society forward.  We used faith as a shield against the false notion that anyone has power to inflict pain, limitation, despair, or any condition upon us.  We in the movement decided to actualize our belief that the hatred we experienced was not based on any truth, but was actually an illusion in the minds of those who hated us.  The struggle for civil rights was more than a series of legal battles, it was a spiritual confrontation that tested the power of two ideas; one based on unity, and the other based on division.  Our faith rejected the notion that some people were inherently better than others because of skin color, hair, height, build, education, class, or religion, or any external attribute, and it embraced the equality and divinity of all humanity.  In the moment that we relaxed into full recognition of our connection to the creator, we remembered the words, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.”  When we cast off the false notions designed to limit us and twist our creative powers to serve the work of shame and fear, we began to step into the majesty of our faith.

I commend Mr. Lewis’ book to you.  In addition to the inspirational way he articulates his faith, it offers a moving portrait of his humanity.  John Lewis was the kid who woke up early and got dressed before his parents were up and about so he could sneak onto the school bus as it came through his neighborhood and go to school.  It expresses the perspective of someone who understands the need for generational persistence in moving a nation toward justice.  As I reread through portions of his book preparing for this reflection, my mind was drawn back to the thought Jack expressed several times last week about not letting anyone tell you what’s impossible, such that a black child born in central Illinois and subject to substantial prejudice could grow up to become a sought after opera singer in Germany.  That same divinely inspired imagination lead John Lewis – a little boy growing up in the segregated south as young as 4 years old – to yearn for and pursue an education that ought to be utterly unavailable to him, and use it to prevail against hatred and oppression that had possessed a nation for centuries.

It’s humbling to learn about the faith, determination and resilience of my fellow citizens enduring oppression I can’t even imagine. And it’s inspiring to consider their example in the context of the challenges our democracy is experiencing now. Susan shared a quote from the movie “Just Mercy” that I think fits with the spirit of people we’ve been considering for Black History Month.  In the closing scene of the film, Attorney Bryan Stevenson has this to say while testifying before the US Senate about the death penalty…

I came out of law school with grand ideas in my mind about how to change the world. But Mr. McMillian made me realize we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts. This man taught me how to stay hopeful, because I now know that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to push forward, even when the truth is distorted by the people in power. It allows us to stand up when they tell us to sit down, and to speak when they say be quiet. Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth – the opposite of poverty is justice; that the character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich and the privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and condemned. Our system has taken more away from this innocent man than it has the power to give back. But I believe if each of us can follow his lead, we can change this world for the better. If we can look at ourselves closely, and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice. We all need mercy. And perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace.