I boarded an American Airlines red eye flight on Sunday evening, July 17, 10:00 PM to travel to Clinton, TN, to participate in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel Proctor Institute at (Alex) Haley Farm. I had attended the institute in 2019 under the extraordinary leadership of Dr. Janet Wolf and Dr. Shannon Daly. Last year, it was a hybrid event in which I conducted a workshop on Dr. Howard Thurman as requested by Founder and then CEO, Dr. Marian Wright Edelman. CDF is the leading child advocacy organization in the nation. This year brought approximately 250 faith leaders and activists together to stoke the energy of a movement under new leadership both at “the farm” and nationally with Dr. Starsky Wilson now serving as both President and CEO of CDF. His year’s theme was “Raising Democracy by Resurrecting Hope.”
The gathering was inspiring. The plenaries, workshops, worship services were all sterling. Our fellowship community member Gus Newport and Dr. Teresa Smallwood conducted a workshop that was, in the words of J.J. Evans of the television program, Good Times, dy-no-mite! My own workshop, Intergenerational Conversation on Beloved Community, co-facilitated by enormously gifted Rev. Vahisha Hasan of Movement in Faith, Memphis, TN, was also well received.
There were moments of feeling kinetic energy fashioning the gathering with many facets of one accord.
Special for me was the closing when the children of the weeklong Freedom School presented the closing for the gathering. I had planned to exit or at least move to the back of the chapel in order to board the 11:30 AM bus, loaded with my luggage, to the airport. As I approached one of the aisles, I quickly learned that it was the aisle that the children were using to approach the stage.
Here is a video of a presentation a few years ago.
The children this year were much younger.
With joyful noise and movement, they came, livening the place with the special energy, spirit, and playfulness of childhood. One child especially intrigued me. Although she was on the front row, she did not have her front teeth. I don’t know why I was so attracted to that snaggle tooth child. Maybe, it was because I knew that a change was coming to her life, that new teeth would come to provide her with the equipment to chew on the tougher things – full of nutrition – that would come her way. Or maybe I was just attracted to her arresting enthusiasm.
Wide-eyed, open-mouthed, she exuded joy! I tried to capture her in a photo, but the director blocked my view. You could tell she wanted to be there, had to be there, and claimed a space that she stamped with her own indelible presence and exuberance.
While Dr. Wilson was reading a story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he narrated the incident of Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her seat to a white male patron. When the story continued with the arrest of Mrs. Parks and the Black community’s decision not to ride the buses despite their dependence on the buses to provide transportation to work and to fulfill other responsibilities, I heard this whispered and very pronounced word from my little angel: Wow!
For her, at the age of four, to have a sense of the enormity of this community and communal action blew my mind and opened my heart. It made me realize again how formidable and prophetic that action was. With feet and souls already weary in many ways, those disinherited individuals and community committed themselves to putting foot to pavement again and again and again, for 381days to end the unjust practice of discrimination on the buses. They remembered their ancestors enduring even more grim times decided to Walk Together Children, Don’t You Get Weary.
I recall that Dr. King himself was amazed at the level of compliance. The Wow from my toothless tutor caused me to realize the power generated by the community of the common against such overwhelming odds – electrifying energy unleashed by a simple act of refusal to cooperate with injustice. The resulting resilience fueled a movement that changed the course of the nation.
How can we today hear this story and yet feel impotent about redressing current injustices that threaten the nation and undercut hallmarks of justice that have resulted from past strivings toward freedom?
I noticed that the time for the Freedom School children to be on staged had been wonderfully choreographed. It was moving to watch the hand gestures, the movement of the feet, the dances coordinated with words. I also realized that each child engaged it differently. No child was exactly like another. Their gestures were related to size, age, rhythmic nature, in other words, personality. It was all so engaging, energizing, uplifting, filling me with abundant joy and thanksgiving. Within the unity of choreography there was diversity. Within our freedom movements there can be, will be, and must be diversity based on our personalities.
I was “high!” The children had blessed my soul far beyond anything that I could have imagined, especially my special emissary of the Wow. Suddenly, I realized that I had totally forgotten about my bus to the airport. As I raced out and looked down the graveled path, I learned that the bus had left for the airport with all my bags. I felt so stupid!
Then I realized that I had been part of a community all week. There were a couple of CDF staff nearby. One was the person who had released the bus for the journey to the airport. Another suggested calling the driver of the bus whose company was also in relationship with “the farm.” I conversed with the director of transportation for the week who had been so responsive to me all week, arranging transportation when needed. He assured me that a taxi would meet me in forty minutes and provide transportation to the airport. One of the riders on the bus who was also CDF staff would watch my luggage until I arrived at airport since her flight was scheduled much later than mine. I arrived at the Knoxville airport about an hour before my flight with plenty of time to spare. I was then informed that my flight was delayed for about three hours.
It's not the method I would have consciously selected since getting to the airport and reclaiming my luggage had been stressful. However, I am now glad that I did stay and experience the young people. It is the little snaggled tooth one whose personality continues to be with me even now though we shared just a snippet of life together.
I arrived in Memphis too late that night to call my youngest brother, James. I did text him, however, and we talked the next day, Friday. My plan was to have dinner with James, his wife Pat; my sister, Irene; nephew, Vernon; niece, Teresa; and, great nephew, Mazio. We agreed to have the dinner at Huston’s Restaurant, which makes an outrageously spectacular baked potato, crisp on the outside and so moist and soft inside. Unfortunately, the restaurant had no openings for Saturday night. There were openings for Sunday dinner but only for parties of four people or fewer.
Well, we agreed upon another restaurant. Saturday, my allergies were so bad that I thought I had COVID-19. I bought a kit to self-test that gave a negative result. We had a wonderful time together. I reminded my great nephew that I would contact him the next day having alerted him before the beginning of the trip that I wanted to spend some time with him.
The next day, Sunday, I looked for another restaurant that met my dietary restrictions. Frustrated by my efforts, I finally gave up on this idea and just asked if I could come over to his father’s house. His response was “That’s perfect!”
I arrived. He met me out front and immediately showed me a car that he had inherited: a 1987 Dodge with only 51,000 miles. He was so excited and shared plans for needed re-modelling. We sat in the quiet and watched a film on topsoil. That’s one of Mazio’s passions: the erosion of topsoil and how we need to reverse the trend. I shared my support for the path he had taken in his own spiritual quest where he talked about the Universe always supplying him with what he needs at the time of need. His father joined us upon my request.
As I prepared to leave, I started my car and then heard a big popping sound. Mazio informed me that I had “busted” my tire. We opened the trunk of my Budget Rental car only to discover that there was no spare, no jack. I was upset. Mazio and his father instructed me to go inside out of the heat and that they would take care of the tire. Later, I remembered that I had AAA service. The father, Jerry, informed he that he and Mazio were AAA for the day. They took the spare from Jerry’s car to replace the blown tire and we purchased a new (used) tire. After everything had been finished. Mazio joined me in the car as we bade goodbye again. I continued to express my concern over the incident, to have been given a rental car with no spare tire. Suppose the blow out had happened on the highway I said. Supposed it had happened where there was no Mazio and Jerry? Mazio, looked at me and said: “And the good thing about today is that we did spend time together.” He smiled and left.
The time together was not as I had planned. It was time together, tough, where I experienced his joy and love – where he shared his plans for his car, where we shared a film, where his skills were in service, where he could do something for me. I was treated with tenderness and respect. I had not been in control and needed to honor that reality. I just needed to trust family, trust life.
We often spend time orchestrating what we want to happen and are blind to what is happening before us. Why should I have been distraught over Budget Rental Car not providing a spare tire and jack. Yes, it is irresponsible and possibly illegal to not have provided this equipment. In terms of my own response should I have not understood that I was with people who loved me, who were in relationship with me, that life had not abandoned me?
When Jesus advises his disciples to consider the lilies of the field, he is admonishing them about personally attempting to control life. He is calling them to trust life, creation, just as the lilies do. And behold their grandeur, unmatched by beauty created by human hands. Clarence Jordan reminds us not to fret over earthly things. If we set our hearts, our minds, if we give ourselves to the God Movement, what we need will be provided.
Tweaking Dr. Thurman, “We who seek community within our own spirit, who search for it in our experiences with the literal fact of the external world, who make this our formal intent as we seek to bring order out of the chaos of the collective, are not going against life but will be sustained and supported by life.”
This is good news, gospel, for me. If I allowed inconveniences like my experiences with the car or the bus, to overwhelm me, what shall I do when real trouble comes? How shall we stand and work and live when principalities and powers and rulers of darkness press their agendas? This is not an idle question. Coming soon, I believe, will be additional well-funded and coordinated attempts to destroy much of what has been achieved as common, progressive heritage. That must not happen! I am afraid it will unless we trust anew and with unyielding conviction that there is in God, life, the universe what we need to secure a future that is pleasing in the sight of God. This entire universe, much of it recently captured via telescope, is in our daily diet. The more we recognize that and build upon it, the more we become strengthened and immune from death carrying disease. Thurman reminds us: There is a spirit in man and in the world working always against the thing that destroys and lays waste. Always he must know that the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate. There is no earthly power that can contend with the resources of the universe when we call upon those resources through our resolve, imagination, and trust embedded in relations started in creation.
My snaggled toothed angel was a messenger of the divine, sealing as remarkable what I had experience earlier in the day and week. Her vitality encapsuled life’s vitality. Her nonverbal expressions spoke articulately to the nonverbal that was in me. Her Wow reawakened me to the awe of the universe so critical to anything we do according to Rabbi Abraham Heschel. It also froze a frame for me in the Civil Rights Movement, in life’s struggle to realize itself. If the people of Montgomery living each day under the threat of abuse, jail, disappearing, death, could say no to continued indignities and win their battle, why do we so shamefully become doormats. We have no legitimate reason to be afraid or feel impotent.
We are called to remember our relationship with the creator of life itself. Relation is key.
The days ahead, fraught with dangers as they may be, are invitations to each of us to seize the day, the time, the new realities that bid for our implementation.