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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Tao Art with Me | July 30, 2023 Rev Dr. Dorsey Blake

I was familiar with the expression: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Until instructed by Taoist scholar Derek Lim, I was unaware that its source is the Tao Te Ching.

Lim also instructs that the original text says, “The journey begins beneath your feet” and a great undertaking always starts as something small.” Lim continues,this understanding should be “an unlocking of a door or turning over the engine. After this, it will be up to you to keep yourself moving forward. As of right now, you have officially embarked on your journey.”

I regret not knowing all of this prior to my co-facilitating a workshop at The Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel Proctor Conference held at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, TN, July 17-20. Last year, this workshop, co-facilitated by Dr. Teresa Smallwood and our community member Gus Newport, was off the charts. After Gus’s passing, I was asked to work with Dr. Smallwood. The workshop was titled: Praying with Our Feet: Why People of Faith Must be Organizers. See the connection?

Here is the description written by Dr. Smallwood:

Paying homage to the late Gus Newport and his legacy of indefatigable acumen in community leadership and organizing, this workshop will survey the historical antecedents as well as the current events that create the perpetual need for communities of faith to engage social and racial justice. Social change theory does not happen in a vacuum within the Ivory Tower, but rather, it comes into fruition through the efforts of organized communities on a plethora of issues and concerns for marginalized people in America. We will look at exemplars who have lived their theology in ways that paved paths of consciousness, parted troubled waters of despair, rescued the brokenhearted, sheltered the homeless, clothed the naked, and fed the hungry as an enactment of faith.

I cannot praise enough Dr. Smallwood’s brilliance, knowledge of methods of social change, passion, and power as a facilitator and teacher. It would be an honor for me to sit in on one of her courses. Awesome! She is a scholar, activist, and faith leader.

We mentioned the great soul, Mahatma Gandhi, and his connection of faith and involvement in the life of his community, who embodied praying with feet both in South Africa and India.

Social movements in the nation were people whose journeys to liberation began with their feet or beneath their feet, marching, petitioning, running to a safer place, moving from sharecropping in the South, sometimes carrying only hope for a brighter day ahead. My grandparents were among those who left Tutwiler, MS for the promised land of Memphis, TN. People ACTED UP, going into hallowed halls demanding a change in how LGBTQ folks were being treated.

We talked about the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When asked if he prayed while marching with civil rights advocates in Selma, AL, he responded that he prayed with his feet. Prayer is meaningless, he said, unless it is subversive unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood . . .

More words from Heschel, God has placed us here in the midst of an unfinished creation and has given us the task of helping to bring it to fulfillment. That is why we were created. (The intention of our birth). That is the purpose of our lives. That is the content of our prayer. Our actions hasten or delay the healing of the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concurred saying: Progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability but comes from the tireless work of women and men as co-workers with God. That is why people were willing to pray with their feet for 381 days in Montgomery, AL, to heal the world, to aid in fulfilling this unfinished creation, to respond to the God of life who seeks us as co-workers, to say to the nonbinary presence: Here I am! Use me.

When the workshop was opened for questions, amazing lives in the present were revealed. Their questions and statements, heartaches, disappointments, horror at present conditions as well as successes in their movements attested to the power of praying with the feet. Clearly, the God of Life has guided their feet through many days and steps along their journeys. I found many tutors among them.

A significant portion of the gathering was dedicated to raising the profile of Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall. Prathia Hall helped Charles Sherrod to pilot the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC’s) 22-county SW Georgia Project and was one of three voter registration workers wounded by night riders. She was known for her concept of Freedom Faith, faith based in and for freedom. She was a womanist theologian exploring what God was doing to liberate the entire Black community. The panel in which I participated looked at how her freedom faith was being manifested in our contemporary society. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. heard the words I Have A Dream while listening to Prathia Hall and told her that he would be using those words. King also said Rev. Hall was the one platform speaker that he preferred not to follow. Here is an excerpt from one of her speeches.

Negroes must also bear the blame for the desecration of humanity that is segregation. For we have been silent much too long. We’ve been preoccupied with telling our city power structure not what it needs to know, but what it wants to hear. We are here today because we can no longer bear the shame of our guilt, because delay means compromising our dignity ... we are here today to serve notice on the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. We are tired of segregation, and we want equality now.”

On a personal note, Dr. Hall ended up being on the defense committee for my Doctor of Ministry dissertation at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH.

As usual, the conference concluded with the voices, dance, enthusiasm, and inspiration of the children, some as young as three years old. They had participated during the week in the Freedom School and brought much of what they had learned onto the stage. With newer feet and wings, newer vitality and joy, their charisma lit up our lives as well as the stage. Yes, doors were unlocked, and engines turned over. The journey was re-engaged under the feet of the young, the long journey beginning again with one step, then another, and another.

Off to Memphis, I went to spend time with my younger sister, youngest brother and his wife, nephew, niece, and great nephew (Mazio), who turned 30 years of age on July 14. I asked Mazio to join me at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was assassinated, on April 4, 1968.

We spent about three hours in the Museum – again, so many feet, so many journeys, so much organizing, and commitment in the face of reprisal, deadly reprisals. Our reflections were sometimes joined by others. Mazio later texted me that the day was one of the most important days of his life, that he learned so much, and became a new person. Wow!

Now, at the Atlanta airport preparing to return to San Francisco, I tried to read a book that was given to each of us at the registration table for the conference, Thus Far on the Way. Too weary from the flight challenges, so I could not focus. I was continually dozing off and finally decided to give up. Finally boarding my flight, the person at the gate stated: “I saw you sleeping and started to take a picture.” I’m glad he didn’t. My bag did not fit under my aisle seat. It has all previous times. I took this as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to do any reading and placed it in the overhead bin. By now, however, I was sleepy and watched MSNBC news for quite some time. Finally, I found the movie, Mamie.

My heart breaks when I realize that human beings could violate, desecrate, and defile, in such an unthinkably fiendish, savage, and brutish way a 14-year-old boy. Yet, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, the NAACP, and relatives still living in Money, MS, journeyed forth, catalyzing the Civil Rights Movement.

I have begun reading the book, Thus Far on the Way: Toward a Theology of Child Advocacy. The author Eileen W. Lindner shares this insight from her son who serves as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

One of the things EMTs learn is how to assess head trauma. With the proper assessment when someone has been injured the extent of their injury and their symptoms can be quickly summarized. The EMT can then report to the doctor or nurse at the emergency room door that the patient is, for example, “alert and conscious, times four.” What it means to any medical person is that the patient is alert--that is awake and conscious. “Times four” means, in this order, that the person knows who they are, where they are, what time it is, and what just happened.

In an accident, when someone suffers a head trauma, it’s not unusual to forget what just happened. . .. That person would be described as “alert and conscious times three.” That means they know who they are, where they are, what time it is, but they don’t recall what just happened.

I feel that we have all been traumatized by the shenanigans of this society, by imperialism, and oppression imposed on all of us. We have responded in various ways, some creative, others harmful. Do we really know who we are? Are we merely spokes in a wheel, consumers, things to be manipulated? Or is there grandeur to our being? Are we here as Rabbi Heschel suggests agents or co-workers with the universe, placed here in the midst of an unfinished creation and given the task of helping to bring it to fulfillment? Are we as the psalmist says a little lower than the angels crowned with glory and honor, rulers over God’s works and everything under our feet?

Do we know where we are? We have left the Garden of Eden. It’s the question that God purportedly asked Adam and Eve after they had violated their instructions. Where are we in terms of our consciousness, the journey under our feet, our commitment to the kin-dom of God, the Beloved Community? Where are we in the annihilation of the planet?

Do we know what time it is? Dr. King talked about the “fierce urgency” of now and declared Now is the time!

And what just happened to us? Women have lost the right to make decisions about their bodies.

Laws have been passed to make it nearly impossible to vote in some states. There is war against our transgender community. We are silent again.

May we remember the joy of the children, the commitment of the workshop attendees, the legacies of those enshrined in the National Civil Rights Museum, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall, and Mamie Till-Mobley.

All began praying beneath and with their feet. What became large began small.

Let us take one more step on the journey of a thousand miles.

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