“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
This week stories about the permission to serve. To spill light.
Yesterday, I wrote about being honored to join a group of new friends on the 13th Annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage (in 2013). We gathered at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
On June 11, 1963, history was made when James Hood and Vivian Malone walked through two white wood doors at Foster Auditorium to enroll at the University, the first African American students in the school’s history.
Their action proved all the more courageous, given that they needed to pass the Governor himself as he stood in that doorway, defiant in his intolerance and the fanaticism that still reverberated from his inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” said Governor George Wallace.
I cannot imagine their courage or their fear. I can imagine that they shook more than just a little on the inside, and wondered, if only fleetingly, “Is it worth it? Maybe, this is a good time to turn around.”
I walk past the ordinary white wood doors—now enshrined in the lobby of the renovated Foster Auditorium—into a gymnasium with fellow pilgrims to hear the words of Dr. Sharon Malone (Vivian Malone’s sister) and Peggy Wallace Kennedy (the daughter of Governor George Wallace).
Diminutive in stature, Peggy is still youthful and carries a Southern grace in her face and demeanor. I had no expectations for her address (save for my skepticism radar in all matters having to do with the heart and reconciliation). In story form she took me to a swing-set outside a family home where a 13-year-old girl swung, unaware of the fateful remarks made by her father, a 13-year-old girl who would grow up pondering and wrestling with what it would mean to live under the shadow of her father’s words.
While her story is a long way from that of a nine-year-old boy in rural Michigan, we did have one thing in common: the realization that just because a parent lives from certain script, it does not mean that script is binding to the child. At some point in her life Peggy Wallace Kennedy knew that she could choose her path, choose her script, and that she must stand where her father stood with her own son as a testament to change, to bear witness as to why she chose to say NO to exclusion and YES to the need to protect the least among us.
“So today I rise,” she told us in the gymnasium. “Today I rise to stand in the schoolhouse door. Every day I rise… to speak to a child. To comfort a parent. To offer a hand. To enable justice.”
The doors she walked through were not literal, but real nonetheless. Each and every one of us fashions a life by the choices we honor–or more fundamentally, by the doors we open, and the doors we close.
And here’s the deal: There will always be a door to hope or gratitude or respect or worth or kindness or delight or compassion or mercy or dignity or vulnerability or value or opportunity or dreams.
And, we must first open that door to our self.
Only then do we realize that when we walk through that door, we say No to shame or resentment or self-righteousness or fear or indifference or detachment or numbness or hopelessness or humiliation or hatred or despair.
In writing about walking the Selma Bridge yesterday, I wasn’t aware of the current news, significant tornado damage in Alabama, and Selma in particular. Our prayers to all there for safety and restoration.
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King Jr.
And this week stories about the permission to serve. And hearts full of grace. Not one of these people woke up one morning, and said to themselves that they were about to do something heroic. It’s just that, when they had to, they did what was right.
A still-plucky Sister Mary Antona Ebo of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary — the first black nun to march — didn’t think she was martyr material, but felt it was time to “put up or shut up.”
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and local police — some on horseback — used billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas to bludgeon and bloody about 600 civil rights activists who had started a march of 50 miles from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.
News of that “Bloody Sunday” attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was broadcast into homes across the country and would be a turning point in the civil rights struggle. After the attack, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. issued a call for church leaders around the country to come to Selma. Sister Antona Ebo was working at St. Mary’s Infirmary, then a hospital for African-Americans in St. Louis, when news of the brutality in Selma reached her.
“If I didn’t have this habit on, if I wasn’t working,” she told her co-workers at the infirmary, “I’d be in Selma.”
“God called my bluff,” Ebo would later tell a reporter.
Ebo’s supervisor, Sister Eugene Smith, asked her whether, as an African-American nun, she would be part of a 50-member delegation — made up of laymen, Protestant ministers, rabbis, priests and five white nuns.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 10, the group flew to Selma. They were promptly taken to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church — a civil rights landmark.
Ebo later realized that inside the chapel, politician and civil rights leader the Rev. Andrew Young had referred to her when he asked “the people to stand and acknowledge that one of the great moral forces of the world was now entering the church.”
“I didn’t even know that that was me,” Ebo says now with a chuckle.
Sister Mary Antona Ebo died November 2017, at the age of 93.
In 2013, I was honored to walk the Edmund Pettis Bridge and to stand with heroes, including Sr. Mary and John Lewis. It’s not my practice to put personal photos in Sabbath Moment. But this is my way of thanking Sr. Mary for stepping up. We are on the bridge alongside Peggy Wallace Kennedy (daughter of George Wallace and the subject in yesterday’s SM) and Donzaleigh Avis Abernathy (daughter of Ralph Abernathy).
Stories shape us and shape our world… and it does my heart good when they are stories about the permission to serve. With hearts full of grace.
Inviting us to stop and ask; Do our stories make us bigger, or smaller? Do they invite us to be people of grace, or people of umbrage?
Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, I’ve been telling stories that came to light on a 2013 Pilgrimage that included walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Our Pilgrimage was led by John Lewis. And I say, thank you, John Lewis, for stories that made us bigger. For stories with “good trouble”.
I’m always curious about how people (how we) choose the paradigm to write, tell stories, preach and live. What’s the invitation?
From my life journey, here’s what I know; if the story makes me feel small (shame) or fearful or angry (there are others to blame and dismiss), then I’m not telling (or hearing) a redemptive story.
Is there still more to heal? Absolutely. However, I want to start here and take this conversion to heart: That which can be used for hurt and pain, can be redeemed and used for reconciliation.
So, speaking of bridges… on bridges that have seen pain and hatred, new bridges can be built.
And here’s the deal: Each and every one of us can be bridges builders.
We can build bridges for reconciliation and second chances and peace making.
We can build roads for mercy and generosity and justice.
We can build floors for dancing and music and celebration.
We create bandages for wounds and fractured spirits and broken hearts.
We create sanctuaries for safety and prayer and hope, to replenish us and invite us to wholeness.
When kindheartedness spills, I live with my heart unclenched and expanded. And I am no longer a walking resentment in search of a cause.
Remembering those who crossed that bridge (March 1965), I realized that it doesn’t matter what we expect from life, but what life expects from us. As a result, we can choose to unleash the heart, in order to be our better selves.
John Lewis (who died July 17, 2020) left some awfully big shoes to fill. But a word of encouragement. And some advice about filling them; “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Thank you, Martin Luther King Jr.
This week we told stories about the permission to serve. From hearts full of grace.
And here’s the deal: in our hearts, we all have the capacity (and the DNA) to serve. Yes. Every single one of us.
But, we forget. Or we lose our way. Or the “bushel” (from life’s heaviness, or from our fear) covers our light. Or, we assume this is only for those specially gifted.
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” we sang passionately as children.
“Let your light shine,” Jesus said.
Here’s what we miss: Jesus never said, “Create the light. Or make the light. Or even, be good at light shining. Or, join the light shining committee at your church.” Jesus said, Let… meaning allow, meaning get out of the way, because the light is already in you.
Yet for whatever reason, we don’t think of ourselves as shine the light material.
I do know this; when we give in to anger or victimhood or resentment or the assumption that I’m shining the light to win someone’s approval, we put a bushel over the light. And that never works out so well… Meaning that we are no longer in our own skin, literally giving over our identity to something unrecognizable.
That’s why I’ve loved the stories this week from my visit to Selma, AL, about people who let their light spill. Remembering that not one of these people woke up one morning, and said to themselves that they were about to do something heroic. It’s just that, when they had to, they did what was right.
Embracing this light spilling self is not an assignment, or about getting our act together.
And gratefully, I believe that the light shines precisely because there are broken places. So, it’s important to remember that we are not on this journey alone.
A Sabbath Moment reader passed this one to me and it hit home. When a flashlight grows dim or quits working, do you just throw it away? Of course not.
You change the batteries.
When a person messes up or finds themselves in a dark place, do you cast them aside? Of course not.
You help them change their batteries.
Some need AA… attention and affection.
Some need AAA… attention, affection, and acceptance.
Some need compassion some need D… direction.
And if they still don’t seem to shine, sit with them quietly, and share your light.
Prayer for our week…
Let us pray:
Jesus, we ask for the grace to find you in the Land of Unlikeness.
Free us from the “tyranny of personal preference,” especially when love or duty calls us to greater selflessness and freedom.
May we welcome people into the sphere of our lives
who are unlike us in significant ways.
May we face adversity and hardships with your courage and trust in God.
May we do the never-ending work of securing justice for all.
During this time of unlikeness, may we be open to personal growth, change, and the broadening of our perspective on life.
We ask for these graces through the power of your Boundless, Persistent, and Daring Holy Spirit.
Melannie Svoboda SND