Growing Up Inspired: My Granddaughter and The Little Rock Nine

28332D92-A50E-4817-9663-6D13F00790D5June 16, 2012 . . . My three-year-old granddaughter standing among the bronze sculptures of The Little Rock Nine.

Her parents had told her the poignant story of The Little Rock Nine, but at age three she had no idea of the many ways their lives would impact hers. Because they crossed an invisible, but very real, line that divided black children from white children, they opened the door to educational equality in a racially divided state. Because their parents were brave enough to let their children breach the three stately doors of Little Rock Central High School, their world changed in unimaginable ways. And with that change, my granddaughter inherited the highly cherished right to equal education and all the opportunities that would follow. Because of that change, my granddaughter would grow up inspired.

In case you do not know about The Little Rock Nine, here is some background. 

On September 3, 1957, nine African American students — The Little Rock Nine — arrived to enter Little Rock Central High School only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles”— into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, The Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.

They were nine solemn figures, nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 had been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history the day they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School.

These nine African American students — Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The life-size bronze statues, entitled “Testament,” were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying each student. Across the street sits the State Department of Education, just a few hundred yards from “Testament.” This Arkansas State Agency has been embroiled in this same desegregation lawsuit for over 50 years. 

Nine young students walked bravely, defiantly, yet filled with fear, in an act against prejudice and ignorance. These nine are heroes of every grueling story of segregation and racism in American history, every story we have heard and the millions of stories we will never hear.

So I am deeply moved by these photos of my granddaughter because there is deep meaning in each one. She seems to be looking up at the sculpture of Melba Pattillo (Beals) with what seems like admiration and awe. Dr. Beals grew up surrounded by family members who knew the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954. While attending all-black Horace Mann High School, Melba knew that her educational opportunities were not equal to her white counterparts at Central High. And so she became a part of the effort to integrate Central.

B3083DBA-2BEB-4137-B162-B8CB19B4AD64And my granddaughter stands in front of Little Rock Central High, a school she may choose to attend someday, a school she will be able to attend because The Little Rock Nine took a dangerous risk to make it possible.

 

 

CCBDA845-BD2D-42E4-85B2-28749F2EA762Finally, my granddaughter stands playfully on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. I know that it is possible that she may one day proudly walk through its golden doors as a state senator or representative. That is possible because nine Little Rock students were brave enough to be a part of changing history.

 

At three years old, my granddaughter probably was not very inspired by Central High School, the Little Rock Nine Memorial, or the Arkansas Capitol. But her parents took her there to see and to learn so that she would grow up inspired. When she is older she will remember what she saw and what she learned from that seemingly insignificant sightseeing trip, and she will realize that it wasn’t insignificant at all. It may just be what motivates and inspires her to follow her dreams, because now she knows that all of her dreams are possible. It’s all about growing up inspired. It’s what we want for every child.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Minniejean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Dr. Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mrs. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Dr. Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, you made sure that every child can grow up inspired. when you were just young teenagers. When you walked through the doors of segregated Little Rock Central High School, you did so much more . . . for every student who came after you and for my granddaughter 

 

Dream, Always!

3EBA32DC-4D61-4073-9AEF-78FFD295DE48Today, I am celebrating my granddaughter’s birthday. More accurately, I am contemplating my granddaughter’s birthday. I do not celebrate the day, really, I celebrate her, the person she has become in the last nine years. I celebrate her smile, her humor, her laughter, her sweet spirit, her strength, her talent and her beauty. I celebrate hope for the ways she will grow and mature.

I want to tell her everything about life, how it will lift her up and also let her down. I want to tell her about love and how to know when it’s real. I want to talk with her about faith and what it means to draw close to God. I want to tell her about the joy of life so that she will know how to transcend the sorrows of the world and claim abiding happiness and contentment. I want to tell her about the healing power of laughter, and of tears. I want to tell her that she has within her all the resilience she needs to overcome adversity. I want to tell her to dream, always. And I want to tell her about inner strength and how to develop the ability to rise up on wings of confidence and soar. 

I want to tell her that I will be near her always, so that when she falls, I can pick her up, wipe off the dust, clean her wounds, tell her she is okay, and set her back on her life journey. But that I cannot promise, because I won’t be with her forever in this life.

So I want to tell her about the adventures that marked my life and how each one made me wiser and stronger. And that’s really my point for this day’s post: that I need to make adventures! I need to live a life full of new experiences and new discoveries. I need to fill my life with substance. What I do and what I discover in this life will be my legacy for my granddaughter and for my other grandchildren. I think of the words of Cristina Garcia on this subject.

Before you know it you’ll be my age telling your own granddaughter the story of your life, and you wanna make it an interesting one, don’t you? You wanna be able to tell her some adventures, some excitements, some something. How you live your life . . . is a gift for those who come after you, a kind of inheritance.   (Cristina Garcia)

I hope the story I leave for my granddaughter will give her courage and determination. I hope she will find in my life story an example of one who chased dreams always and actually caught them, sometimes. I hope that in my story, she will see perseverance and persistence, so that she will know that she can run like the wind toward every dream she chooses.

Happy birthday, my sweet Jordan! I love you.

 

 

 

 

A Broken, Waiting World

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Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ― L.R. Knost

When I was in seminary so many years ago, I worked part time in the Development Office, that extraordinary place that dreamed up words designed to gain support for the seminary and to tell the world what we were about. The one creative theme I most remember, because we made it our catch phrase and printed it on everything, was “We’re out to change the world!”

Some students left the seminary, degree in hand, and did just that. The rest of us labored mightily and did everything we knew to do to change a world that most assuredly was waiting and broken. What a mission!

I must admit, that short statement from seminary days became my personal quest. In every ministry position, I tried to change the world, much to the dismay of my parishioners. I took on every worthy cause as my own challenge to change the world. I committed myself to justice and set my face toward hope and healing for every person suffering injustice and indignity. It became a life-long quest, a personal commission. And what’s more, I sincerely believed I could do it, at least for the first few years I spent banging my head against various walls.

The song lyrics “to dream the impossible dream” come to mind. For those of you who may be too young to know about the magic of the 1964 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, I must give you the lyrics of the song that was the pronunciamento of the primary character, Don Quixote, and that almost instantly became the credo that many people of God embraced in trying to change the world.

To dream the impossible dream …
To fight the unbeatable foe …
To bear with unbearable sorrow …
To run where the brave dare not go …
To right the unrightable wrong …
To love pure and chaste from afar …
To try when your arms are too weary …
To reach the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star;
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far:
To fight for the right, without question or pause;
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

— Lyrics by Joe Darion

Today, as I watch military strikes against Syria and know that our country has not welcomed desperate Syrian refugees, I am painfully aware that I did not change the world. I worked in Uganda after the devastation of Idi Amin, but I did not change the world for millions of Ugandan widows and orphans.

I worked with persons who were sick and dying in hospital ministry, and I did not change their hopeless world of suffering. I have written letters, contacted government officials, participated in demonstrations, and signed hundreds of petitions, but I have not changed the world.

It has indeed been an “impossible dream.” And yet, I believe that I lived into my call from God and followed every path God placed before me. I faced off against what I viewed as evil many times and was deeply, demonstrably angry many times. But always, my mission remained in the center of God’s gentle grace and love. How?

I learned along the way — finally — that changing the world God’s way means holding tightly to lovingkindness, compassion, love and gentleness. The Scripture in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“Change the world with gentleness,” God might say to me.

While others stand for bigotry, racism, violence and war, change the world with gentleness. While leaders refuse to welcome refugees who long for a safe haven for their children, change the world with gentleness. While the highest positions in this country are embroiled in collusion, corruption, lies, greed and unkindness, change the world with gentleness.

This is a broken, waiting world that yearns, not for my righteous anger toward the world that is, but rather for my gentle hands of healing for the world that can be.

Change the world with gentleness? How? Why?

Because “Gentleness is not weakness. Just the opposite. Preserving a gentle spirit in a heartless world takes extraordinary courage, determination, and resilience. Do not underestimate the power of gentleness because gentleness is strength wrapped in peace, and therein lies the power to change the world.”

― L.R. Knost

May God lead us all in the paths of righteousness and gentleness. Amen.

A Holy Mission . . . A Possible Mission

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A post card created by the Syracuse Cultural Workers                                            commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Beloved Community.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “beloved community” he was describing the ultimate goal of non-violent activism for peace and justice — a global community of caring where poverty, hunger and in justice are no more.

As a person of faith, how do I respond to injustice? Where do I find the impetus, the courage, to confront evil? How do I go deeply into my soul to find the inner strength to stand against that which is wrong in the world? How do I work to help realize the dream of a beloved community? How do I meet the challenge of so holy a mission?

Brian McClaren recently wrote about what he saw and experienced in Charlottesville. A part of his article includes a straight-up call to people of faith.

All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – the beloved community where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, mutual respect, and neighborliness. Such a better world is possible, but only if we set our hearts on realizing the possibility.

– Brian McClaren

Oh, how we long to experience “the beloved community.” How we long to see our dreams of peace become a reality. Yes, we do set our hearts on realizing these dreams. Yet, we still feel the reticence of fear and inadequacy. We still tend to hide inside of our religiosity, the kind of religiosity that prevents us from responding to God’s call to wage peace. The Apostle Paul spoke to the religious people of his time. His words are instructive to us.

Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else . . . For in him we live and move and have our being.”

– From Acts 17:22-28

Therein lies the answer to my questions of inadequacy and urges me to go beyond my own “objects of worship.” Paul’s prompting urges me to move outside of my own religious temple into a hurting and warring world. How can I find the will and the courage?

In God I live and move and have my being. That makes every holy mission a possible mission.

May God make it so.

Raise Beautiful Trouble!

IMG_5737Raise beautiful trouble!

Resist! Resist all actions that hinder peace and cause the madness of warring. Women have long dreamed of peace, dreaming of a world without war, hatred, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all forms of injustice. Our Jewish brothers and sisters proclaim “Tikkun Olam” calling us to heal the world. Tukkun Olam is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings and is often used when discussing issues of social policy.

Raise beautiful trouble!

Diane Wilson climbed over the fence at the White House, skinning her stomach on the steel barbs. Two weeks later she got a visit from two guys in black suits, black shoes, and wearing sunglasses, Secret Service agents who wanted to know if she had an authority complex.

Diane is active in the organization, CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs. (http://www.codepink.org)

Century after century women have yearned for and worked for peace. Through the years, women have walked hand in hand as they reflected on ways to create a just and peaceful world. Maybe it’s just a woman thing! Julia Ward Howe proclaimed these words in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! . . . We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

— Julia Ward Howe, 1870, From her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace

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Art by Ayla Mahler

The dream persists. The peacemakers persevere, longing for a day when all people will “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4 NASB)

The words of T.E. Lawrence offer stunning hope for better days.

. . . the dreamers of the day are dangerous men and women, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.

Sisters (and brothers too), continue to dream of peace with eyes wide open. Raise beautiful trouble! Resist! Persist! The peace of the world is your reward.

 

 

Persisting with God

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When spring arrives, I remember the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry. March 22nd . . . this year marked 25 years since that memorable day. I arrived at that ordination service held at a Baptist church in El Paso, Texas, battered and bruised. The path to ordination in the Baptist church was, in those days, a grueling experience. My home church in Little Rock, Arkansas, had tormented me for several months, adamant about their refusal to ordain a woman.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It was the first life experience that taught me that, in order to live out my fondest dreams, I had to learn to persist. It was a good lesson actually, one that I had to embrace. Yes, I was hurt by my church, by the people closest to me. My prayer was, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That had to be my constant and sincere prayer so that I could genuinely forgive those who had hurt me and follow God into meaningful ministry.

God led me to hospital chaplaincy, to ministry as the pastor of a Presbyterian church, to founding a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence and abuse and to the pastorate of a Baptist church where I served for nine years.

So, yes, I did learn to persist and to follow God into unlikely places of service. Most importantly, God persisted . . . walking with me, guiding me, ennobling me to ministry.

The Bible reveals a God of infinite persistence, a God who never gives up on us. There are, of course, many portraits of God throughout the Bible, but my vision is of a God of extravagant grace, patience, and persistence. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Happy Ordination Anniversary to me . . . persisting with God for 25 years.

She Gave Me Wings!

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She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.

Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.

To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.

Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.

But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.

For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.

– Habakkuk 2:3

Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.

On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.

“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”

“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.

Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.

I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.

“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”

And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”

Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.

Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”

She gave me wings!

An Opening in the Ordinary

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Often I complain to my husband about every day being ordinary. For us, very few events break up the time, making each day seem pretty much like yesterday, tomorrow too. It is a sad state of affairs to have stopped expecting anything extraordinary.

But there is a remedy for me when all seems mundane. I get out my watercolor paints and lose myself in creativity for a few hours. It works. . . not creating any masterpiece to be sure, but letting my dreams loose so that they flow out from paint brush to paper. The colors, one blending into another and another, is my passage out of reality and into the possibility of transformation.

It is definitely, as Bishop Stephen Charleston writes, “an opening in the ordinary.”

Here’s how he expresses it.

An opening has occurred in the ordinary, a passage between the reality we have always accepted and the possibility of transformation . . . This is the day, the everyday, the extraordinary day, when we step over doubt to trust, over resignation to hope, over now to forever.

So in the midst of my ordinary days, I can still hope for an opening in the ordinary, for the possibility of transformation. I can find extraordinary moments smack dab in the middle of an ordinary day.  I give thanks to God for the grace of transformation.

Seeing the Dawn

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What do you do when your dreams have died, when you realize that what you hoped for and dreamed for just isn’t going to happen? Sitting with the shards of broken dreams is not a good place to be. We are, deep inside of ourselves, dreamers that look toward a bright future filled with hope. We plan. We set goals. We dream. And we keep on dreaming.

The problem is that sometimes the world around us disrespects dreamers. “It’s impossible. It can’t be done. That’s a futile dream.” The voices of discouragement are incessant. Sherwood Anderson wrote:

“You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

Haven’t we all experienced it? The roaring of the voices that tell us our dreams are not possible? The voices that insist our dreams have died? Of course, we have heard those voices. But we have dreamed on, longing to realize our “impossible dream.”

We who are dreamers envision a better world. We look into the dawn of realized dreams. We hold fast to our dreams, hearing through the years the echo of the words of Langston Hughes.

Hold onto dreams
For if dreams die
Life is like a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

– Langston Hughes

So keep on dreaming. Cling tightly to your dreams. Ignore the voices that discourage you. Find your most excellent way by moonlight. And always remember that, because you are a dreamer, you really do see the dawn before the rest of the world.

New Light Chases the Darkness Away

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It was an old dream proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah. He dreamed of an earth filled with justice, righteousness and peace. He dreamed of a world where children do not fear, a world where all people live in God’s light. The people of God have dreamed the very same dream, just as we dream it today. Hear the words of the Prophet:

With righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them . . .

They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

– Isaiah 11:4-6, 9 New International Version (NIV)
We must keep dreaming, seeking the dream with hearts and hands, giving ourselves to the work of justice. Bishop Steven Charleston, as always, eloquently expresses the thought.

I dream the old dream, the one that has been with us for centuries now, passed down from heart to heart, shared by great leaders and simple believers alike, the dream of a day when the scales of time will tip, when the long suffering will end, when justice will finally bring the peace we deserve. The tyrants will be history. The wars only a distant memory. The Earth will sparkle beneath clear skies, every hungry child will be fed. I dream the old dream, the one you have dreamed too, the one that arises in the long hours of night, before the new light chases the darkness away.

We dream of the day when tyrants will be history, wars a distant memory, where every hungry child will be fed, and the long night of suffering will end for every person. Though we may experience the deepest, harshest darkness, it is the new light of our dreams that chases the darkness away. May this be our prayer.