A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
From this moment on, I choose the truth of connection. You here with me and me here with you. Even when you feel yourself most alone, I am holding you. And maybe you don’t know it, but you are holding me.
The way the kindergarten teacher called it on the first day of class.
The way the receptionist spoke it into the waiting room before the annual checkup.
The way the librarian whispered it when entering information on the card.
The way the coach boomed it during lineup.
The way the camp counselor hollered it at the YMCA summer Olympics.
The way the local newspaper listed it among the loving grandchildren she left behind.
The way the principal announced it during the graduation procession.
The way the future in-laws enunciated it during that first meeting.
The way the minister intoned it when asking the dearly beloved to witness this holy union.
The way the nurse confirmed it before writing it on the birth certificate.
The way the HR assistant checked its spelling when setting up the job interview.
The way the emcee declared it at the awards ceremony.
The way the children proclaimed it when asked who their people are.
For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.
Sylvia Mendez was nine years old when she became the center of the landmark court case, Mendez v. Westminster. Parents and neighbors joined together in a fight to desegregate education for children of Mexican descent in southern California. The 1947 court decision banned segregation in California public schools and paved the way for the national ban on school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education seven years later.
On her first day at school after winning the case, Sylvia recalls a white boy coming up to her and telling her she didn’t belong. She says, “I was crying and crying, and told my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to the white school!’ My mother said, ‘Sylvia, you were in court every day. Don’t you know what we were fighting? We weren’t fighting so you could go to that beautiful white school. We were fighting because you’re equal to that white boy.” (LA Times)
It’s easy to hold up these historic figures as superhuman. It seems they are made of sturdier stuff than us average folk. But Sylvia Mendez was herself a reluctant hero. Her name was on that important decision, but she didn’t feel brave and fierce.
Maybe her connections to her family and her community mattered to her more than the abstract idea of equality. And maybe it was from the strength of those connections that Sylvia drew her sense of purpose.
Sylvia went on to a successful career as a pediatric nurse. For decades, Sylvia didn’t think much about Mendez v. Westminster. Then her father died and her mother became very ill. In a conversation about the case, her mother told her, “It’s history of the United States, history of California. Sylvia, you have to go out and talk about it!” Hesitant at first but guided by her mother’s conviction, Sylvia began vising schools to tell the story of her family’s fight for civil rights.
Since her retirement from nursing, Mendez’ work has grown into a nationwide effort to help students succeed. She sees the de facto segregation that still exists in American education today, particularly in the scarce resources of schools in poor communities and communities of color. She wants all students have the opportunity that she did, and she has dedicated herself to advocating for educational equity.
Behind most hero myths lurks a story of uncertainty, hesitancy, and detours. Something propels (or drags) the protagonist to the path they are meant to walk. Mendez’ connections to her family called her back to courage.
For each of us, such a force exists. Maybe hidden, maybe silent, likely disquieting, most certainly mighty.
Progressivism is a spectrum; it’s not an ideology following one leader saying one thing. It’s many people who have very wildly diverging opinions about many things. But, as progressives, if we could commit to a general frame of reference that we are about improving the quality of life for a lot more people, we’re about helping working and middle-class people, and we’re about taking care of poor people, we could really make some inroads in political power in this country. But, if we choose to be purists, if we choose to be arguing for a consensus we will never reach, for agreement on every point, it’s never going to happen.
My son is drawing on a portion of this quote for a 7th grade English project. He is parked at his laptop, wrestling with his thesis statement. The current iteration goes something like this: Urvashi Vaid is dedicated to expanding LGBTQ activism to improve equity and justice for all marginalized groups, and this dedication is evident through her speeches, writing, and activism.
When experiencing cognitive dissonance, a person has two options. Three really, if remaining in a state of crazymaking incongruity counts as an approach. Assuming that easing the dissonance is the goal, however, you can go through one of two doors.
Door A is adjusting your beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, and values to fit the situation.
The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.
May gratitude carry us over the rocky places. May we remember to say thanks for the smallest gestures. For the simplest nourishment. For the hand. The comfort. The roof. The healthy parts.
Thanks to the fighters. The ones who take on the dangerous work. Who excavate the hidden graves. Conduct research on hunger, violence, trauma. Share their findings, speak the names, guide our practices. The eco-warriors. The anarchists. The witnesses holding vigil at the pipeline, at the refugee camp, at the courthouse. The cash bail activists, the public defenders, the protestors, the disruptors.
When the US Congress outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, domestic trafficking of humans exploded. Montgomery’s railroad and river trade quickly became a grim, teeming market for enslaved people. Traders paraded chained humans up Commerce Street to the center of town, and auctions took place in the direct line of site of the state capitol at the top of Dexter Avenue. By the 1850’s, Alabama’s capital was only the 75th largest city in the country but it had the second largest population of slaves.
Maybe you, like me, are trying to figure out what “spiritual practice” is all about. My Unitarian Universalist congregation and faith strive to be homes for spiritual sustenance; yet I’m often at a loss for how to nourish the spirit outside of Sunday services. I show up to the Women’s Ritual Council full moon circles when I can, light a candle before bed, write gratitudes in my journal. These seem worshipful. So too do yoga, meditation, singing, gardening. But not every stretch or song turns the heart toward Beloved Community.
What makes an activity a form of prayer? And when is it simply self-care?