They were fateful words. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” My uncle heard them, packed up his young family, and promptly joined the Peace Corps.
By the time they returned from South America years later, my cousin was a new teen. Not a pretty age. He describes himself as short, fat, and awkward, with more pimples than friends. Given that assessment, he decided to join a church, where they would have to accept him. So he did. Gant shirts, alligator belts, tasseled loafers, blond hair – he fit right in.
Best of all, the children’s choir was rehearsing an Easter cantata that included shout-singing the words: “Fling wide the gates to the King of Kings! He waits!!” In the hallways at school, choir members greeted each other by slinging their arms open with a boisterous “Fling wide the gates!” It was a club. He belonged.
One Thursday evening after rehearsal, the kids were hanging around just inside the sanctuary when a small group of adults entered. “Have you heard?” they asked somberly. “Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis tonight.” There was a long, shocked pause. Silence. And then the throng of suburban teenage Christians burst into cheers.
At the time, I was out shopping. My father had driven me downtown to a large department store to buy new shoes. At some point a staggered line of shoppers gathered before the shelves of televisions. Every screen was fixed on Memphis. My father sighed loudly and murmured, “He was a sitting duck.” I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know who he was. I asked about the sitting duck, but Daddy just shook his head.
My friend Jennifer was only a preschooler in Mississippi at the time, but she never forgot how the throngs of men poured downtown to be met by police on horseback. “Riots and Threats Bring Guard Out” the A.P. reported in the Starkville Daily News. The town jail was too small to hold such numbers, so the police herded the men down to the ballfield and inside the fieldhouse, its small windows already striped with bars. She says she’ll never forget the sound of the men singing as they marched, her uncle among them.
My cousin topped out at 6 feet 7 inches tall. Fit in? Not this lifetime. But at church that night, he did. When the cheers erupted, he looked down and was silent. He says the shame burns on him still. When he arrived home, his father was sitting in front of the television, tears working their way down his face. My cousin slumped on the floor and leaned his head against the chair like a puppy. My uncle stroked his hair, murmuring “It’s going to be all right.”
It is. Even here in North Carolina, where we’ve been behaving a bit like those clueless rambunctious teens, it’s going to be all right. The moral arc is bending. Even as some try to shut the gates, we all know. It’s too late.
Finding a pathway
We live in a time when the human family is reuniting. The global community is reconnecting.
Will there be conflict? Consider your own family: parents, siblings, cousins. What do you think? Conflict is inevitable. There’s nothing wrong with it. Had my cousin spoken up that night, you can bet there would have been conflict. Every time we question injustice, in ourselves and in our communities, conflict arises. Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. It’s the practice of finding a pathway through.
When are we mute? When do we march? By honoring Dr. King, we are honor ourselves as a people. We acknowledge that however much the call for change may intensify, we have what it takes to respond. Some of us just require a little more time.
The Talmudic tradition says “Peace is great because peace is to the earth what yeast is to bread.” Isn’t that marvelous? Don’t we all yearn to rise within ourselves and become the bread that nourishes one another? What bread shall we break together: biscuit, naan, foccacia?
Remember the challenge that formed the rest of President Kennedy’s words. “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America can do for you but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
We can each do something. Actually, we can each do something pretty often. We all know of one small action we can take for peace and freedom. One small action, practiced over and over, expands our personal capacity for peace. Nothing more is needed. The forces that try to separate us are our own. Practice with that person in your office, the bus rider, the neighbor who instantly sends your body into tense-and-tighten mode. Notice your response. Soften. That’s all. No big action required. Just become aware of when we are trying to bar the door.
As we inch open our own barriers, we make it possible for the larger gates of our community to swing wide. It starts with you. It starts with me. We all fit in. Fling wide your gates.
And let us know how it goes.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices www.hiddenvoices.org. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.