“Make ready for the Christ, whose smile- like lightning- sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh- like dynamite.”-Thomas Merton
Just the other day my son played his first basketball game as the only white kid in the 6-and-under age category on his team, “The Freedom Riders,” (which plays at the Martin Luther King Natatorium a few blocks from our home in downtown Atlanta). This accomplishment was no small thing for our family: it had been preceded by several instances of our son showing up to practice only to stand crying on the sidelines, adamantly refusing to join the rest of the group and kicking and screaming with any parental efforts to cajole him to play. Apparently, our five-year-old had felt not just intimidated but downright terrified by the prospect of being the only white kid on the court.
The experience has deepened my appreciation for the tremendous courage it would have taken to be one of the first black children to show up for class at an all-white school during the early years of the civil rights era. Take six-year-old Ruby Bridges, for example, who in first grade had to be escorted to class by U.S. marshals and who watched as some white parents literally dragged their children out of class because Ruby was there.
It would have demanded that same level of courage to be one of the first Freedom Riders. When in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat for a white passenger, this seamstress at a local department store may not have had much in the way of status or worldly power. But her courage was enough to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and it was enough to inspire similar acts of bravery by the men and women who, starting in the 1960’s, began to ride various forms of public transportation as a way to challenge existing segregation laws. Last May marked the 50th anniversary, in fact, of the day when the first 13 of these activists set off on a bus headed south to confront racial discrimination. You can find photos that tell their story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/05/03/135963719/photos-from-life-on-the-freedom-riders-50th-anniversary
These Freedom Riders were otherwise ordinary people. I have to believe that what distinguished them was their conviction and a capacity to suffer for it. They must have believed that being fully human meant being fully free- so much so that they would not let anything stand in the way of that freedom.
I also suspect that inside each of us there is the courage of a “Freedom Rider.” We might have to dig deep to find it. We might, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have to withstand a painful chiseling away of layers of sediment in order to uncover it. But, I suspect that there is a core to each of us that resists those things that would tell us we are not free. A flicker of life that fiercely desires liberation for ourselves and others from the powers, principalities and systems in place that seek to oppress and enslave us.
The Gospel tells us that in Jesus we are set free from sin and death (Romans 8:2), and that it is for freedom’s sake that Jesus set us free (Galatians 5:1, 13). God, more than anyone- including our own self- wants us free, free from our various forms of bondage in order to be free for a life of freedom in the Spirit. Until we are free, I suspect we will just be kicking and screaming on the sidelines of where true joy and God’s justice are. Will we have the courage to step out and play? Can we ask God to give it to us?
Find some of Beliefnet’s prayers for strength here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx.