I have always been in awe of the Civil Rights leaders conviction, bravery and the ability to not stand idly by but to work boldly to confront and fight injustice. Their story is one that I want to know better and one that I want to pass down to my children to awaken them to the realization that injustice exists in this world and to inspire them to do something about it. I’ve read these stories, I’ve heard accounts of these stories from afar but this year I wanted to begin to live one of these stories.
Leading up to Martin Luther King Jr Day, a few weeks back, I became aware of a march happening not too far from my home. A march for peace and justice through the streets and I decided this was the year I wanted to walk too and bring my children along for the ride. That morning we read books about MLK Jr, his life, his fight, and the marches he participated in. I shared with my kids that we would do the same, we would walk to say that we saw that injustice existed and that we were not okay with it.
In my head, I knew our half a mile walk would be nothing like the ones of civil right leaders that came before us. No one would be yelling at us, throwing things at us, there would be no dogs or police with fire hoses. This would be easy and safe but it would lead to an awareness on the outside and on the inside I hoped. But as the time grew closer I tried to talk myself out of going with the kids; could they walk that long, would it inhibit my littlest one’s nap, what if something did happen like those days gone before? But then my conviction began to take root and I told myself oppressed people don’t get to have a choice about whether they are oppressed or not. They can’t decide what might be too hard for their kids that day or live in the luxury of a nap schedule. If they don’t get to decide then neither do we. We march because they have to every day.
My own selfishness got reflected back to me a short time later when my oldest son voiced out loud the conversation I was having in my heart, he didn’t really feel like going he told me. I looked him right in the eye and told him what I told myself, oppressed people don’t have a choice whether they are oppressed or not. I asked him, did African men and women get the choice about whether they wanted to be slaves? No, they didn’t and now they are still fighting for the rights that were taken away from them. They didn’t get a choice so neither do we. We march.
I still can’t quite get the words to describe the march itself. I learned once we were on the walk the route we would be taking was through a neighborhood that was given to and established by freed slaves after their emancipation following the Civil War. It was a neighborhood that I had driven past dozens of times but didn’t know it’s significance. Emotion washed over me as we marched and chanted and sang, the elderly neighbors coming out to wave us on. I didn’t feel worthy of what was going on around me. I felt that I was walking on hallowed ground, in a hallowed time.
I still don’t feel worthy to be invited to participate in that day. To sing words of, “we will overcome,” what did I have to overcome? My life has been easy when I compare it to others, and all because of when I was born, where I was born, to whom I was born to. Things that I didn’t even have a say over automatically make me one of the privileged few. Makes my kids one of the privileged few. But I can still say it’s not okay. Instead of living each day in a selfish bubble, either ignorant of the plight of my neighbor or worse yet, indifferent to it, I can say it’s not okay. And I can teach my kids that it’s not okay.
My inner critic is never okay with just that of course and God and I began a conversation on the days after the march. I wondered if reading books and participating in this march were enough, what else could I do in a tangible way that broke down injustice and brought up the life of my brother and sister? And then God illuminated my heart to an awareness of how I was already doing that, each day in my home.
During this same time, we were having one of our bathrooms renovated. The men working on the bathroom were Hispanic and we sometimes had a language barrier between us. I made a conscious decision in my heart years ago that no matter who walked into my home they would always be treated with respect and dignity despite the barriers that existed between us outside my house. We invited these men in and asked them to feel like they were at home.
Two days after the march, I finally realized that they had been eating their lunches out in the cold in their trucks. This was not acceptable and so I insisted they come and eat at our table with us. I didn’t realize in the moment the significance of asking these gentlemen to come and sit and break bread with me but I left the lunch changed because it was more than just a meal shared, it was lives shared. Through a few simple questions, I learned their stories, of traveling to America with a hope of a better life. I learned what my books and movies couldn’t teach me about what life is really like for them in their home countries and why the struggle of moving somewhere they didn’t know the language or the customs would be worth the sacrifice for the life they have today. I felt that I was on hallowed ground in that moment again.
Afterwards, I realized we don’t always have to go out somewhere else to fight injustice. Injustice is in our homes and our neighborhoods. We can choose to buy a different way, think a different way and I realize now, to treat every person we come in contact with respect and dignity and to say that their life matters just as much as mine does through my actions and my words. We can learn each other’s stories and connect ourselves together so that together we might overcome.