I have always wanted to be a “stand up” guy.
Some people’s heroes have always been cowboys. And I have had a few, particularly from Tombstone. But my “stand up” heroes come mostly from the public square, people who made a stand when the cause was unpopular, because the cause was right.
This past weekend, my long-time hero did it again. John Lewis.
John has served as my Congressman, even when I was not in his district due to the suspicious re-drawing of Congressional lines. Hell, when I lived in Texas with some yahoo representing me, I psychically Dionne Warwicked John Lewis into my Congressman, to keep me sane, you understand.
John was there in the infancy of the Civil Rights movement on that day known infamously as Bloody Sunday, there on Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Like on the bus on a Freedom Ride, once again, John stood up and took the blow from a state trooper’s police baton, and bled his blood for the Cause.
And when I say ”Cause”, it was specifically, that day, for civil rights for blacks who had been denied rights, namely voting rights, but more, rights to be regarded as equal citizens. By “Cause”, I mean a wider and deeper Cause than any river to cross with a mere bridge. It is the cause of Freedom, a value that we have worked hard to make real in this country since our courageous and quivering declaration of independence, our freedom.
It’s the freedom that makes it possible for White Supremacists to gather and march and spout hate. It allows divisive radio show hosts who gin up excitement to line their pockets. Freedom in the country provides the rights of religious sorts to claim ridiculous things like God punishes homosexuals by sending a virus or that the Almighty is using a narcissistic carnival barker to save the live of unborn babies. That is your freedom, your right in this country some of us think was great at its very founding in freedom.
I have been remembering times that I stood up for things in my life, some not so important but socially costly. And I have been remembering times when standing up, or not, could cost you your soul and/or your life.
One of the latter times happened to me in Texas.
I had been the priest in an Episcopal parish in downtown Tyler. I had chosen to get involved in a race relations initiative that was attempting to address the lack of progress in that area of our common life. I had been given some authority by the community in race matters, not because I was an Episcopal priest, not because I had an earned doctorate, or a beautiful wife, but because I was from Atlanta, a city known for its progressive stance on race. It was said that I knew about the “Atlanta way” which meant blacks and whites working together for common business and community goals. All of this work and street cred combined to give me a bit of a reputation in the area of civil rights.
My phone rang late in the evening and it was Wesley Beard, a man that I did not know. He was calling to ask if I would be willing to speak at a rally in the city park, located near my home. It was to call attention to a recent heinous murder of a young gay man who had been picked up by a gang, and shot nine times in the back of the head with a 9mm. pistol.
Oddly, there had been a rash of gay people being rolled by this gang. The gang was interracial, brought together by a common hate for gays. Homosexuals had used the park for years to rendezvous and the gang saw it as a prime place to troll for people to roll.
Most times, that meant luring the unsuspecting mark in, followed by some beating and robbing them. A close friend of mine had been rolled two weeks prior, having been beaten, knocked out by a heavy beer tankard, and then having his car stolen. My friend called me, groggy, and I arrived just as the police made it to his home. The officers took his report and told me of a rash of such incidents at the park, a park where my children played every day. Fortunately, my friend recovered his car, missing only a few items.
The latest incident did not go so easily. It seems that Nicholas West was looking to connect with someone at the park but was picked up by this gang. During the course of transport, Nicholas became so scared that he defecated in his pants, infuriating his captors. They took him to the city dump, threw him down like refuse, and put nine bullets in the back of his head.
The call from Wesley was to ask me to serve as the keynote speaker at the Stop the Hate Rally scheduled to be held at the park where Nicholas had been abducted. There were to be many political figures, local and statewide, but they wanted me to be the featured speaker, the keynote, as they say in the biz.
I told Wesley that my expertise was in race relations, and though I had a history of speaking out on civil rights, I was not that experienced in speaking to the issue as it pertained to gay rights. I was sure he could find a much more qualified speaker. He pressed me but I continued to demure. I wished him well with his project and hung up the phone.
My wife couldn’t help overhearing our conversation. She got THAT look she gets when she’s not happy with me. I looked away, but her eyes bore a hole in the side of my head. “You’re chicken!” Now, I’m cleaning this up for y’all because she added some color to the last word.
I responded indignantly, pointing out that I was the most courageous clergyperson to ever wear a collar, and that I was only thinking of what was best for the rally and that cause. My wife added more colorful rejoinders to my decision, suggesting that I was trying to avoid the pushback I might get from the parishioners and the people of Tyler. And she was right, the gay issue was a hot button largely unexplored at that time in East Texas.
She played her trump card when she said, “If you won’t stand up for these people, who will?” She knew exactly what she was doing, going for my central nerve, my jugular vein. Game, set, match.
The next morning I called Wesley Beard back and agreed to make the keynote address. I worked so hard on my speech, pointing out the need to extend the same rights of people to folks who were homosexual. I confessed that it would be easier to remain in the comfortable ‘here and now”, but that justice demanded that we call for and work for the rights of all people to be honored, regardless to their sexual orientation
When I am writing this tonight, it feels like pretty tame stuff I was putting out, but this was almost twenty five years ago, and we have come a long way. The context of the moment made my speech subversive, that is, it offered another version of reality than the conventional one, where homosexuals stayed in the closet and kept their mouth shut. Never worry about their rights, just survive by keeping quiet. I knew many people in town who played under those rules, living hidden lives. In the South, it doesn’t count if you just don’t talk about it. That’s the way things go ‘round here.
The speech was a bomb blast, as I knew it would be. The rally was covered by the local, Dallas, state, and national press. CNN carried a live shot, notifying all my friends across the country that I was in deep. I received threats, took abuse, had several so-called friends refuse to greet me at the grocery store and acknowledge my presence in the neighborhood. This was not a surprise to me as I had gotten resistance to other presses for civil rights that shook the foundations of proper folk. The key moment was my wife’s question, “Who will stand up if you don’t?
I think of that question when I remember talking with Elie Wiesel who survived a Nazi death camp. “Who will stand silent, or who will stand up?”, he asked. Silence is assent. Looking away is abdication.
I think about that often when I pause in my early day Morning Prayer: who needs me to stand up? Who needs me to help them get what they need in terms of rights? Who needs an advocate, a voice?
That’s what John Lewis did way back when, on a bus and on a bridge. And he’s still standing up, bearing the weight of pancreatic cancer. It’s troubling to me when I post some positive mention of my admiration, dare I say, my love of John Lewis’ courage, I get hateful, mean-spirited responses on social media and privately, which tells me there are some pretty screwed up people out there, which is no newsflash, but there remains a lot of work to do, a lot of standing up to vicious and insidious hate.
What will you stand up for?
I recently was at a lovely gathering with delicious, painstakingly prepared hors d’oeuvres, enjoying a conversation with some delightful folks. The topic turned to church as it often does when I’m around. My companion noted that she just wanted to go to church and not be bothered with controversial issues. I listened carefully and realized she was articulating what most church folks want: comfort. They are not looking for something to stand up for, but rather a comfortable place to sit. Most church folks love the pageantry of Palm Sunday procession but not real sure about all this revolution that was behind that first disruptive, subversive march into Jerusalem. Jesus was offering a subversive vision of a kingdom ruled by God, not king, politicians, or religious hierarchies. Jesus stood up….and it’s time to remember that they knocked him down. Killed him. Dead. No magic act. That was the cost of standing up. For what will you stand up?
As a follower of the Christ way, I believe God affirmed Jesus’ standing up. It was by raising him up among his disciples and followers as they continued in the Way. That’s why I joined that broken line of persons who have tried to be faithful in standing up for his Way. I know John Lewis is a part of that line.
You may not be a part of my specific line of the Way, but if you are reading this, you are a human, unless you happen to be a troll or one of those bots. You have a mind, a conscience, a will. You have a given capacity to decide what you are going to do with the time you have here on Earth. So here it is, the question:
For what will you stand up?