A friend wrote and offered me some very sage advice: “People won’t applaud you for your principles, they will excoriate you for them. Expect to be treated badly–even more badly than you already have been. You must be courageous. That must be the central virtue of the life you have chosen to live. Don’t expect to get pats on the back.”
On the surface, perhaps it doesn’t look like the most uplifting message. But it was. In this case, my friend was speaking the truth with love, and not only was it an offering of wisdom, but it was also a gesture of support.
When I drove to Phoenix and got arrested, I was merely one more person in a long, long line of prophetic women and men, known and unknown, who took a stand for their beliefs and principles. Some of those people practiced civil disobedience—from Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes because he didn’t support slavery or the Mexican War, to Kathy Kelly, a current American peace activist who has been arrested over sixty times both at home and abroad. Others, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Servetus, Rev. James Reeb, and Katherine Vogel, became martyrs, killed by fellow human beings who felt threatened by the beliefs that these courageous men and women refused to recant.
Now, I am no martyr; for one thing, I’m still alive, and I don’t intend to change that status anytime soon. But in joining that line—in becoming one more link in a chain that connects me back through history, through these prophetic women and men, to the very essence of humankind—I touched something holy this summer. And I have every intention of going back for more.
Before his murder in Selma, Alabama on March 11th, 1965, James Reeb was the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. In A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church writes:
In his very first sermon to the congregation of All Souls, Reeb asked, “Is there nothing worth risking one’s life for? Are there no dreams or goals so important that we risk our own destruction to gain them?” He answered these questions with his life. (53)
Every day, there are women and men, children and elders, risking their lives for the dream of a better world. And they are dying in the Arizona desert—or in Chiapas, Mexico—or in China, or in Africa, or in El Salvador—because we, the people of power, are too afraid of losing some of our privilege, too afraid of change, too afraid of commitment to someone who doesn’t look or think like us. Every day, they die so that we can continue living our lives in comfort and ignorant security.
To my mind, that makes them martyrs. Which means that every day that passes, martyrs are dying on United States soil. And we are letting their dream of a better world die with them.
My choice to go to Arizona and participate in civil disobedience was a decision to use my white privilege as a force of good. I acted out of a desire to stand in solidarity with my human brethren who do not have my privilege. I have learned much about solidarity this summer, and the most important part of practicing solidarity is simply being present—physically, emotionally, and spiritually present.
My leaps of faith have not always been met with approval. One critic asked if I had ever heard the phrase “Look before you leap.” Indeed, I have. And I have found that when I do look, it tends to prevent the leaping. When I look, I find all the reasons not to leap—all the fears and insecurities, all the unknowns and dire possibilities.
So sometimes, we must act with our hearts instead of our heads. There will always exist a plethora of reasons to not risk, not trust, not leap. But if we pause, just a moment, and mute those voices that provoke our hidden fears, we can hear, faintly, that single voice that tells us to simply love one another. And when we are able to hear that voice, sometimes it calls us to leap.
I stand in awe at the power of the human spirit. Sometimes it seems as though we have two separate Selves—the everyday, mundane, ordinary Self who bumbles along just doing her best to get by; and, occasionally, this shining, incredible “other” Self, an unstoppable powerhouse of passion who can see, momentarily, into the heart of things and somehow know what is right and just and good.
Most of the time, we are the former, which I think is just as well. But then, when that “other” Self shines through, it temporarily supersedes our everyday Self with something transcendent and holy and bigger than we are alone. I believe this “other” bursts out to show us the heights to which we can still aspire, the dreams we can reach out and achieve. It is not some alien presence, but rather our best Self, our connection to being both human and kind, our Holy Human Spirit.
So when I was doing my justice work this summer—when I traveled to Chiapas, when I met with the indigenous Mayan people there, when I drove to Phoenix by myself, when I sat in the road watching police in riot gear surround me, when I spent the night in jail and somehow found a way to keep smiling so I could bring hope to the people around me—during all of that, that was my best Self, my Holy Human Spirit, at work.
I purposely did not do a whole lot of research before the trip; I chose not to look for facts and arguments and charts and statistics. That’s part of what taking a leap of faith is all about. If I had chosen to go the “academic” route and armed myself with knowledge, it would have been all too easy to talk myself out of going. The first step is always the hardest, and so I simply took it. Next time, I will know more. Next time, I will have my research and my notes and my quotable facts. But this time, I needed to leap.
In its most simplistic terms, there were two options: stay home or go to Arizona. In staying home, I would be misusing my privilege and turning my back on what my heart told me was ultimately the right thing to do. In going to Arizona, I would be standing on the side of love, giving my strength to a people in need of what I had, and learning what true solidarity was all about.
When I was in Chiapas, our group asked the Zapatistas and the village elders of Acteal what we could do to be in solidarity with them. The answer was stunningly simple: First, show up; then spread the word. And I figured if it was that simple for the marginalized people of Mexico, then it was probably that simple for the marginalized people of my own country as well.
I’ve found that this was a summer dominated by my best Self. I not only fed it—I let it feast. Too many times in the past, I have let it starve. But not this summer. And I hope that I never let it starve again.
My friend told me that people would not applaud me; to expect poor treatment, rather than pats on the back. And I still hold that this was sage advice.
But I have met so many incredible, wonderful, amazing, inspiring people on my journeys this summer. (And, just to drop a hint: If I talked to you at all over the past three months, your name is on that list.) I met people who moved me, who shook me up, who encouraged me, who challenged me, and all of them (you) have helped me to grow into a better human being than I was before all this started. I can only begin to express the depths of my gratitude. Muchas gracias.
Because, you see, this “best Self” is not mine alone. It is the god in me, and it is the god in you. It is the incredible Holy Human Spirit. It is the fierce unrest that seethes at the core of all existing things. It is the fire of commitment.
We are all capable of the same acts. And when we decide to channel our best Self as a force of love, defying the odds of cold logic and bottom lines—that is what it means to leap.