I thank God that our forefathers deemed the constitutional right to free assembly and peaceful protest as critical to a functioning democracy. On November 15, 1969, I participated in the Moratorium March on Washington D.C. along with a busload of youth and adults from my local church. 500,000 people traveled from all over the country to march on the nation’s capital in protest over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I was just a young teenager, but my Mennonite faith taught me that Jesus was a peacemaker and never advocated violence. The Jesus I followed changed the world by radical, suffering love. I remember protesters singing over and over, “All we are saying … is give peace a chance.”
As a youth, I did not fully understand the complexity of the Vietnam War, and I have only the utmost admiration for our soldiers who fought and even sacrificed their lives in this war. Yet my experience in Washington D.C. taught me that having the courage to march and protest nonviolently and respectfully is one of the most effective ways to bring about positive change. In the same way, I don’t remember much about “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when over six hundred non-violent protesters were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Yet I have clear memories of April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, the prophet who insisted that only love, not hate, will change our world, was assassinated.
I also thank God that the courage to march peacefully is not a thing of the past. University of Oklahoma students marched last week after SAE fraternity members were videoed singing a racist chant on a bus, “You can hang ‘em from a tree but they’ll never sign with me. There’ll never be a n— at SAE.”
As the university community and country rose up in protest, OU president David Boren kicked the fraternity off campus, giving them twenty-four hours to remove all of their belongings. Declaring that real Sooners are not bigots, he said that the school will become “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.”
The fact that this deplorable act took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Selma only served to fuel the fire of those who had the courage to speak out. The day before, an unarmed biracial teenager, Tony Robinson, was shot by a white police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking a series of protest marches. Robinson’s uncle said, “I encourage everybody to show support regardless of race because this is truly a universal issue… We don’t want to stop at just ‘black lives matter,’ because all lives matter.”
Then, last Wednesday, a Department of Justice report revealed widespread and long-standing racial bias from both the police department and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, including boosting city revenue through tickets and fines directed at African Americans. Among others, a Ferguson city judge, city clerk, the city manager and the chief of the Police Department either resigned or were let go. The release of the report and revelations of widespread malfeasance occasioned more marches in Ferguson on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, the shooting of two police officers cast a pall over the marchers, the vast majority of whom did not display violence.
A few days after the SAE chants, the SAE Board of Trustees admitted that fraternity members had been chanting racial slurs for years. They issued a statement that they had “discovered that a horrible cancer entered into the OU chapter of SAE three to four years ago and was not immediately and totally stopped. It should have been… We are sincerely remorseful for the pain that this terrible chant has caused and would ask for forgiveness.”
How many years does it take for an ongoing sickness to be exposed? How many people will have to die before disciples of Jesus Christ have the courage to rise up and march in protest? The obvious place to start is with our homes, schools and religious institutions. It is incumbent upon all of us to teach our children and teenagers how to treat every human being as a precious child of God. Our faith calls us to develop cultural competency, cultivate a non-judgmental attitude and demonstrate tolerance.
The future of our world depends on our commitment to follow the One who asks us to take up our cross and follow him. I had a conversation last week with someone who is trying to make sense of all the evil in our world. He said, “My parents were both racist and homophobic. Not only did they teach me to hate, but they tried to control my every action and thought. My parents are gone now, but I can’t get rid of those tapes. I know how Jesus wants me to live, but I never had any positive role models. I want to love and accept all people for who God created them to be, but it’s really difficult to find the courage in myself to march.”
Certainly, not all Christians are called to be prophets, marching out in front, risking life, reputation and health in holy protest over the evils of this world. Yet whenever individuals become a member of The United Methodist Church, are confirmed or present a child to be baptized, they are all asked the same question, “Will you resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
We are not all called to physically march. However, each one of us has opportunities every day to demonstrate courage in how we treat other people. Each one of us can be self-reflective, honestly assess our thoughts and actions and become more Christ-like. We can all do something that will change our small corner of the world for the better.
Can’t you see the marchers? They’re everywhere, marching all over the world for kindness, cooperation, grace and hope. Last week I visited a 98-year-old woman in the hospital who had fallen in her home and broke some ribs. She looked me in the eye and said, “I am starting to feel better, and I need to get home.” “Why? You’re getting such good care here.” “Because I have church work to do! I am in charge of callers for Sarah Circle and need to recruit callers for the next meeting.” She wanted to march right on home.
I saw our mail carrier out on the sidewalk and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” “Not so good. My back hurts.” “What happened?” “I slipped off a porch a few weeks ago delivering mail.” “Did you get it checked out?” “Yes. I was on vacation last week. Now I’m back walking all day for the first time, and I hurt. Plus, there were problems with the substitute carrier, so I am delivering Saturday’s mail as well as Monday’s.” “Thank you for your faithfulness. You’re amazing! I hope you’re feel better soon.” “Don’t thank me. It’s a privilege to serve my customers.” Our mail carrier had the courage to march.
The rented home of a family from the church I serve was ravaged by a fire last week. It broke my heart to see the family shivering in the frigid cold air, watching all of their belongings go up in smoke. Yet so many people had the courage to march into this situation and offer help. Paramedics tended to the family and offered them water and shelter in a medical vehicle. Late at night, a police officer went out of his way to contact the family vet of a beloved dog who died in the fire. The vet not only cremated the dog right away but did not charge the family for his services. A fire fighter went back inside the house to recover the only possession asked for, a grandmother’s ring. Church members sprang into action. Everyone was marching.
I was in the room of a man on the Hospice Ward of a local hospital and noticed a worker quietly sweeping the floor. He seemed very mindful of the patient. When I thanked him for his quiet ministry, he said that he was a teacher for thirty years in Detroit but could no longer teach because non-stop classroom discipline robbed him of his health and energy.
He retired early and decided to be a housekeeper on the Hospice ward because he is blessed by being able to comfort people through his work. “This is a holy place,” he said, “and all of us together care for the patients. We are all created to serve God.” And off he went, courageously marching in and out of rooms, sweeping out fear and welcoming grace and peace.
In a few weeks we will march toward Jerusalem with Jesus, offering a cup of cool water, a word of love and a helping hand to those in need. We will march with Jesus down the Palm Sunday path, pausing to weep over Jerusalem. We’ll march into the temple where Jesus protested against those who would diminish, marginalize and oppress the very least of God’s children. Then we’ll march with Jesus to Golgotha, carrying not only our own cross but the crosses of the forgotten, the dying, the hopeless, and the helpless.
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus on Palm Sunday. He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” And Jesus kept on marching. May God grant all of us the courage to march.