January 15, 2006
Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday
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It is still common in many cultures to dedicate some young children to the service of the god or Gods. For instance, some very young Tibetan children are sent off by their peasant parents to monasteries to become monks. That is what happened to the present Dalai Lama. It is a chance for a secure life, but it must be bewildering to be separated from one’s parents at a young age and sent off to a monastery – and an austere life … a life to which they are committed until they die.
The purpose of this rather drastic practice is to ensure that some members of the society will be so steeped in the religious tradition of the culture, that they will personally come to know God … not at second hand, but first hand.
\That is what happened to Samuel. His parents dedicated him to God and he was sent to serve as an attendant in the Temple. There he is – this young child, away from home and family – in the austere vastness of the Temple – acting as an errand boy, a serving boy, for the aged priest Eli. Over the years, however, that sacred space and that sacred life-style shapes Samuel. He grows into it. In the service of the priest, Eli, Samuel comes to know God and he comes to recognize the sound of God’s voice. Steeped in a religious life, devoted to God, he matures into one of the great prophets of Israel.
Ben Franklin, whose 300th birthday we celebrate today, only narrowly escaped such an experience. His father intended that he become a Christian minister. Ben was eight when his father sent him to school for this purpose. Ben Franklin often joked that he was his father’s tithe to the church. In the end, Franklin didn’t become a minister, but the education he received, the time he spent steeped in the Christian scriptures and in the sacred space of the church, and his experience of his parents pious spirituality – all had a profound effect on him. Although he came to describe himself as a Deist, not a Christian, he spoke approvingly of the church as community in which virtues are taught and honed.
Ben Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at age 15, but he spent his formative years here … in Boston, in this church, and among the people of this congregation. He became famous in Philadelphia, but it was here that he was formed … it was here, in the midst of this congregation, and as a child of pious Christian parents, that he learned virtue.
Martin Luther King, whose birthday we are marking as well, also grew up in the house of God, the church. He came from a family of preachers and was steeped in the moral and ethical values of the Christian life. Like Samuel and Ben Franklin, he developed a strong moral core … and the capacity for an interior moral conversation … a conversation about what is right and wrong.
The point is that spending time in church, spending time with God, steeping ourselves and our children in the Christian life, returning over and over again to this sacred space, can have a profound influence on us. It can shape us and form us and teach us and our young people lives of value, mercy, gratitude, compassion, justice, goodness, civil responsibility ... in the parlance of Ben Franklin, lives of virtue.
It is so hard to commit time to church these days … but the stories I have just mentioned – the Dalai Lama, the prophet Samuel, Ben Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr. all give witness to the profound impact a religious environment can have on young people. I hope these stories are incentive to you.
But I want to tell you another story today … the true story of child also steeped in the church whose moral and ethical fiber changed and shaped this nation. This version of the story comes from Juan Williams.1
The year is 1950. Barbara Johns is a sixteen-year-old girl, attending a segregated school in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Now, when I say the school is segregated, I don’t mean it is just a school for African Americans. No, this school is a bunch of shacks stuck together with a tarpaper roof … and no floors, just dirt. When it rains, the floors become thick and slippery with mud.
What is more, the school is only open four months of the year – November, December, January and February – months when there aren’t crops to be harvested or put into the ground. Now, most of the families and children don’t like this situation and they don’t like this school, but they are resigned to it. But not Barbara Johns. Barbara Johns is a sixteen-year-old girl who has been steeped in the life of the Christian church, tutored at the knee of her uncle, the Rev. Vernon Johns. She hears a nagging voice insider her. The voice keeps saying, “This just isn’t right.”
So Barbara Johns comes up with a plan. One day she walks in to the Principal’s office and she tells him that there are some children downtown that need to be picked up. She watches as he walks away down the road.
She goes to his desk, and pulls open the top center drawer. She takes out the Principal’s most prized possession: a notepad with his name embossed across the top of each page. Using the Principal’s pad, she writes a note to each teacher in the school. In this note, she instructs them to bring the students together for a special assembly.
When the students are gathered together, there is no Principal standing in front of them. Instead, there is Barbara Johns, a teenage girl in a ragged dress. Addressing her classmates, she urges the students to walk away from school … to walk away that very day, and, by their walkout, to tell the Segregationist school board that what they are doing is wrong. Some of the students join Barbara Johns and walk away from school that very day.
That night, however, Barbara Johns is punished by her parents for what she did. Moreover, many of the adults in the community come by Barbara’s home to tell her to quit making trouble. They are afraid for her and afraid that her actions will make things even worse for all of them.
Barbara Johns goes to bed crying. But that night, through her tears, Barbara Johns keeps hearing the voice inside her head urging her on … telling her not to give up … the voice tells her that justice matters, that God cares.
The very next morning Barbara Johns makes a collect call to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. She describes her school and amazingly she gets them to send lawyers down and she takes them on a tour of Prince Edward County, Virginia. She shows them its segregated schools with the tarpaper roofs and mud floors.
After assessing the situation the lawyers tell Barbara Johns there is nothing they can do. The situation is so bad, they say, and there is so little support for challenging the injustice of it, that they advise she give up. They return to New York City the same day.
Barbara Johns cries herself to sleep again that night. But despite her tears, still hears the voice in her head, nagging her, inspiring her, telling her that justice matters.
So she makes another collect call to New York. But this time, she refuses to talk to the secretaries. She will not even talk with the lawyers. This sixteen-year-old girl in her ragged dress insists on talking to the man in charge … a man by the name of Mr. Thurgood Marshall. She finally gets Mr. Thurgood Marshall on the line – this big man in his big office in the big city – and the first thing she says to him is, “You know those damn lawyers you sent down here? You ought to fire them! They’re no good!”
She convinces Mr. Marshall to send down more lawyers. And she takes them on a tour of Prince Edward County Virginia. This time the lawyers work with her. They devise a legal strategy to challenge segregation in that county.
The lawsuit they devise is one of the five that are collectively known as Brown vs. the Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that tore apart segregation in public schools.
Throughout the years, and even today, when people talk about Brown vs. the Board of Education, most people think of Chief Justice Earl Warren or Thurgood Marshall. But the truth is that the landmark ruling boils down to the courage and vision of a sixteen-year-old who grew up in the church and was steeped in the ways of God, the ways of justice and love … a girl who could hear God speaking to her … a teenager whose moral conscience was so highly developed, so strongly formed, that she would not stop until justice was achieved.
If you need a reason to bring your child to church (or your grandchild or niece or nephew or neighbor’s child) – to teach your child a life of faith and to acquaint your child with God, remember these young people: the Dalai Lama, the prophet Samuel, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barbara Johns. Each was steeped in the life of a sacred tradition and a sacred space, each profoundly influenced by that experience, and by their proximity to God.
By immersing ourselves in this and other sacred spaces, by spending time in the presence and house of God and by steeping ourselves in the writings, teachings and virtues of the Christian faith and life we, too, can develop the moral fiber to heed the voice of God.
1. From Juan Williams two-part essay, Separate But Unequal: How a Student-Led Protest Helped Change the Nation, aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.
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