At the memorial service for those killed by the gunman in Tucson, President Obama said “Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness…heroism is here, all around us.”
If ever there were hero’s among us, these six brave people, and the 13 who have survived including Rep. Giffords, earn that accolade. A hero is not someone who lives an extraordinary life; a hero is someone who does something extraordinary with their life. And these brave men, women and a little girl were doing something extraordinary by living out their faith in our country and democracy. They did something extra-ordinary, when they tried to shield others from harm. The survivors did something extraordinary when they tackled the gunman to the ground, while other’s rushed in to help. Ordinary people doing something extra-ordinary in times of great peril. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”
This is the heroism we are called to live for. This is the sort of bravery we need to face the struggles of our brave new world. And all of us have been doing it for some time. I have a box full of stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. When serving as the chairman of the Human Rights Commission in Frederick, MD I met Sheryl, an ordinary woman working at an office job. Sheryl is white, a middle age mother of six, but, when one of her co-workers who was African American was clearly being harassed by a racist boss, she stood up for her. Her co-worker had a sick child, and she often would have to make arrangements for his care. This was all in keeping with the company’s liberal time management policy but the boss kept threatening her co-worker with losing her job. Sheryl had a child about the same age who was also often sick. She wasn’t treated that way so, with a great deal of courage, she walked into her boss’ office and complained about how her co-worker was being treated. At first he just listened perhaps a bit stunned, that she would do this. But then he became indignant and threatened her with her job. She didn’t bend, although she wanted to. She stood her ground and told him she would have to report the harassing behavior. He didn’t change and she reported him to his superiors and to the Human Rights Commission because this was clearly “on the job discrimination”. Sheryl was suspended but not fired. We went to work on her behalf and with time and patience, she and her co-worker were restored and the boss moved to another location. Heroes in our midst. There are so many other stories closer to home. As one of us wrote me this week there are so many workers today that are very afraid of losing their jobs, especially when there are six more people waiting to fill their shoes. And still there are heroes that stand up for fellow workers, take furlough days and unpaid vacations so that their fellow workers can go on. Not always with relish, but going on nonetheless.
When Martin Luther King was first asked to be the spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was anything but thrilled. King, like so many heroes, was an introvert by nature, and quite conflict adverse. But he sensed God calling and responded accordingly. He gave the rest of his life to racial justice. Several months before his appearance in Memphis TN in support of the sanitation workers strike, a friend asked him “how would this end?” King, answered softly, “with my death”. Like so many heroes who have been too long in the field he knew his time was coming to a close.
Just as Moses would not enter the promised land so too with Dr. King and so many heroes. Like Moses, King was a “freedom caller” who led people across the desolate landscape of hatred and bigotry. Like Moses, King reminded us that there will always be a struggle for freedom, who after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, turned his attention to the rights of the poor and ending the Vietnam war. And like Moses, King died in sight of the promised land, but not able to enter it. We are still waiting at its borders today. True, we have elected our first African American president, but freedom is still denied our GBLT brothers and sisters, the disabled, the poor and immigrants. The truth that is our American ideal has not yet set them free.
The heroism of Martin Luther King inspired heroism in those he came in contact with. Ordinary people like Rosa Parks who decided not to give up her seat for a white man. Heroes like Viola Liuzza a young catholic woman who drove civil rights workers to Selma and was ambushed and killed by the KKK. Heroes like our own Unitarian minister, the Rev. James Reeb, who along with two others was killed by a white gang after trying to desegregate a lunch counter. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
With Grace and Grit, John