Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 85:7-13; Galatians 3:22-28
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Some of you have heard me tell this story—and I hope you don’t mind if I tell it again, especially on this Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I was in ninth grade, in Ms. Jackson’s English class. I was sitting with my girlfriends—there were four of us and we sat two on one row next to two on the other. The bell to start class had not yet rung and so we sat gossiping and giggling in our group of four—oblivious to the rest of the class.
My seat was the most awkward as I was at the upper left of the grouping of our desks. They were the old wooden desks in which the desk table and chair were connected by an arm that curved around on the right. I want to say that the incident that occurred happened suddenly and without warning, that I didn’t see the girl approaching until it was too late. But if I am truly honest with myself, I knew she was walking up our aisle and simply ignored her. But let me tell what happened and then offer my commentary and confession.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. For some reason, our English class was always sixth period, right after lunch, and so we were fighting our drowsiness and continuing our gossip from the cafeteria. We sat down in class and kept chatting as the bell hadn’t rung yet. I was turned completely sideways in my chair so as to talk to the other three. I had my legs stretched across the aisle, crossed at the ankles, and my feet hooked into the bottom of the desk across from me. I don’t remember who was in the middle of telling what story when we realized a larger African American girl had walked up the aisle from the back of the classroom and wanted to pass by. She never spoke, and as I was the only one with my feet in the aisle, stared straight at me with what was meant to be an intimidating and mean stare.
Unfortunately for me, I can be as stubborn as a mule at times. I decided on the spot, that if she wanted to pass, she was going to have to ask and did not move my legs out of her way. She continued to stare. My friends had stopped chatting and were also staring. The room gradually quieted down as others began to notice our stand-off and wondered what would happen next. There was a lot of clatter in the hallway outside as students were rushing to class and Ms. Jackson was in the hall talking to the teacher next door. It was a moment in time that I can still remember every sound, sensation, the warmth of the sun at my back coming in from the window, and my heart jumping in my throat as I did not know what was about to happen, but I certainly wasn’t going to back down.
I couldn’t tell you how long the stare down lasted, three seconds a whole minute, but I do remember quite distinctly the first kick and then the second and third and the continued kicking of my leg as this girl who was much larger than me—even if both of us had been standing up—began to attack me with a brutality that seemed to increase with every backward thrust of her leg as she prepared to kick again. My friends gasped. One of them pleaded with me to, “Let her pass.” But I just dug my heels in tighter and gritted my teeth as each blow landed.
At some point, the bell rang, and the teacher walked in and found us locked in this eternal battle. She yelled at us, wondering what we thought we were doing and sent us both to the office to see Coach Williamson. He asked us what happened, and I was quick to profess my innocence that I had just been sitting there, when she had walked up and started kicking me. Since I had not acted violently, I was sent back to class and didn’t get into any trouble. The other girl was given demerits and had to go to detention hall for the rest of the week.
I have often thought of that incident and the unfairness of it. The bottom line is that I was the one in the wrong. You can argue with me and tell me that violence is always wrong—and though I wouldn’t disagree with you, that girl really had no other choice. All the years of racial prejudice that had built up in her life and the life of her ancestors came pouring out of her that day. And they were well expressed on exactly the right person—the white girl who was completely ambivalent to the pain and frustration of being ignored or denied basic simple courtesy that everyone has a right too. Not to mention, all the other rights and expectations that people who look like me take for granted and people who looked like her had to fight tooth and nail for every day of their existence.
I was the one in the wrong that day and though I knew I had behaved badly—even in the moment and especially in the coaches’ office—I used my privilege and manipulated myself into being the non-guilty one. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than her in that moment. It wasn’t even the complete lack of empathy I had for her. I couldn’t really have any empathy for her, my experiences have never included being looked down on because of the color of my skin or denied opportunities or ignored and passed over because I was thought of as less than a person—less capable, less trustworthy, less responsible. It wasn’t about a lack of empathy that day, because I couldn’t hold empathy—I had never experienced life as she had. Instead, it was a lack of compassion.
Compassion is that fundamental basic sense of understanding or recognizing how we are all connected to one another. We don’t have to have had the same experiences or struggles to know that we all desire to be free from suffering and pain and anger and we all desire to know peace and joy. Just like me, you want to be free from suffering. Just like me, you want to be free from fear and anger. Just like me, you want to know peace. Just like me, you want to know joy.
My African American, ninth grade classmate had and still knows greater suffering than I will ever know or understand—simply because she was born a different skin color than me. her family has fought for basic rights and advantages that I just take for granted. In that moment when I decided to be immoveable, I became the symbol of all the immoveable powers of oppression that had dotted and always will dot the landscape of her life. She had been kicked and beaten down all of her life. Of course, the only thing she knew how to do was to kick back.
There is a Paul Harvey moment in this story for me today—you know, “and now for the rest of the story”. Sitting in that classroom that day was a young man named Bradley West. He is the grandson of Alice West who opened her home to Jonathan Daniels and invited him to live with her and her family in his time in Selma. My classmate was not born when Jonathan lived there, but his father and uncle and aunts would have known Jonathan and, even more importantly, would have known the challenges and sufferings of the Civil Rights Movement. Bradley bore witness that day, to my own form of tyranny—a much different witness than he would have been told about in the stories of the Episcopal seminarian, a white guy, that had once lived with his family and fought for them.
The tyranny of oppression that I employed that day was intentional. It was meant to make me feel powerful and her to feel small. It was sinful because it did nothing to heal relationship with her, with Bradley, with God, with the people of God who have been disenfranchised and made weary. I am the proud who is to be scattered, the lofty and powerful to be brought down, the rich to be sent away empty. Mary’s song that we hear today is a call and testament to us that the world we so desperately cling too, is not the world God envisions. But people like Jonathan Daniels have known that vision and lived that vision, even died for that vision.
When we want to proclaim, as Mary did, that our souls magnify the Lord. We must also be willing to cast ourselves down and lift up the lowly. Not because we are inherently sinful and in need of redemption, but because we are all children of God who live and act from a place of love.