Freedom’s Sacred Dance
Two elders of the southern Freedom Movement share stories of "veterans of hope" who found courage in their spirituality and commitment to justice and democracy.
Nearly 40 years have passed since the summer of 1961, when we left Chicago to enter the powerful and transformative world of the southern Freedom Movement. We had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Rosemarie, who was born in Chicago, was working as an elementary school teacher and church-based social worker when we met. Vincent had come to Chicago from New York to study history at the University of Chicago and to serve as interim lay pastor at a small, southside Protestant congregation.
As representatives to the movement from the Mennonite Churches of America, we moved to Atlanta, where we served as founders and co-directors of an interracial movement center called Mennonite House. From there we traveled throughout the South, participating in this spiritually grounded people’s movement.
All during that period, our children, Rachel and Jonathan, were with us. They were often in our arms or on our backs during the marches. They slept through the long meetings, but not before they had been greeted by our friends and co-workers who became their uncles and aunts along the way. And everywhere in the South they shared with us the marvelous hospitality of black and white homes. They eventually grew old enough to participate in such activities as leafletting on behalf of the first African-American mayor of Atlanta. Deeply embedded in them were the songs of the movement and the spirit to which those songs gave witness.
This movement for the expansion of democracy, the breaking of the long-held power of legal segregation and white supremacy, and the reconciliation of a shattered human community cannot adequately be encompassed in the term “Civil Rights.” It reached far deeper than any legalistic category, taking its participants into an amazing human adventure that opened the way to a transformation of persons, communities, a region, and a nation.
From our earliest days in that struggle, we realized that the world of deep religious seeking and the world of expansive democracy-building were one world, grounded in the grandest hope and possibilities of the human spirit. Indeed, for many of those active in the Freedom Movement, the motivation to enter the struggle, the courage to move relentlessly forward as nonviolent soldiers against the terror of the white status quo, and the vision of a new, desegregated social order were all fueled by great spiritual and religious resources.
So when some leaders, like our friend Martin King, identified a central goal of the movement in terms of “the beloved community,” and others, like our friend Ella Baker, envisioned and modeled a participatory, expanding democracy, we knew that politics and spirituality belonged together, two manifestations of the same empowering reality.
Everywhere we went, this dialectic of hope, this sacred dance between the spiritual and political, appeared at the heart of the movement. In the jails, where songs and prayers overcame moans and shrieks of pain; in the church-based mass meetings, where action reports and sophisticated strategizing melded into freedom songs, fervent prayers, and testimony sessions; on streets and roads, where protest marches became spiritual pilgrimages “moving on to freedom land,” the dance continued.
During the system-changing march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, John Lewis, whose life had already been profoundly changed, experienced “a great sense of community,” not only with his fellow marchers, but with the black men, women, and children who dared to break from the roadsides with food and drinks for the marchers, sharing a movable communion feast with Protestants, Catholics, atheists, and other divine dancers.
And at the close of one day’s march, Rabbi Abraham Heschel could testify that “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
In the closing years of the 1960s, many movement participants began to speak and act as if spirituality and democratic political action were opposed to each other. But we knew that we were called to another vision. In classes, retreats, and conferences, and in published writings and private conversations, we encouraged our movement sisters and brothers and others to nurture the healing interplay between religion and democratic transformation.
We were encouraged in this dance not only through encounters with southern movement veterans such as Bob Moses, but with other veterans of hope, such as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; Julia Esquivel, the Guatemalan poet and pro-democracy worker; Grace and James Boggs, the Detroit-based political philosophers and organizers; Delores Huerta, the powerful farm worker organizer; Howard Thurman, the African-American mystic and visionary; Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Sulak Sivaraksa, the lay Buddhist pro-democracy leader from Thailand; and our longtime friend, the poet Sonia Sanchez.
In the late 1970s, we spent two years on the staff of Pendle Hill, a Quaker-sponsored study and retreat center near Philadelphia. Then in the 1980s and 1990s we began teaching at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Throughout that time, we considered it our calling to gather together veterans of the southern movement and other spiritually based peace and justice workers, artists, teachers, and healers from this country and overseas. We encouraged these carriers of hope to share their stories of struggle, transformation, and healing with students, colleagues, and community members.
At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, we led a series of intergenerational summer workshops in Colorado. The retreats brought together veterans of earlier movements for democratic social change (especially in the southern struggle) with younger people. The young people were just beginning their careers as change-makers, and they were seeking to understand the role of religion and spirituality in their work and to connect to the earlier struggles for change. Afterward, both younger and older participants expressed a deep desire for continued opportunities to gather in retreats and workshops for healing, refreshment, and the renewal of hope.
The Veterans of Hope Project is a response to these urgent calls. The Project began in 1997 as an experiment in education for humane, spirit-grounded social change. Based at the Iliff School of Theology, we sponsor courses, a series of videotaped interviews, lectures, retreats, and other programs that address the links between religion and social transformation.
The first series of the edited videos includes conversations with men and women, almost all of whom remain deeply engaged in hard, demanding work for change:
- James Lawson , the United Methodist pastor whose teaching of nonviolent action and commitment to the poor were so vital to the rise of the southern student movement and to Martin King’s own development. After retiring from 50 years in ordained Methodist ministry, Jim found time this summer to be arrested in Los Angeles and Cleveland, first for sitting-in with the Janitors for Justice and then standing with the beleaguered community of gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in his own national Methodist denomination.
- Bernice Johnson Reagon , the founder of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” who began her singing career first in church and then in southern jails, on marching lines, and in movement mass meetings, and was fundamentally transformed by the experience. Bernice continues to teach for democratic change in classrooms and on concert stages.
- Ruby Sales , who almost lost her life in 1965 when her friend and co-worker, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian, was murdered during their voter registration work in Alabama. Ruby, a women’s movement and community organizer, recently completed her seminary degree and is now directing a church-based community center in Washington, DC.
- Zoharah Simmons, whose pilgrimage took her from a Memphis Baptist childhood through Black movement leadership to the completion this year of a long-sought doctoral degree. Zoharah all the while maintained her own highly disciplined spiritual life and her commitment to justice and peace, and is now a Sufi-based university professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Florida.
- Andrew Young, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, has taken his sense of religious calling into a fascinating variety of local, national and international political and economic venues. Andrew commutes between the United States and Africa in a never-ceasing commitment to the economic development of that continent.
- But two of our favorite Veterans of Hope are Rachel Noel of Denver and Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit. Having entered their 80s, these two women model the advice of the late Fannie Lou Hamer: “Keep on Keeping On!” Doing so, they remind us that the dance toward the more perfect union has always depended on veterans like Noel and Boggs, who continue to put their arms around the young folks and move on in loving determination, manifesting in their lives the title of Grace’s memoir, Living for Change.
In addition to these veterans, we have interviewed artists, teachers, scholars, religious leaders, and activists (and some who combine all these descriptions in their lives) whose spiritually grounded lives have focused on transformative creativity. We have sat with sisters and brothers from Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, and South Africa who have worked for democratic social change. In each case the interviews have been part of a larger process of nurturing hope and healing. Indeed, these engagements with such committed and humane women and men have deepened our own determination to continue and expand the working dance of healing our friends, our family, our nation, and our world.
In the months and years ahead, our Veterans of Hope project will continue to gather and share the sacred stories. We will offer intergenerational retreats, focusing on the renewal and healing of those who work for compassionate democratic change in this country and overseas. We will continue to encourage younger artists, activists, and spiritual seekers to engage with their older counterparts to nurture the work and the spirit of one another, moving across lines of race, class, religion, and nationality. And we will work with those who are also seeking to create living connections between the search for “the beloved community” and the movement toward “a more perfect union.”
Such are the people who keep us going, and we know that our work is for them and their great grandchildren. The dance belongs to us all.