Walking Together

Micah 4, selected verses

In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be established as the highest of mountains,
And will be raised above the hills.
People will stream to it,
And many nations will come and say:
Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob, so that
God will teach us God’s ways,
And we will walk forever in God’s paths.

The Lord will judge between many people,
Will judge between strong nations far away.
They will beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning-hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more,
But they will sit under their own vines and their own fig trees,
And no one will make them afraid,
The mouth of God has spoken.

For all the people walk,
All in the name of their god,
But we will walk in the way of the Lord our God forever.

*

He was a young white kid, a country boy from central Missouri, and when he was growing up there was one person of color in his whole county. So Larry got more of an education than he’d expected when he enrolled at Lincoln University. Lincoln was only half an hour from home, and it was affordable – those were his reasons for choosing it. But Lincoln is also Missouri’s historically black college.

And Larry went in wanting to study social work, he says he wanted to save the world, but in that environment he realized how important it was to him to understand how the world came to be the way it is, to learn those stories, and to learn how to pass them on. So he took an African-American history class, from a professor born in 1899. The man had lived through so many sea changes of African-American life, he had endless stories to tell. He was famous for ignoring the clock and keeping his students late. And mostly, they didn’t complain about this.

But Larry’s was a night class, and one evening the professor went so long that Larry was left without a ride. His dad worked nights and had the family’s only car, so Larry knew it would be useless to call his parents. He plopped down on the curb and waited – for nothing, really – but he wasn’t ready yet to begin the 30-mile walk home.

And after a while, headlights landed on the road in front of him, and the car slowed to a stop where he sat. His professor leaned over and asked out the window, “What are you doing?” And Larry told him, “I missed my ride.”

His professor told him to hop in – and he knew how far it was, Larry said, he was the kind of professor who asked where you were from, and remembered things like that. But Larry stepped in to the old Buick, with the floorboards worn thin, and he held on as his professor sped away. When they arrived, and Larry had stepped out of the car, the old man called after him. He said, “You want to be a teacher, right?” And Larry said that he did. And his professor raised his finger in the air – and said, “Remember this one thing: You must always be friends with your students.” …

And years later, then a professor himself, Larry was part of a program from Lincoln University that introduced an associate’s degree in the humanities to the Missouri State Penitentiary. It was dangerous territory, in a dangerous time – lots of racial tension, piled on top of the tension created by the dynamic of these black men earning their college degrees in prison, all the while under the watch of the warden and the other guards, who were all white, who all had high school diplomas. So he came to teach, and he was young – in his 20s – and he wore jeans, and he rode a motorcycle – and the guards were wary of him. He didn’t fit their notion of what a professor should look like, and they weren’t thrilled that the professors were there in the first place. And the prisoners, his students, they were wary of him, too. They weren’t sure this young white guy had anything to teach them, especially about black history. Much of their education came in the form of the teachings of Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam, which insisted that white men are enemies of black men. And all of those tensions together meant that the prison, especially the yard, could be a dangerous place. Because of its history, even before Larry came, it’d been called the “bloodiest 47 acres in America.”

So these security measures were put in place for the teachers. When a group of them arrived, the warden provided them with an escort, to ensure their safe passage across the prison yard to the building where they’d hold classes. The warden harassed Larry some when he was on his own, but left him alone as long as he was with the other teachers.

And that first semester, Larry began to earn the trust of the students. He said it was kind of dicey for a while; he knew he was on trial. But he followed the advice of that professor who had first encouraged him to teach – he listened, more than he talked – and that mattered.

And then a new semester began, and Larry’s class was slotted for a different time – a schedule that meant he didn’t arrive at the prison with the other teachers. He says that’s when the warden really started to make him nervous. And as part of this intimidation, now that he arrived separately from the group, the warden refused to give Larry an escort across the yard. Larry was scared when he was alone – not of the imprisoned men, he said, but of the warden, of the guards – he knew they didn’t want him there, and he was always afraid they’d try to frame him – stick a joint in his pocket, or a letter in his briefcase – some contraband…

So on the day he was to make this journey across the yard alone, he stood behind the first gate, which was like a steel door, got the ok from the guard, and waited for it to open. And when it did, and he raised his eyes, expecting to look all the way across the yard, to scan it, to gain some sense of how he’d make his way alone, he couldn’t. His view was blocked by men standing right in front of him. Prisoners on the other side of the gate, so close he couldn’t take a first step. Students of his. Friends. They’d been expecting him; they’d come to walk with him. And when they got to the next gate – a place some of them couldn’t go beyond – when it opened up for Larry, there were others to accompany him. And they escorted him to the next gate, where a last group of students waited, to walk him to the final door. And he said, “we never talked about it. They just showed up that first day I didn’t have an escort, and they just kept showing up. I never asked them why they did it. And they never told me. All I know is it really was like an act of faith, like a walking in faith, on both of our parts.”

*

All the people walk, the prophet said. All in the name of their God.
We will walk in the way of the Lord our God forever.

Just taken at face value, that’s what we did last Sunday. A couple of parents and youth sponsors and a group of youth from Saint Andrew – we walked, because we are Christian, with other people, who walked because they are Muslim, or Jewish, or Baha’i, or Hindu. For the third year in a row now, we joined with the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance, with their Peace Walk, and we walked the four miles from Church of the Resurrection to Congregation Beth Shalom to the Islamic Center of Johnson County. We heard prayers spoken and sung; we saw an art installation of Hebrew calligraphy at the synagogue; we sat outside a door marked “ladies entrance” at the Islamic Center and we knew, just from that, that we were in a place very different from our own.

The organizers of the walk always issue a challenge – that before it’s over, you meet new friends. That’s the point, they say, to come together and get to know each other. And they say it like it should be easy. And maybe it should be. I mean, every year we go, knowing that everyone there has come to walk, together, to literally move in a direction of greater understanding. And still, every year, it is really hard.

I think part of it is that we’ve been taught not to talk about things that matter – religion and politics, right, are not polite conversations. So all of these youth are gathered; they’ve all come because of their commitment to their faith; they’ve come because they want to understand and to be understood. But how do they begin? How do they offer up stories from the core of who they are? How do they share what matters most deeply to them – what, for many of them, explains their families, their sense of themselves, their hopes and dreams, their songs and prayers, even their food and clothing? What is it like to come together with people you know are fundamentally different from you, and to offer yourself up? Or to ask someone else to do that?

It doesn’t always happen, not in any meaningful ways. But even so we’re walking, all of us are walking, the same way. And that means we encounter the same scenes, and we hear the same traffic, and we dodge the same darting insects. We smile at each other as we wait to cross the street and we greet one another as we grab drinks of water from the volunteers along the route. We exchange these small kindnesses. And until we gain the courage to do more, I have to believe these steps matter. …

Two years ago the walk was on September 11. And it was the same route; it ended at the Islamic Center. And I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was nervous about being there, on that day. I wondered if the organizers of the walk had talked about going a different route. I wondered if it was helpful, or harmful, to that community, for this crowd to be gathered in their parking lot on that anniversary. I suppose it could have been a show of solidarity, a way of making peace. We were not exactly beating weapons into farm tools – but that’s not the whole of the prophet’s vision. He also says there will come a day when we do not make each other afraid anymore. I know, naïve as it may sound, that one of the goals of this walking together is to make all of us, with each step, a little less afraid.

I think maybe that’s possible. And even if they’re all still working up the courage to share their souls with each other, I think there’s something profound that might happen even just in all these youth walking, even just in the movement together. The American Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, they’ve published their conversations and in one, Berrigan remembers this film, The Gospel of Saint Matthew – he says, in it, “Jesus is always moving.” He says, “Jesus teaches while he’s walking with his friends. And he’s always walking very quickly, never seated somewhere, he’s walking, and speaking over his shoulder while they’re trying to keep up with him.”

Berrigan says, “this walking, it’s not just a way of showing the urgency of the truth; it goes deeper than that. It’s as though life itself is a forward movement of awareness, of consciousness, of love, and Jesus is dramatizing this by moving. His life is a movement, and his students, his friends can’t remain static and hope to grasp what he’s about. They cannot remain in comfort; they cannot remain in the past. It’s as though Jesus – it’s as though he’s a kind of spool which is unwinding; they’re trying to grab it as it goes, but it’s always going.”

And Nhat Hanh says: “The teaching is not static because it is not mere words; it is the reality of life.”

The reality of our lives is not static. It is dynamic; it is movement. All the people walk.

I don’t know what it means, really, to walk in the way of God. But when I think about the prison yard, about the risk Larry took, showing up to walk it alone, and the risk each of his students, his friends, took, so that he wouldn’t have to, I think that boldness must be part of what the prophet envisioned.

And that’s a different risk than the one taken by the teenagers, who show up year after year to walk the same four miles through a strip-malled suburb. When I think about that route, about the energy and courage it takes to finally share a story, or ask a question, even just to keep taking steps in the same direction, I think that faithfulness must be part of what the prophet dreamed of.

And both of those risks are different than the ones we take when we try to chase this unwinding spool, this life of Jesus that is a movement, this Spirit that is always spinning just out of our reach.

But all of the risks also hold out promise – we know that as we reach, even if we’re struggling to keep up, this spool, this spirit that leads the way, it calls us from where we have been, more deeply into where we are, and toward what we might be. It does not wait for us. But it does beckon us. It does invite us to walk, unafraid. And it invites us into communion with all who walk – even, especially, this one who goes so quickly, ahead of us, calling out teachings and love over his shoulder.

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