By Sister Renee Y.
Yesterday I watched the March on Washington, just as I did fifty years ago. Yesterday, I was unable physically to walk with the thousands. And fifty years ago, I didn’t understand my need to. I had just turned eighteen and had spent my entire life framed by a White, Irish-Catholic world. I knew Martin Luther King was a brave man and that he pushed before him a huge wave of critical change. But I didn’t know that it was I who needed to change.
I was led out of my ignorance by grace, the grace of hundreds of life stories who wove their songs into my silence over these fifty years. Their names flow across my heart like the Balm of Gilead about which they taught me to sing. I will tell you of just two such stories.
Ruby was my hospice patient. A septuagenarian herself, she lived with her ninety-five year old invalid mother. Until her terminal illness, Ruby had been the caregiver. A visit to Ruby was a visit to Miss Eunice as well, each now confined to their separate bedrooms a hallway – and a world – apart.
In Eunice’s bedroom hung a large, beautiful picture – an old Black man in a straw hat, leaning on a broom handle. It was clear that an original photo had been enlarged and enhanced to frame the man in a soft halo of light. To make conversation, I asked about the picture. Eunice explained,”That’s my great-granddaddy – he lived in the ‘slavey’ days. You might not be able to understand what that picture means to me.” I asked her to try to tell me. Over the next few hours, Miss Eunice brought her granddaddy out of his frame and allowed him to change me. The gift of her ensuing stories remains as one of the great treasures of my ministerial life.
Joe Cherry, a former Pullman porter, gave me another treasure. Tested by blindness and terminal cancer, he was ever a man of deep faith, hope and love. He would ask me to pray with him and then so outdo me in his prayers that I told him he was in charge of the praying. He told me stories too, many full of joy; but some,too, about the frames he was not allowed to cross in his life because of his color.
Late in his illness, his appetite was failing. But he loved Deitz and Watson hot dogs. So I arrived with some one afternoon and cooked us a feast in his simple kitchen. Looking at him across the table, I knew it was almost his last meal and tears washed silently over me. Cherry – as he liked to be called – said, “You ‘re crying, aren’t you?” I said, “How do you know?” He answered, “My heart’s not blind. But don’t cry. We’ll eat together – ALL of us someday – in the Kingdom.”
Since 1963, many of our frames have become larger. Many of us have stepped outside of them and stretched them with the experiences of other cultures, races, ethnicities, faiths and orientations. We have stretched them with our own hard work to be open to one another and to view the world from inside another’s experience.
But we must never think we are finished. Martin’s dream – and Eunice’s and Cherry’s – will never be realized until there is only one frame surrounding us all.