Not long before retiring from the Texas Civil Rights Project and beginning a trajectory toward ordained ministry, I was a panelist at a Concerned Philosophers for Peace conference at Austin Community College. The theme was setting standards for peace in public life.
There were four of us “activists,” as we were called; and we related our hard stories of the difficult struggle for peaceful change in society. During the Q&A session afterwards, a student participant asked us each to explain what kept us going in the face of so many nearly insurmountable hurdles.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. For me, the Gospel had always been my life-long motivation for human rights work; but I was in a secular setting, representing a nonprofit organization. Fortunately, the answers started at the other end of the table, which gave me time to consider my response.
To my surprise, each of the others tagged spirituality as what kept them going, making my answer easy. We all had different brands of spirituality; but our personal spirituality pushed us forward, despite defeats and what often seemed like running into a brick wall, but still eking out a modicum of justice.
I have reflected on that event often, especially during a recent civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama I made with the Union of Black Episcopalians. We met people there, who, in younger years, had witnessed the era’s fierce brutal violence against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery and Birmingham, the Children’s Crusade when Birmingham police attacked kids with water cannons and snarling dogs, the Sunday morning bombing of that city’s16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls, and Bloody Sunday in Selma.
Visiting these sites was painful, but it was also a journey of hope because people’s struggles, suffering and even death, had brought justice. Quite striking was the spiritual serenity of those witnesses. Their relationship with God gave them peace with the struggle, then and now.
Like for them, prayer, reflection, meditation and community worship, have long given me strength to stay grounded, in relationship with God, and focused on the Gospel struggle for justice.
For me, spirituality is necessary for, and results in, social action. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez taught us that the moral confrontation arising from nonviolent activism depended on a person’s spiritual transformation. Nonviolence is a spiritual step toward justice, not merely a tactical organizing maneuver. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Jewish religious leader and mystic, was famous for saying that, during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march with King, he prayed with his feet as well as with his soul.
I was fortunate to work with César Chávez for 18 years. The depth of his spirituality motivated me to deepen my own. At the time he died, Chávez was studying to be a deacon as an expression for him of the intersection between justice and being in ever deeper relationship with God. I find myself in the same place.
I can’t speak for others; but, for me, community activism needs spirituality; and a relationship with God requires community activism. Spirituality and action are the flip side of the same coin. As Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, observed: An activist person without spirituality will burn out quickly. Similarly, a spiritual life without action is an incomplete one.
Martin Luther King used the famous saying of the mid-19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
However, the arc doesn’t bend without our hard work; and I believe that being in relationship with God grounds that struggle — at least for my part. Trying to help bend that arc is my Gospel work.
Jim Harrington, a human rights lawyer, is director of Proyecto Santiago at St. James’ Episcopal Church and is pursuing a path to the priesthood. Doing Good Together is provided by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.