Saturday, September 7, 2013

I Sit Here Grading Papers

I sit here grading the first batch of papers by my students at Southeastern College. These young people (and some in their 40s) will, following graduation, work the machinery, keep the records, dispense the medicines, and assist other healers in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and surgical centers. They are a cross-section of Floridian diversity: Haitian, African-American, Hispanic from many countries-- all of them, now, American. They are all eager to learn, anxious about life in America, wanting fiercely their part of the American Dream, as did my grandparents and parents before me. One of them may, one day, hold your life in her hands, dear Reader. It is an awesome privilege to be responsible for some part of their education.
The reading they wrote an essay about is by Maya Angelou, who writes about growing up in her mother’s general store in Stamps, Arkansas, during the Depression. She describes with great love her Uncle Willie, who suffered from a palsy that made him tremble. The local sheriff, a bigot who dealt with his African-American subjects like a Polish squire, came on horseback one day to warn their family that “the boys,” the local Klan, would be riding that night, and that Willie should hide, lest he be lynched, for the crime of being a black man.
Angelou describes how poor Willie, who could hardly stand or walk, carefully folded himself into the store’s potato bin, and how they covered him with potatoes and onions, “like a casserole,” and how he lay there and moaned the entire night—luckily, “the boys” did not ride into their yard and insist that Momma open the store for them to raid, or they would certainly have heard him crying, and murdered him.
One of my congregants, a Holocaust survivor, told us once from the pulpit how she and her parents were forced to hide in a hole in the ground in the forest, like animals, for nearly two full years, on the run from the Nazis in France. She remembered, in particular, one Chanukah, when they emerged from their stifling den to behold the stars, and how her father gently asked her to use them as Chanukah candles.

No mortal being on this earth will be able to call themselves truly free until we can stop telling stories like this, until human beings no longer need to hide in potato bins or holes in the ground; until they stop hurting one another. Still, what can we do? Can we stop the carnage in Syria, in Kenya, or anywhere people refuse to see the human image in their fellow mortal? What can we do?