The 40 in the room sit entranced. Most of them are children, and they unusually are silent. The young adults are rapt. Our Freedom School site has always channeled the energy and inspiration of the Civil Rights movement for our daily work of improving literacy and preventing summer learning loss in a neighborhood that still bears the scars of segregation. But typically that inspiration has looked a bit more rowdy, as each morning starts like a pep rally, with chants and cheers and songs of inspiration, followed by a story read by a community leader. But none of the readers have been like today’s reader. In front of us is a legend – an original Freedom Rider, risking life and limb to ride from his home in Charlotte all across the South in the effort to bring freedom to those who suffered under Jim Crow, and those who suffered by enforcing Jim Crow. He was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee stationed in Albany, Georgia, a fearsome place for a black person to be organizing anything. He was on the chain gang with the Friendship Nine from Rock Hill, SC, and on the eighth row at the March on Washington, close enough to hear of Dr. King’s dream without any amplification. An elder of our city is with us this day, Mr. Charles Jones.
After Charles reads a book to us, someone asks for some stories from the Civil Rights days. “Tell us where you have been, Mr. Jones. We all want to hear.” We all know that we will sit for hours if he will but entertain us. The stories are too rich. Charles has rehearsed them for fifty years and knows just how to tell them. Whatever else is calling us will wait. But his storytelling is brief, and he seems uninterested in telling stories today. Instead, he comes bearing an unexpected gift. With a penetrating gaze and a gentle but serious spirit, he reaches a hand out toward all of us with his index finger pointed up. He tells us that he is speaking on behalf of all the elders, that he comes with a light but he is not passing the torch to us. He is instead lighting the fire that is already within us so that it burns the oil of justice. He looks deeply at us, as though he sees beyond the facade we put on this morning along with our t-shirts, and reminds us that there is enough oil to keep the light burning if we nurture this gift from the elders. From the saints, the ones who have gone on before. And because prayers and blessings like this one last longer when accompanied with song, he starts singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….”
Charles has been around long enough to know that the struggle for justice did not end with the Civil Rights movement, so encouraging the fire of justice within children and young adults is important. He knows that the struggle did not begin with the fight against Jim Crow. The same flame he is sharing with us burned in the hearts of Martin, Malcolm, Ella Baker, John Lewis, and others, and it was brightened in them by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, whose flames were encouraged by Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, whose flames were encouraged by others. So it goes all the way back to Moses, standing before some president demanding, “Let my people go!”
Charles also has been around long enough to taste the fruit of the struggle for justice. He has seen Beloved Community, however fleeting it was, and knows that we were all made for it. He knows that every once in a while, enough of those flames will get together in the right place, and a foretaste of glory divine can be seen around a table, or in a jail cell, or even across a state or a nation. That taste of Beloved Community deepens the reservoirs of the oil of justice. It leads us to share our oil and to refuse to trim our wicks so that the brightness of God’s dream for creation can be seen in every time and place.
All of us there, even the youngest ones, know that you don’t get to live too many days without seeing a brother or sister who has tamped down their flame. Perhaps he has run out of the oil of justice. Perhaps the love of idols has hidden the light under a bushel, or a demon like racism or greed has blown it out. So with the reading and the lighting of flames over, we get up to sing another Freedom Song. We sing to remind ourselves that the struggle is still real but that it can be met with light – light from within magnified by a whole communion of saints and elders standing with us. We sing our little songs, and move out of the assembly to our next activity, a reading lesson. Forward together, still marching, our eyes on the prize.
[For a brief news report featuring Charles and the Hyaets Freedom School site, follow this link.]