Courage, MLK Jr., and High School Memories

The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I went to a week long summer camp that changed my life. The camp was called Anytown and it was a group of 70 teens from Louisville and Lexington who all came from very different experiences of life. At Anytown I made my first Jewish friend. I made my first African American and Asian friends, I made my first friends who were open about a sexual orientation that was different than mine. At Anytown I learned that all people are the same AND that all people are different and we should celebrate both of those things.

We did lots of different things at camp. We met in what were called culture groups where we shared common experiences and then we met in mixed groups where we talked about some really challenging topics. It’s easy to say something’s not real or something’s not as bad as it seems when you’ve never actually experienced it. It’s different when you look into the face of a new friend and all of sudden hear the truth of what they have gone through. It was an intense week and it took a lot of honesty and courage to build the community we built, but we did it.

The fact that we did was even more important on the 5th day of camp. We woke up that morning feeling good about ourselves and each other and the diversity we were celebrating and sharing, but when we got to morning circle something had changed. Don, the man in charge – a seriously large and intimidating person – told us that we would not be together that day. We were divided into our culture groups. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Jewish with Jewish and so forth. We were told we wouldn’t be allowed to make eye contact or communicate with our friends from different groups. We were told that if we did or if we tried to mix the groups that we would be sent home from camp.

It was an awful morning that led into and awful lunch. No one broke the silence. No one wanted to risk Don’s wrath or being sent home. No one until Ren. I can still remember Ren standing up to Don in the campfire area after lunch. At first she alone dared to question why we were doing this. She raised her voice and stood firm and told him that it was unfair and wrong and that the whole point of the camp was to bring us together and that she wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. When Ren broke the silence others followed and finally when we were all in an uproar, Don called us back together and apologized. He told us that what Ren had done was the whole point of the experience. They had wanted us to stand up, they had wanted us to show courage. They had wanted us to come together as one to change the injustice.

It’s very easy to look at the world around us and ignore the fact that the dream Martin Luther King Jr. had isn’t fully implemented. It’s easy, even with the mounting stories of hate and discrimination that we are faced with to think that discrimination and injustice are really a problem mostly solved. We have a day to celebrate it – doesn’t that mean it’s all good?

What Ren did that day at camp for us was help us to imagine what people before us had experienced. In a very small way she demonstrated the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. showed as he led others to join together to fight for justice for all people that face the darkness of hate.

I look back on how scared I was to speak up that day at camp – even though I knew that segregating our community wasn’t right. I remember being paralyzed with fear to rock the boat even though at worst I would have just been sent home from camp. I was so envious of the courage that Ren showed to risk it all and speak up.

I look back and think how much more frightened was Martin Luther King Jr? He was speaking out against a system of oppression. He was speaking out against powerful people and groups. He was speaking out to change injustice that affected a whole country. How much more fear did he feel as he led groups of people to boycott the buses in after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. How scared was he when he marched from Selma to Montgomery. How terrified must he have been when he received threats against his life and the lives of the people he loved.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

Martin Luther King Jr. must have felt afraid, but his faith taught him that only love could drive out hate. That only light could fight darkness. He chose to speak up to call out and to lead others in walking a path of non-violent protest, to pray for change. He had a dream, a vision of what we could be if we as people looked outside of ourselves and could truly see, love and serve our neighbor.

Every Martin Luther King Jr. day I think back to Anytown and the lifelong friendships I made there. I am thankful for them and I am thankful for the courage that I learned from Ren. A courage that came from the dream of a great man. A courage that lives on in me and in each of us today if only we can move past the fear that keeps us from speaking. I challenge you this Monday to find a way to honor that courage. To choose to see, love and serve your neighbor in some concrete way. As Martin Luther King told us…Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Let us go out into our communities on Monday and be the light and the love.

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