As usual, Union College graduation fell on Father's Day again this year. What was not usual was the graduation speech, from a fiery and impassioned orator, Congressman John Lewis. I have listened to many graduation speeches at many institutions of higher education over the years, but never have I heard one quite like this:
It poignantly reminded me that Ross's very last road trip with his father was to the March on Washington in late summer 1963, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his resonant "I have a dream" speech. John Lewis was the youngest of the six organizers and lead speakers that day, and the only one of the six who is still living today.
I remember that day back in 1963. I watched the speeches on television with a wonderful African American woman who was taking care of my dying grandmother, after having taken care of her entire family and household for decades. I remember we sat, dumbstruck with awe, in the living room while my grandmother napped peacefully nearby. Neither of us had ever seen such a sight before, in all our born days. We did not see many white folks in the crowd assembled on the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial, and I certainly do not remember seeing any white children in that crowd. I lived only six miles away, potentially walking distance and certainly an easy city bus ride in those pre-Metro days. Yet neither I nor any child I knew from school or my neighborhood--nor any adult I knew, for that matter--was there. But somewhere in the crowd there was my future husband and the father of my children, a 9-year-old boy whose rabbi father had driven him a couple hundred miles from New Jersey to be part of that historic occasion, a celebration of solidarity and commitment to interfaith working together in harmony for truth and justice and what is good and true and right along with clergy of many other denominations.
Hearing Rep. Lewis' speech was bittersweet, because it was a deeply moving and powerful experience to listen to it, but it made me--once again--sad that I never got to meet Ross's father, who stands out in my mind as ahead of his time for reaching out in solidarity across all kinds of lines, religious as well as racial. Fortunately, he wrote prolifically, so I feel I have gotten to know him a little through reading his sermons and especially his textbook, Our Religion and our Neighbors. The textbook, which seems ahead of its time in treating other religions with respect and appreciation, grew out of his thesis in rabbinical school, and the early drafts of the textbook were tested out in the 1950s when the family was living in the South, in Greenville South Carolina and Memphis Tennessee, not easy places for a Jew to join with clergy of other denominations to work for civil rights, as Ross's father had done.
Perhaps that is why, decades later, one night when Ross was on a business trip, alone in a hotel with nothing to read but the Gideon's Bible, he found that the Sermon on the Mount resonated deeply with him.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.