It Is All Good…….But Is It Really?

How many times when something really bad happens you hear someone say “it’s all good?”   I thought today we might examine this phrase.  How can someone who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, a person sentenced to prison, a baby diagnosed with a developmental disability, someone whose spouse after many years of marriage announces they want a divorce……how can that be “all good?”  I think the statement “It is all good” maybe just a form of denial.

Bad things are going to happen.  They don’t just happen to bad people – but they happen to all of us.  If it was “all good” there wouldn’t be samsara.  But as the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago life is characterized by samsara.

When unexpected tragedy strikes us it seems there are three ways people typically respond:  1.  Is to simply rest in denial.  I feel people who say “it is all good” are doing this.  2.  Is to become really stressed out.  I can think of some people I know who don’t deal very well with stress.  When they are faced with some devastating news they fall apart.  Some people even resort to very self-destructive behavior in dealing with adversity. The third way is what Buddhist practice is all about.  It is neither denying the situation nor falling apart – but accepting it as it is – and moving on from there.   I believe this is what Buddhist practice is really about and is only possible when living a mindful life.

Tough times won’t last, but tough people will. Many people have lost money (example of Rime couple who lost their entire saving in the Enron collapse) and many are losing their jobs, homes, or at least making cutbacks. Many others have faced life-changing natural disasters, such as hurricanes and fires, as well as health and family difficulties.

Everything that happens to us in life is the result of our past karma – we can’t do anything about that.  As they say, “You can’t do anything about the cards you are dealt, but only in the way that you play them.”

This is where meditation practice comes in.  If you have a strong practice, and you have really cultivated mindfulness in your every day life – then it is going to be much easier to deal with life’s difficulties as they arise.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had Rime members who are facing really difficult life’s circumstances tell me, “You know Lama Chuck without my practice I don’t know how I could get through this.”  But as a result of my practice I feel that it will be OK and I can deal with it.

So, I begin this blog by being critical of those who say, “Its all good” and I think in relative reality that is true.  But in the ultimate or absolute sense they are right.  It was the 2nd century brilliant philosopher, Nagajuna who said, “There isn’t a whit of difference between samsara and nirvana.”  Now I know on the surface that may not make sense……but because both are empty of inherent existence there is no difference between them.  Samsara (or suffering) is simply nirvana not yet realized.

Samsara and nirvana are only different in the relative sense, because they designate entirely different things. Again, in the ultimate sense, there is no difference, because of their emptiness. Everything is empty, including emptiness.

This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering.  It is freedom.   So, in an ultimate sense the saying, “It is all good.” Is in fact a correct statement – as long as you recognize the emptiness of what is good (or bad).

Forgiveness As A Spiritual Practice

All of us want happiness.  When you look at our world you can see that all sentient beings right down to the smallest insect want only to be happy.  Yet when we hold resentment and anger against someone who has wronged us, it is impossible to be happy.  Anger and resentment destroy our happiness.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says that if after two days we have not forgiven someone who has wronged us, then it becomes our problem.  Letting go of our anger and resentment is important and if we can’t do that after two days then we are paying for it by letting it destroy our happiness.  Kushner is talking about forgiving the unforgivable – not just everyday kind of annoyances.

I think there are many misconceptions about the practice of forgiving.  Some mistakenly believe that by forgiving you are condoning or accepting a grievous act.  Or that by forgiving it implies you are weak and will not stand up against those who commit such acts.  Another misconception is that if you forgive, justice will be abandoned.  But forgiveness is not about helplessly giving up, surrendering, avoiding justice or being weak.  Forgiveness is about recognizing the terrible wrong that you hold in your heart, realizing that the wrong can be healed, and working to understand how you came to hold your anger and resentment so dearly so that you do not let it happen again.  This process helps you to develop compassion for yourself and others. Forgiveness can be understood as a spiritual practice and was taught by Jesus, Buddha and other great spiritual teachers.

There are many reasons that forgiveness is important.  First and foremost, through forgiveness we can begin to liberate our own feelings of anger and resentment.  Through the practice of forgiveness we can free our own inner rage.  When we forgive an offender, not only does the offender benefit but we also benefit by restoring our peace of mind and happiness.  Forgiveness is actually an act of compassion whereby very often we can find real meaning in the worst of life’s events.

It may surprise you but most people find it easiest to forgive a complete stranger, or someone they don’t know very well.  After all, if someone bumps your cart at the grocery store you don’t hold any resentment.  Even an automobile accident is fairly easy to forgive.  But what about forgiveness as we get closer in our circle of relationships?  Isn’t a friend who disappoints us more difficult to forgive?  And what about family members – aren’t they even more difficult to forgive?  We all know (or have personally experienced) members of families who have been estranged for years.  But the person most difficult of all to forgive is ourselves.  Most of us can be very hard on ourselves.  When we disappoint a loved one or harm ourselves or others through body, speech or mind, very often we hold the resentment against ourselves much longer than we would against a stranger.  Why is it more difficult for us to forgive ourselves than a stranger?

How to forgive the unforgivable?

It was while doing prison outreach that I met another Buddhist volunteer who had been visiting the prison regularly for several years.  To shield his identity I will call him John.  I was impressed by his devotion and dedication to the inmates.  Each religion at the prison has a locker where they keep books, videos and religious objects for practice.  When John first started visiting the prison the Buddhist locker was virtually empty.  John had solicited Buddhist publishers and in just a few short months the once empty locker was now brimming with Buddhist books, videos and audio tapes.  John was so devoted to visiting and teaching these inmates that the only time he missed the weekly visits was when he was out of town.

During one of our regular visits with the inmates, we discussed forgiveness as a practice.  John related to the inmates that he had a friend who had been horribly sexually abused as he was growing up.  John related how this deeply affected his friend all of his life.  It seems his friend later in life became a volunteer at a prison.  It was in volunteering at the prison that he realized he was in a particularly fortunate position to truly identify with many of the prisoners who also suffered abuse growing up.  As I listened I wondered if John might be talking about himself.  As we checked out of the prison that night I wondered if there was a way I could tactfully ask him if he was talking about himself.  I concluded that it would not be proper to ask him such a personal question.  As we stood in the parking lot saying good-bye, John lowered his eyes and while staring at the ground he said, “You know that friend I was talking about tonight is really me.”  With tears in my eyes I put my arm around his shoulder and told him how much I admired him.  John later told me he had come to the conclusion that had he not been abused as a child, he would never have been able to truly empathize with the inmates, many of whom had also been abused as children.  It was in forgiving the unforgivable that John was able to show real compassion for others.  What he suffered earlier in life turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and his nightmares ended.  John is an amazing example of how we cannot only forgive the unforgivable but we can actually transform it into the positive action of compassion to benefit others

Apology and forgiveness is implied throughout the Buddhist texts.  Even Jesus when asked how many times one should forgive one’s brother said that one should forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).  The Buddha also spoke of forgiveness.  But is it possible to forgive the unforgivable?  Can we possibly forgive those who commit unspeakable offenses?  The book “Chop Wood, Carry Water” relates the well-known poignant Tibetan Buddhist story about two Tibetan monks who encounter each other some years after being released from prison where they had been tortured by their captors.  “Have you forgiven them?” asks the first.  “I will never forgive them! Never!” replies the second.  “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first says.

Spiritual practices to cultivate forgiveness

There are many examples of the practice of forgiveness in the Buddhist texts.  One of my favorites is the story of Angulimala.  Angulimala had killed 999 persons and collected their fingers in a necklace around his neck.  His name, Angulimala , means garland of fingers.  It was in searching for his one thousandth victim that he met the Buddha and realized what he had been doing was wrong.  The terrible murderer was forgiven and eventually able to attain complete enlightenment.  He became one of the Buddha’s closest disciples.  There is also the story of Milarepa an 11th century Tibetan saint who also had killed many people.  He too realized what he was doing was wrong and changed his ways and turned toward spiritual practice.  Like Angulimala, he too attained complete enlightenment and became one of Buddhism’s most important teachers.

In the Buddhist tradition there are specific meditation practices that help us cultivate forgiveness.  I recommend doing a loving-kindness meditation in three parts.  First ask forgiveness of all those you may have harmed through thoughts, words or actions.  Second offer forgiveness for any harm others have caused you through their thoughts, words or actions.  And finally offer forgiveness to yourself for any harm you have done to yourself.  By using the power of meditation, these ideas of compassion become more and more ingrained as a true part of our life and experience.

Another very good practice for developing forgiveness is called tonglen.  Tonglen is a meditation practice whereby you exchange self for others in order to alleviate the suffering of others.  Tonglen is sometimes referred to as “receiving and taking.”  In this practice you actually imagine you are taking in another’s suffering as you transform and purify it.  Doing this practice for someone who has harmed you is difficult but a very powerful lesson in forgiveness.  The well-known Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, said, “Tonglen practice reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both others and ourselves; we begin to take care of others and ourselves. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.  It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness…”

How can we expect happiness if we are unwilling to forgive?  Mother Theresa said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”  My friend John who volunteered at the prison had learned to transform his hurt into compassion for others.  Through his practice of forgiveness he was helping others and in return he was also giving and receiving the love referred to by Mother Theresa.  So, look into your own heart and see what burdens you are still carrying.  Transform your anger, and your resentments into acts of compassion.  And like my friend John, you may discover that even the most grievous acts can be the catalyst to transform negative emotions into acts of real compassion through forgiveness.

Dealing With Adversity

All of us are going to have bad stuff happen to us in this lifetime – I guarantee it.  And it will happen to me too.  I tell the Buddhist inmates I work with the same thing — that “bad stuff” is going to happen to them” except I use the vernacular for “bad stuff.”

We always think OUR problems are the worst – and there will be no end to them.  Perhaps you feel that with each step forward, adverse circumstances pull you two steps back. If so, then welcome to life. Most people feel the same way.  The Buddha taught that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.  Face it, bad things are going to happen to you – they are going to happen to me.

All of us desire happiness, safety, peace and comfort.  We desire what is satisfying, pleasurable, joyful and permanent.  However, the very nature of existence is impermanent, always changing, and therefore incapable of fully satisfying our desires. Inevitably, we experience frustration, anger, loss, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction.  Life is in constant change, and changes such as birth, old age, sickness, and death can bring dissatisfaction and suffering.  Suffering may arise from being associated with people or conditions that are unpleasant, from being separated from people we love or conditions we enjoy, from not getting what we desire, or from getting what we desire then losing it.  Even our own thoughts and, feelings are impermanent, constantly changing. Inevitably, all physical, emotional and mental conditions will change.

Once when Ven. Phagyab Rinpoche was here many people had interviews with him and told him about the suffering they were experiencing in their life.  Some of their suffering seemed small – while some of it seemed rather overwhelming.  I remember he told all of them that their suffering was very small compared to others who are suffering in the world.  He talked about people in India who literally die on the streets without clothes – without food.  When Rinpoche was falsely imprisoned – he at first felt sorry for himself – but then he thought about all of the people who were so much worse off than him.

Once I was at one of the prisons talking about this topic.  One of the inmates who is a very good practitioner said he thought when bad things happen instead of thinking “What lesson is there in this for me — we should instead think “How can I improve the situation?”

Bad things are going happen to us because of our negative karma keeps ripening.  This is certain.  But the question becomes “how are we going to deal with this?”  If we become angry and respond in an angry way – it is ironic because we are only generating more negative karma.  Some of us resort to using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate – by numbing us from the pain.

I want to share with you a story.  Many years ago on an episode of Candid Camera they placed an actor behind the counter of a convenience store.  Whenever anyone purchased something regardless of what size bill he would receive he wouldn’t give back any change.  Instead he would explain that they have a new policy of not giving back change.  Of course people were outraged.  They yelled, they screamed – all except one man who calmly said, “OK, that’s fine.”  Later when they interviewed him and asked why he didn’t get upset he responded, “That no one was going to rent his mind.”  In other words he wasn’t going to allow the actions of another to upset him.  I think there is a powerful lesson here.

So, if we know bad stuff is going to happen to us, then we have a choice about how we are going react to it.  Are simply going to “react” (in a knee jerk sort of fashion?) or are we going to “respond?”  When we respond (rather than just react) we have a whole range of possibilities.

Adversity can be a lesson for us.  For most of us the busyness of our lives doesn’t allow us time to pause and appreciate the people we have around us.  Adversity often awakens us to the treasures that are far more important than: money, material possessions, our health, our family and our friends.  Sudden financial losses teach us that we shouldn’t base our happiness on money.  An illness teaches us to be humble and lead a healthy life.  A sudden loss in the family makes us appreciate the cycle of birth, life and death.  Such things may seem superficial, but you should learn from adversities if you don’t want them to control your life.

David J. Pollay, a best-selling author, is the creator of  “The Law of the Garbage Truck”™.  He explains The Law of the Garbage Truck in the following way: “One day I hopped in a taxi in another city and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car backed out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. He was really friendly.

So I asked, ‘Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!’  This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, ‘The Law of the Garbage Truck.’  He explained that many people are like garbage trucks.  They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they’ll dump it on you. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don’t take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets. The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day. Life’s too short to wake up in the morning with regrets.”

This is a wonderful story about not letting negative emotions control you.  Remember it is through meditation practice that we develop this kind of mental stability – so that we don’t resort to self-destructive ways of dealing with adversity or disappointments.

Freedom – Living The Intentional Life

There is a great paradox in this country. We are the freest nation on earth.  We can travel wherever we want, we can choose to pursue any career path we want, and we have religious freedom.  Yet, why is it so many of us feel unfree – we feel trapped?  We feel trapped by a relationship, or by a job or by some circumstance?

More than 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I believe that is as true today as it was back then.  I know all of you are familiar with Thoreau.  He lived from 1845 – 1847 at Walden Pond near Boston, MA.  He wasn’t the first to live an intentional life — but he was certainly the first to write about it so eloquently.  Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to (confront) only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

But what is “freedom?”  When you think of freedom do you think of physical freedom? Freedom from work? Freedom from restrictions? Freedom from obligations? Freedom from law? Freedom from duty? Is freedom just free of such restrictions? Or is it something more?

For example I work with inmates some of whom feel very free. It was Mahatma Ghandi who said, “They can imprison my body but not my mind.”

Now I want you to think of a time that you didn’t feel free. A time you felt stuck in a relationship? Or a time you felt stuck in a job? Or a time you felt stuck in situation? In those situations did you feel you had no or few choices?

I believe there are some universal laws of what we call “reality”

1.  Reality is created in the moment.
2.  In each moment there are multiple realities.
3.  What you “choose” to focus upon becomes your reality.

So, what reality do you choose? Do you choose to feel stuck, to feel trapped? The first step to becoming truly free is to recognize how we “create” our own reality.

We have all known angry, nasty people who go through life and seem mad at the world. We can see they are in a hell of their own creation. Obviously these people are trapped and not very free.

In Buddhism we talk about freedom from the kleshas. Kleshas are that which muddies the stream of enlightenment’ The kleshas are emotions and/or habitual patterns that defile or confuse the mind, such as anger, fear, and resentment. The kleshas are what bind us to the cycle of re-birth. Attainment of enlightenment signifies the extinction of all kleshas.

So I think of freedom as along a continuum. At one far end are those who are so stuck in suffering that are unaware that they even have choices. They simply respond to the world and events in a “knee jerk” sort of way.

And then as you move along the continuum – you increase your awareness or insight. Maybe you become aware of feeling trapped in a situation — as if you don’t have choices.

As you continue along the continuum – and increase your insight even further – you begin to see the world more spaciousness – you begin to see a range of possibilities. You come eventually to the realization that in every situation there is endless potential for change. That everything is workable. And of course when you finally reach the other end of the continuum — of enlightenment you arrive at place of non-duality – so it transcends even choices — it is a choiceless state.

The point is if you want to feel more free, if you want to feel you have more choices – then you need to increase your awareness – or your insight. This is accomplished through the meditation practice. It is through meditation that we cut through the kleshas.

Meditation can be helpful in helping us to gain insight into to some of the reasons, or patterns, that cause us to keep making some of the same mistakes over and over again. This is true especially when we feel “stuck” and feel not free. The 10th century Tibetan master, Tilopa said,

“Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.”

When you are truly free, you are free of the kleshas of desires, attachments, and aversions. Then you reside in a completely non-dualistic state – that transcends choices all together. It transcends also hope and fear — it is what is called the choiceless state. Why? Because it is free of even choices. So if you really want to experience freedom you must train your mind — to be free of the self or the ego

So, I believe the degree to which you feel free is a good indication of your progress along the spiritual path.

If you would like to feel more free, then do more spiritual practice — because it is through the meditation practice that you free yourself of ego driven by the kleshas.

The Real Meaning Behind Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day.  Since 1986 Congress has set aside the third Monday of January each year as a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Martin Luther King Day, it seems every year King’s real message becomes more and more obscured. For most Americans he has been reduced to posters and postage stamps, an excuse for a long weekend. But in these days of heightened fear, acute injustice, and unjust wars around the planet, King’s example of nonviolent resistance becomes more relevant than ever before.  In fact, as unrealistic as it may sound, I believe King’s principle of overcoming enemies with love is the only solution to the problems facing us today, both at home and abroad.

And today, even though segregation may be outlawed in this country, racism and prejudice still exists.  We have come a long way since the 1960s – but we still have a ways to go.

Let me give you a few examples…..did you know…
African Americans make up just 13.2% of the American population – yet they make up 40% of those in prisons.  Our country has the highest incarceration rate of ANY country in the world.  We imprison 2.3 million Americans – if you include Hispanics with African Americans the incarceration rate is a stunning 60%. The number one cause of death for African American males is homicide.  Missouri leads the nation in Black homicide rate – higher than any other state. That means if you’re black and you live in Missouri, you’re seven times more likely to be murdered than non-blacks.  That is a stunning statistic.  I’ll never forget working with an inmate from the South side of Chicago who told me that every adult male in his neighborhood was either dead or in prison.  I find that a very sad state of affairs and it must change.

As most of your know the national unemployment rate has steadily been going down these past few years and is currently at 5.6% but for our African American brothers & sisters the rate is nearly double at 11%.  Of all black fourth-graders, 59% are functionally illiterate.  In many cities the dropout rate for African American males is as high as 80%.

And I believe if Dr. King were alive today he would be advocating for the elimination of prejudice not only against people of color, but the elimination of prejudice against any group of people who are different, whether the group is different racially, ethnically, religiously or even sexually.

Today, there is the ugliness of prejudice against our brothers and sisters who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered – referred to as LGBT.  It is estimated there are 36,000 LGBT youth in K.C. and they are especially at risk.  83% of students who are, or perceived to be, LGBT report being verbally harassed.  64% report being sexually harassed.  21% report being physically assaulted.  And sadly, LGBT youth are estimated to comprise over 30% of all completed suicides.

After 9/11 in 2001 we saw the ugliness of prejudice against our Muslim brothers and sisters.  And it continues even today.

However, I sit before you today and tell you I am not prejudice-free.  And anyone who tells you they are, isn’t telling the truth.  Each of us is a work in progress and we need to admit to our prejudices and work on them.

Prejudice and discrimination are manifestations of negative emotions.  Instead of bringing or holding people together, prejudice and discrimination push them apart.

As you know the Buddhist concept of “bodhichitta” is the desire to alleviate the suffering of ALL beings without distinction.  We exclude no one.  In other words we accept all beings without judgment or prejudice.  This idea of not judging our brothers and sisters goes back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha.

The first step in developing this kind of open heartedness is in admitting you are not prejudice-free.  It is through the meditation practice that we can work to transform our negative emotions and to work to develop bodhichitta in our hearts and minds.

In 1964, upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dr. King said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

Every year on Dr. King’s birthday I read his famous letter written from the Birmingham jail.  I have never been able to finish that letter without crying.  This letter he wrote in response to the local clergy of Birmingham who were criticizing Dr. King for his bus boycott, saying it he was trying to affect change too soon and he should wait.

I’d like to read to you one of my favorite paragraphs from this letter that I feel is especially poignant…

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you know forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Dr. King has always been one of my heroes.  More than 30 years ago I was in Atlanta over a weekend on business and decided I wanted to visit and experience the church where King gave his sermons – the Ebenezer Baptist church.  I got up early and when arrived most of the pews were empty.  I sat about two-thirds of the way from the front – not wanting to be too conspicuous.  However, I was the only white face in the congregation that day and will never forget that experience.  Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, came in, sat in the pew directly in front of me.  The service was wonderful with beautiful music from the choir.  The minister introduced a member who had immigrated from South Africa.  At that time apartheid was being practiced.  As a result his wife was not able to leave and join him.  This church had worked for over a year to allow her to leave South Africa to join him in Atlanta.  Finally, they were successful and this was her first visit to the church that morning..  The minister asked her to join her husband at the front of the church.  As she arrived at pulpit the congregation started spontaneously singing “We Shall Overcome.”  I remember joining in the singing with tears streaming down my cheeks.

This song was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  Some believe this song was born in slavery.  It began as a field song, a work refrain that helped men and women in bondage endure from sunup to sundown. They would sing: “I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right.”

Like many songs that began in slavery, it had no one author and no standard version. It spread and changed with the seasons and generations and as slaves were sold from one to another.

Then one night in the winter of 1957, officers of the law burst into an all black school – not policemen really, just angry white men who’d been deputized by the local sheriff and given license to put a scare into the students of social change. They cut the power and forced the students to lie in the dark as they smashed furniture and ransacked the place in search of “Communist literature.”

And there on the floor, the trembling students began to sing the song.  Softy at first. Then louder.  One of the students was a 13-year-old girl named was Jamalia Jones.  She knew only one way to control her fear. In the darkness, she made up a new verse and she began to sing, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid….”

I would like to close with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King:

“We cannot truly be free until all human beings are free.  “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be totally rich……As long as people are afflicted with debilitating diseases, I can never be totally healthy…..I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”


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