One of the great gifts of serving a congregation is the opportunity to hear people's stories. Because I am, "a minister," people share things with me -- often things that are very personal, and very profound.
One of our members, Jan Bernhard, has, from time to time, shared with me some of her writings. She doesn't refer to them as "memoirs." To her they are stories. To me they are among the loveliest of sermons (if sermons touch your heart and open you to seeing the world in new ways.)
Last August, in response to a blog post I'd written about the Black Lives Matter movement, Jan shared with me something she'd just finished writing that seemed apropos. I was moved. In thinking about the upcoming congregational vote this Sunday on whether or not to affirm and endorse the public witness statement "In Support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Racial Justice," her story came to mind again. It seems appropriate for this to be The Talk of TJMC.
It was about 8:30 PM on the night of April 4, 1968. I was attending an evening class at Howard University, a largely black institution in a predominately black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. I was studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work. About half way through the lecture, I began to hear an initially soft, but then progressively louder and more ominous rumbling of disturbance coming from the back of the large hall in which we were gathered. People had begun talking, and there was a note of anger and panic as students, now out of their chairs, clustered around a young man who had brought a short wave radio to class. Suddenly someone cried out, “Martin Luther King has been shot!” The class erupted in confusion, fear and rage and students began streaming out every available exit. I realized I had to get out quickly and get to my car which was parked some distance away.
Crowds were forming everywhere and milling about in the streets. I was concerned because I had to drive all the way across the District of Columbia to reach the safety of my peaceful suburb in Bethesda, Maryland. I rolled my car windows up and locked the doors as the radio reported fires set, buildings aflame, and stores looted. I was afraid that the angry crowds, seeing a white woman alone at night, might begin to pound on or climb on and rock my car.
None of this happened, and despite the chaos in the streets, I arrived home safely. The next morning, a photo, covering half the front page of the Washington Post, assaulted my eyes with the unbelievable sight of helmeted troops, rifles at the ready, massed on the steps of the United States Capitol, - a show of force to maintain an uneasy peace.
We had moved to Washington, DC in 1954, after Berl had graduated from Yale Law School. From the beginning, he was closely involved with civil rights issues, and as a result, I began to meet some of the leaders of this growing movement.
Among these, in those early days, were our friends, lawyer Harris Wofford and his wife Claire. One night, Harris, who later became President of Bryn Mawr, invited us to his Chevy Chase home for a relaxed and intimate meal. He wanted us to meet a friend of his. There, across a small table, sat a young black man who, with Harris’s encouragement, had recently returned from India and a visit with Mahatma Gandhi. Harris had felt it was important that his friend meet Gandhi in person, as Harris had already done, in order to learn, first hand, the principles of “satyagraha,” or passive, non-violent resistance. Harris believed that his friend should learn from the Master how to lead, using passive resistance as a guiding principle, in the cause that they both foresaw as the coming, massive Civil Rights Movement. As I sat across the table from this polite young man, while he spoke quietly of his meeting with Gandhi, there was something about his presence and bearing, and the relaxed yet clear intentionality of his manner, that caused me to take particular note of him, and to file away in a special corner of my mind this ostensibly casual meeting. His name, which meant nothing to me at the time, was Martin Luther King, Jr.
The next and last time I saw this now more confident and mature young man was a number of years later, on August 28, 1963. Berl had by then been appointed by John F. Kennedy as Staff Director of the new Civil Rights Commission. On that hot August day, together with thousands, we walked down Constitution Avenue as part of the peaceful March on Washington. We stood together on The Mall in the broiling summer sun, part of the enormous, yet quiet and respectful crowd, as, from the podium, this same man eloquently told us that he “had a Dream.” Little did we dream that just a few years later, Martin Luther King, too, would be assassinated, as was his non-violent model and mentor, Gandhi. And as I anxiously drove back home from Howard University, through the agitated crowds on the night of his death, I reflected with sorrow and wonder on that initial, uncanny impression this unknown young man had made on me, years ago, in the home of a friend.
There was to be another young black man who would make an equally lasting and even more personal impression on me as well. He was a classmate of mine at Howard. Sadly, I did not then, and do not now, know his name. I thus have no way to thank him for the brief, spontaneous gesture of simple loving-kindness that he made to me,- a gesture I have never forgotten over the more than forty-five intervening years.
My road to Howard was indirect. In my mid-thirties, as Peter turned ten, Robin eight, and Andy at six was just old enough to stay in school until the middle of the afternoon, I began to make plans to get my Master’s Degree in Social Work. My mother’s little sister, my special Auntie Margie, who had read me Greek Myths instead of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, had persevered despite her handicap of a severely malformed spine, and become our family’s first social worker. She had then chosen to work with the “drunken bums’” who congregated and lived underneath the elevated train trestle in New York’s tough “Bowery” district. Reportedly she was able to walk there alone, unharmed, respected, and even welcomed. I admired as well as loved her, and I think there was always the thought in the back of my mind, that one day I would become a social worker, too. I thought that maybe now was the time.
However Life had other plans for me, and a short while later I discovered I was pregnant. I revised my previous blueprint for where my life was going, and decided that, with four children, I would be a full time mother for the foreseeable future!
But little David, who looked just like Peter and Andy, was born on September 1st. 1965, with a life-threatening anomaly. His esophagus opened into his trachea, or windpipe, instead of into his stomach. This meant that food went directly from his esophagus into his lungs, causing him to choke. He could not live with this condition. Corrective surgery was attempted at Children’s Hospital in D.C., but he did not survive it. The surgeon called me at 12:30 a.m. to tell me he hadn’t made it and to ask for permission to autopsy, which I gave. He had died on September 5th, 1965, when he was just four days old.
I spent the next year recovering from my grief, picking up the threads, and planning my life anew. In the fall of 1966 I attended my first class at Howard University School of Social Work. I was then 36 years old. There was a sprinkling of other white students in that class of about seventy-five, but not many, and I was concerned about being perceived as the “rich, white bitch from the suburbs.” I tried to keep a low profile, and for the duration of my time at Howard, I put away my engagement and guard rings. Though fairly modest, I felt they might serve as indication of my privileged economic status in comparison with most of my classmates. I wore only my wedding band for the next four years.
As one of the two schools in the area offering the Master’s Degree in Social Work, I chose Howard over Catholic University because, as a predominantly black institution, Howard seemed to be more attuned to the needs of working parents. Accordingly, Howard’s students were allowed up to four years to complete what was essentially a two year program. At that time, Catholic did not offer this alternative.
Though my life was full, I could by no means be considered a ‘working parent’, as I was not employed outside the home. We had a spacious house in Bethesda, Md., and my three young children were all in school. Nevertheless, I took this back-to-school step with considerable trepidation. My live-wire, professionally and politically active husband had a demanding law practice in the District of Columbia which involved late nights and frequent out of town or out of country trips. Always active in civil rights, one of his longer trips was an extended “Goodwill Tour” of Africa, with soon-to-become Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.
And when he was home, there was considerable, supportive social and political entertaining to be done on my part. Producing a seemingly effortless series of cocktail and dinner parties was, at that time, routinely expected of any good Washington wife. However, this was not really my cup of tea. I recall once anxiously standing by my open front door, fearful that I would not remember the names of the well over one hundred cocktail party guests that I was then expected graciously to introduce to all assembled. Given these continuing expectations, I was concerned about being able to complete a demanding program requiring the usual academic courses, papers and reports, plus all the additional, essential, hands on “field work,” even being given four years to do so!
As it turned out, I eventually took a step then unprecedented in our family, and for the last two, most intensive years at Howard, I hired a live-in “nanny,” to cook, clean and watch over my children when I needed to be in classes or out in the community doing field work. I did not advertise this luxury to my classmates.
Despite this external support, I found my years at Howard very challenging. To my knowledge none of my fellow students enjoyed as many privileges as I did. As a graduate program in a big city, the School of Social Work drew students from a wide age range, not just recent college graduates, as well as students from across the economic spectrum. Many, if not most, also held paying jobs, all the while going to the same classes, writing the same papers and doing the same kind of hands on work in hospitals and other community organizations as I did. Many were also parents themselves, single parents, or caregivers for their own extended families. I don’t know how they did it, and they did it by and large gracefully, with good humor, and without obvious complaint. Though I’m sure they were well aware of it, I tried hard not to draw attention to the economic gulf that I felt probably lay between me and many, if not most, of my classmates.
Throughout the next four years my relationships with my classmates were friendly but not really intimate. This was partly because the minute classes were over I felt I needed to return as quickly as possible to my home and my family responsibilities. But as far as I could tell, this was also true of just about everyone else. They all seemed, like me, to have other pressing responsibilities that needed attention. Nobody seemed to be hanging around after school fraternizing, and there didn’t seem to be a great deal of partying or extra-curricular social life. My classmates, both men and women, seemed to have other fish to fry, and I respected and admired the way they juggled their priorities, and the effort they expended to do so.
In the final semester of the year of my graduation,1970, the School of Social Work introduced a new conceptual framework, - that of systems theory. This approach was intended to underlie the entire academic program, and tie together in a dynamic and interdependent whole, the previously disparately conceived areas of individual casework, group work, and community organization. Traditionally, one had chosen to specialize in one of these three areas; I had chosen casework. .
Using systems theory, however, the social worker, while still specializing, could be trained to function effectively in all three areas. A graduate was thus prepared to work with individuals, groups, or community organizations, instead of being more narrowly defined and identified with a single discipline alone.
As a graduate of one of the leading women’s colleges in the country, and having majored in sociology, systems theory and its concepts were familiar to me. Not so to the majority of my classmates, who were initially flummoxed by what was to many of them a completely new approach to their future work.
At the end of our final semester, and as a prerequisite for our upcoming graduation, we were assigned a major term paper using systems theory, with examples to be taken from our own field work. This important assignment was designed to demonstrate our competency in all three areas of professional endeavor, using this new and more comprehensive approach.
It was obvious that this final paper caused considerable consternation among my class mates as they struggled to complete and turn in this assignment. Then one day, shortly before graduation, the professor announced that she would read, to my entire casework class, a term paper which she described as “the perfect model of the systems theory approach.” To my great dismay she identified the author. The paper was mine.
I don’t really remember much of what happened after that, except that, embarrassed at being singled out in this way, I wanted to leave as quickly as possible after the class was over! I do remember though, that a particular young black man with an open, friendly face, relaxed manner, and smiling eyes was there. He was probably in his early thirties, and had been in my casework class all year. We didn’t really know each other, though we had recently begun to have some quite pleasant conversational exchanges after class. I remember especially wishing that he, in particular, had not been there! I did not know his name, but now, he knew mine.
Shortly after this, on May 4th, 1970, the country was electrified by what came to be known as “The Kent State Massacre.” While peacefully protesting the Viet Nam and Cambodian Wars along with hundreds of their classmates, four Kent State College students were gunned down and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. In that initial spray of bullets nine others were injured and one permanently paralyzed. Resultant outrage swept the country and four million college students across the nation went on strike. Many administrative offices were stormed and functionally disabled by students in largely non-violent sit-ins. Hundreds of colleges and universities were closed. Eventually, the nationwide student movement came to represent unrest and grievances that went far beyond the initial protest at Kent State, and to the best of my recollection, the administrative offices at Howard were temporarily occupied.
What I do remember quite clearly, however, and in fact what I will never forget, is what happened when the day at last came for final exams at the School of Social Work. Many students from across the campus, as well as from the School of Social Work itself, peacefully picketed this event by lying on the ground to form a human chain of prone bodies that circled the entire Social Work building. Students coming to take their exams then had to make the decision about whether to honor the picketers and their basically liberal causes (with which I largely agreed), or step over them to take their final exam. What hung in the balance was: no exam, no graduation, no diploma.
I just couldn’t do it. I just could not risk giving up what I had spent four years working for: my Master’s Degree in Social Work. But, as with great trepidation I prepared to cross the line, I looked down in disbelief and chagrin. The body I was about to step over, and was, in fact, stepping over, was that of my friend, the young man with the open face and smiling eyes who had heard my final paper read to the entire Casework class. He was lying on his side. Our eyes met and locked, as I stepped hesitantly and awkwardly over his hip. His eyes that day were non-committal; I could not read them. I don’t know what message my own eyes sent as I violated the picket line of his body, but I know that my heart was saying, “Please forgive me.”
About two weeks later Graduation Day dawned hot and sunny, - a typical Washington summer day. I don’t really remember the outdoor ceremony, but I do remember standing around on the lawn afterward with my family, not knowing quite what to do. Then I saw someone making his way toward us, threading his way through the milling crowd toward the suburban housewife standing there with her husband and three children. It was my friend of no name over whose prone body I had so recently stepped. He made his way toward us, smiling. When he reached us he opened his arms to me and enfolded me in a strong embrace, saying firmly into my ear, “Congratulations!” Before I could recover he moved away and was lost in the crowd.
I was dumbfounded. I am still dumbfounded. From where in his heart did he find the amazing grace that impelled him to make that unforgettable gesture of forgiveness and pure loving-kindness?
Where is he now, my friend, as I write of him? How many times have I wished I could thank him? What he doesn’t know is that he crafted the legacy of my years at Howard: the endearing, enduring legacy of that hug, so freely given, and so long remembered.
Jan Bernhard, August, 2015