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Grace Under Pressure

Courage, as defined by the Profiles in Courage author John F. Kennedy, is “the most admirable of human virtues.” “Grace under pressure,” according to Ernest Hemingway. Courage requires action beyond comfort, an acknowledgement that even the most perfect among us can still be more perfect, that is to say never perfect. As contributors to the cause of service, courage expects us to reflect the world we hope for, which often looks like holding ourselves accountable. Here I hope to profile the courage in action that I witnessed, while joining Push Democracy Forward and clergy members from across the country ​​for a series of awareness-raising events in Washington DC.

With the Capitol building – the People’s House – and the Statue of Freedom atop its dome peaking through the trees in the distance, Reverend William J. Barber outlined the mission of the Poor People’s Campaign that day; a no photo ops, worker- and clergy-led community of marchers. The rest of us were witnesses–not there to stand idle, but to boldly support and surround that bottom-up leadership.

Rev. Barber reminded us that voting rights are not separate from worker’s rights, or any other issue, and that Donald Trump’s election and presidency were merely symptoms to pervasive systemic issues still plaguing us now. “The same folks who suppress your votes won’t fix your energy grid,” he warned. Voting is a fundamental right because it informs all other issues.

Later that day, I arrived at the restaurant The Park and 14th which is typically closed on Mondays. Yet on this day, it had deliberately opened its doors to the quorum-breaking Texas state legislators, along with local leaders from Texas and Luci Baines Johnson. Luci shared a story of her father, President Lyndon B. Johnson, taking life-saving medication before delivering his final address. Afterward, she’d asked him why he would show up to give that speech, knowing his doctor had cautioned he might die in the chamber if not for the medication. LBJ responded that if he had died in that chamber, he would have died doing the necessary work of democracy, and it would have been worth it. A true servant.

That night, Bishop James Dixon of Houston took to the pulpit, reflecting on the journey of the impossible sparking miraculous outcomes through faith, diligence, and a limited word from God. Regardless of your faith, or agnosticism, we can all look at history and confirm that the seemingly impossible mixed with the word of a chosen people doing good works – whether divinely chosen, or inalienably driven – brings about great creation. Think of the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement, to name just two examples.

Prior to the sermon, after just arriving at Allen Chapel AME Church, I met Ms. Pat. I’m not sure what drew me to her, standing just outside the sanctuary, but three minutes into our conversation we started talking about James Baldwin. She hosts a reading circle every year to discuss his writing. We discussed The Fire Next Time, one of my favorites. I hadn’t read it in a few years but, after returning to its pages I found this passage:

“I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do unto others what has been done to them. I think I know–we see it around us every day–the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” Grace under pressure.

The next day I took part in a press conference and march with Jesse Jackson, Bishop Dixon, Dr. Rev. Freddy Haynes, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and Congressman Al Green, along with a number of state legislators and faith leaders. I witnessed Rep. Green and State Rep. Ron Reynolds get arrested for civil disobedience as we sang, “We Shall Overcome”. I walked with dozens of protesters to Congresswoman Cori Bush’s sit out at the Capitol, and witnessed her tears as she recalled the hardest moment in her Congressional race, after two months of reflection in which she decided she was going to drop out, and how a 5-minute clip of a Rev. Haynes sermon convinced her to continue on in that race–a race she ultimately won.

After the march, as I walked along the side of the Capitol I overheard a father point out to his children, all clad in masks, where the insurrectionists had broken into the building just months earlier. Words that I had told friends so many times over, “we’re living in unprecedented times,” settled into me with greater awareness and fortitude.

Impossible is the threshold that must be crossed before monumental change can take place. We are prophetic witnesses to these unprecedented times, but they are our moments to seize. Our system’s fractures and flaws are self-evident, but now we must rebuild.

To be young, gifted, Black, and optimistic in times like these feels like a radical act, but a necessary one. We need confidence in our future, even as we journey through the darkness in search of dawn. We are at the precipice of the impossible, but I have heard and witnessed that this is the point where all becomes possible. We’ve seen the power of our Texas state legislators moving federal legislation forward while in DC. We know that 70% of the population growth in Texas over the last decade – growth that gained our state two more congressional seats – has come from communities of color, and that heightened political power must be accurately reflected in the redrawing of our districts.

We shall overcome is not a passive psalm. To overcome is to prevail, overpower, or succeed in dealing with a difficulty. “We” does not imply overcoming alone, but together, which means with those inherently unlike us. The mission of creating a more perfect union is to acknowledge that we will never be perfect, that our charge is simply to progress further, and with that charge comes the courage to gracefully proceed towards the impossible.

Why do we do this work? Because we must.

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