I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing—That it was all started by a mouse
Song of the Day:
“You Know My Name,” Tasha Cobb
I grew up in Southern California during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War era. I was in elementary school when the draft began for that war, and in high school when it ended and the world transitioned to recovery, while civil rights made only incremental steps. I’m a beneficiary of both attempts at peace. The casualties of lost battles continue to be worth remembering. My perspective was influenced by images on the national news, in Life, Ebony, and Jet magazines—the taped and printed chronicling of war and other peoples’ pain, Twiggy, Black power, afros, and dashikis.
Robust conversations took place at breakfast and dinner, with my parents, my four siblings, and I seated around the dining room table, and then more intense conversations at my grandmother’s house during Saturday dinner, Sunday breakfast, and lunch following church, with a few friends or fellow church members attending. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at our church, Friendship Baptist, in Pasadena. I looked at my father, holding my little sister up so she could see. The resemblance of the man everyone was making a lot of fuss over to my father was uncanny (all this excitement for a man who resembled my dad!). Dr. King’s visit is forever etched in my mind and his words influence my actions to this day.
Those years sitting in the church pew will stay with me forever—staring at the light filtering through the stained-glass windows, changing with the seasons, shining through my favorite window, the dove coming down when Jesus was baptized. All of us dressed in our Sunday best, the women with dead fox stoles looped around their necks, shawls with heads and beady marble eyes staring straight at me. Scared to death, I buried my nose in my grandmother’s armpit when one of those women sat next to me. Listening to sermons about the power of love and demonstrating that love through civil action. Those times spent in worship, the heated conversations around the dining room table, and glued to the TV to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News shaped my formative years. This time of unrest, despair, and hope showed me the necessity of sensitivity and brought a deeper awareness of the power of prayer.
The prayer part had been instilled in me at a much younger age. Each night, wearing my baby doll pajamas, I’d clutch my Dalmatian puppy and kneel with my then four siblings for bedtime prayer. We began with “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” then concluding with “God bless all the people who are calling out to You. . . .” We prayed for the families of those who were fighting in the war, that their boys would come home, for my mom and dad’s co-worker going through a difficult time, and for people called “missionaries” in other parts of the world. We prayed for God’s presence, provisions for others, and kindness. We prayed for those we knew, people in other parts of the world, and family members we’d yet to meet. We’d close by naming each member of our immediate family.
My first memorable personal experience with the power of prayer was when we prayed to the Lord to stop the rain so we could go to a magical place called Disneyland the next day. We woke as excited as though it were Christmas morning. Filled with enthusiastic childlike expectation, we opened the wide-slatted, putty-colored venetian blinds (the window covering that morphed into mini blinds) to sunshine. We heard the sweet chirping of birds and my parents saying, “Pray and say, ‘Thank You, Lord.’ You guys get dressed; we’re going to Disneyland!” Then we dropped to our knees to praise God and thank him for his faithfulness.
The power of this feeling, these types of spiritual moments, fused with the fight for civil rights and the conversations around the movement, both within the privacy of our home and within the community, all stressing the importance of civil engagement, framed my childhood. These spiritual and worldly influences that went beyond ourselves and our home, along with the love, laughter, and safety I grew up in, shaped who I am. It was during those times of civil engagement that I was introduced to the Peace Corps, and I began to think more about people in a world beyond the one I knew. I never mentioned my dreams of going into the Peace Corps to anyone but my grandmother, whose words “Don’t stop seeing and believing” breathed life into me. I was a shy child, so shy that while my grandmother and I were extremely close, and she saw me more clearly than my own mother, she would introduce my siblings and me out of our birth order: “This is my oldest grandson, Allen,” she’d say, skip me, point to my middle sister, “Barbara,” younger sister, “Joice,” youngest brother, “Bill,” and then come back and introduce me as, “Oh. and this one, that’s Timid.” My grandmother could create magical moments with her colorful storytelling that empowered the quiet, observant, shy child I was to see and hear beyond the obvious. I learned to listen to myself and others. Most certainly, I learned to listen to the voice of God.
Because of the personality type I was born with—quiet, introverted, sensitive, and observant—I was able to see and hear what others would miss, including the voice of God. I heard Him not in a Hollywood flamboyant way, but in a quiet way I regarded as sacred, personal, and real. When others would feel sad, I could speak words of comfort and encouragement without them having opened their mouth to speak of their need. I would also hear the voice of direction with such clarity that I would have us change course on projects, highways and life decisions for no apparent reason only to learn later that we would wind up in the right place at just the right time.
My grandmother recognized that I heard Him and said, “The Lord will use that gift in you. Don’t be afraid.” Her words, her love, her life of listening and responding had brought her from the cottonfields of segregated Arkansas to the laundry rooms of segregated California in the early 1940s. As I watched her quietly love those in need, I felt I was witnessing a sacred act, one shared between the two of us. I’m sure my siblings witnessed the same expressions of her love, but some things are never spoken of, just acted upon and left at that.
Every day I saw how the acts of kindness grew out of our home environment, relationships, and atmosphere of love, and how easy it was to extend these acts of kindness to others. Her loving acts of kindness showed in how she touched other people’s lives, hugged people, took food to people who were sick or hungry. I have so many warm memories of being with my grandmother—standing her side, getting my face covered in flour as she rolled out biscuits. Imitating her way of tying her apron strings as she prepared to cook the food and set the table in the same manner for everyone who sat down to eat at her table, including the sporadic appearance of the only homeless man in northeast Pasadena, known by everyone as “Scatman,” who’d stop by for a visit, a meal, and to drop of his laundry, which she’d do for him. In my silence, I marveled that a man who looked half out of his mind, mumbling words that were incoherent to me but that my grandmother could understand. Scatman would know that the word on the street was that he was among the many who could come to Aunt Bea’s home for a hot meal and kind words. When he left, Scatman would thank her over and over again, at the door, and as he walked off. “Thank you, Aunt Bea,” he’d mumbled as he walked down the sidewalk. “Thank you, Aunt Bea. (She was known as “Aunt Sister Girl” to family and “Aunt Bea” to those who needed a family.)
My grandmother sang while folding laundry in homes of those who weren’t very appreciative of her, blessing their homes while humming and singing, always so tenderly respectful of their things. I learned watching her whisper kinds words as prayers while cleaning and polishing the homes of unappreciative “White Folks” she would make Christmas desserts for because “It’s easier to catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” She would add, “Hurt people, hurt people. We help them feel better and hope they will do the same for others.”
Her words and actions affirmed that there was something inside me that was capable of doing so much more than I might see around me in others, that I was strong even though I was timid. I didn’t have to be the loudest, the best, the model in the magazine. I just needed to be me. From her I learned that there’s a way to show up and care and love and demonstrate, no matter what you’ve been through, are going through, where you live—we don’t need permission to show up and love people. These are the random acts you don’t speak of. You just do them.
Because she was a domestic worker, most people assumed that she had little money, and through things they said and did, condescended to her. She didn’t pay any attention to them. When I was twelve, we were cleaning a doctor’s apartment. I never understood how this woman, who was dedicated to healing, could be so hurtful to others. One day I was looking at old passports she had on display. She saw me and said, “Those are from my travels around the world. It’s too bad you can’t do something and like that, and that you never will.” Then she walked out of the room. My grandmother came right to me, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t pay her no never mind,” the equivalent of saying “just ignore her” or as her great-granddaughter would later say, “You do you, and I’ll do me.”
Just by being who she was, she created moments that trained my eyes to see what others might miss and to listen closely to the hearts of others by paying attention to what wasn’t always being spoken. I would experience an order to my life that would put me in the right places at the right time. As I grew, the more I longed to experience and share the love of God and watch the multiple ways it was expressed through others. I carried this curiosity and this desire to do two things in particular from a very early age: One of them was to join the Peace Corps and the other was, eventually, to become an exchange student living abroad. The adventure of living abroad begins with an adventure within you.
I encourage you to be on the lookout for the opportunities to observe and create one random act of kindness. Then take a step of action. In so doing, you open both your heart and fine-tune your ears to hear what others cannot in their busyness. Be comfortable with who you are and how life orders your steps. Today, reflect on the areas that you may have been falsely believing to be weakness, those “If I were just more like (fill in the blank)” words you may have told yourself or been told by others. Today, love who you are. One condition, if the words are honestly geared toward make you a better person, then welcome them into your life and see what better paths await you as you exchange one behavior for another, one turn for another.