“Lord, we pray for our guardians. Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.” The young girl prayed from her heart, just feet from the altar of the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s in Houston, Texas. Surrounded by her peers, they stood together at the front of the church praying for their parents on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend.
I did not know any of their parents, but I did know their pastors well enough to know that these children had some pretty good guardians looking out for them. Pastoring together for the past five years, the Rev. Justin Coleman and the Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz had brought together a community in that space that felt both delightfully organic and sadly uncommon.
Looking around me I saw a congregation dominated by the presence of youth and children with a diversity that was at once both intentional and natural. The congregation’s musician Dr. Shana Mashego led a worship party that morning that was unparalleled, with a worship team that seemed determined to stretch the global imagination with leaders from Bulgaria to Japan to the Ivory Coast.
By the time that Rev. Coleman got up and gave thanks for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, it was clear that in one corner of the world that man’s vision was truly taking on flesh.
Of all the eloquent words that that service contained, however, the ones that stayed with me the most remained those of that small girl who prayed for the adults at the outset, “Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.”
How true it is. There is a reason why Christ wanted us to have the faith of a child, but he also may have wished for us the strength, the wisdom, the courage, the love of a child.
When I was blessed to live at the Isaiah House, in Durham, North Carolina, I had the privilege of living with what may very well be the wisest children I have come across. They had been blessed with guardians and parents who had the strength to love with everything they had, and the courage to do the right thing even when it was hard.
The house was called the Isaiah House because the people who lived there were trying to live out Isaiah 58 as if they truly believed that it meant what it said. The passage says to bring the homeless poor into your home – so they brought the homeless poor into their home. It says to loose the bonds of injustice – so they worked against systems of oppression and injustice. It says to share your bread with the hungry – so they shared their bread with the hungry. And sometimes a smiling face showing up for dinner with a bakery cake received at the food bank revealed that the hungry shared their food with them as well. Their lives bore witness to the love of God better than words ever could.
One sunny day, I sat in the back yard with a young African American boy of about 6 years old, who had moved in when his grandmother was evicted, and a Caucasian baby, who had been born into the Isaiah House family that year. We sat in the hammock and swayed, as the young boy held the baby in his lap and played with his fingers and made him laugh. Sunlight fell in splotches through the leaves of the pecan tree overhead and warmed our faces as the peace of the moment warmed our hearts.
Finally the young boy turned to me and said, referring to the baby, “God loves him right?”
“Yes,” I said with a slight smile.
Then, after a pause, “And God loves me.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I love the baby.” Another pause. Then he concluded, “I think that’s what Martin Luther King was talking about.”
“I think you’re right,” I answered, putting my arm around him.
It was just that simple. He knew that because God loved this baby, he ought to love this baby. And because of what Dr. King had said and did, he knew that love carried with it life-changing social implications. They had shared a home, and shared meals, and shared prayers, and somewhere along the line, they had become family. As Isaiah 58 says, he did not want to hide himself from his own kin. It was just that simple.
It may not have been the red hills of Georgia, but his act of wisdom and love on the brown hills of South Carolina was enough to convince me that Dr. King would have been pleased to see his words taking on life.
Now, five years later, on the church steps of Texas, his words took on life for me again as I saw children that were becoming family; children that were claiming their strength and praying that strength upon their elders.
Often strength looks different than we would expect it to look. As Dr. King taught us, strength looks like hands gripping other hands in solidarity; strength does not look like hands gripping the trigger of a gun or the controls of a tank. Strength looks like a pregnant Alice Walker following Dr. King’s casket, heartbroken with all that followed him to the end; strength does not look like a vigilante following a teenager simply because of the color of their skin. Strength is as simple as a child’s love; not as complicated as the policies and arguments we make to avoid treating some people with love, compassion and justice.
Strength feels like the wood under your fingertips as you grip the edges of the table to keep yourself from leaving when the conversation gets hard; strength sounds like speaking up even when your voice shakes with fear; strength looks like offering your hand in friendship to the one who believes you are their enemy.
This Sunday, strength looked like an African American leader from Texas, and a Latina leader from Bolivia sharing the Table of the Lord – as they do every Sunday. Strength looked like the the salsa steps of the worship singers, and the smiles exchanged between the musicians gathered from every corner of the globe. Strength looked like rows of children from many different countries revealing that the kingdom of God has no borders. Strength looked like joy. Strength looked like love. After all that strength has gone through in this scarred land, it was good to see it get to celebrate the fruits of its labor.
For all the days when strength can look tired and beleaguered, it was good this Sunday that strength got to show how beautiful it is.