Postcard from Little Rock with famous stairs from segregation to inclusion

A visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, a National Historic Site? Done! Ever since watching the documentary “Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement” and learning more about the Little Rock Nine and the events in 1957, I wanted to see this site of former social and political struggle. (I call these my “pilgrimages” to meet God and fellow human beings in a deeply challenging way.) Using religious and biblical language, this place has an aura of holiness where I want to take off my shoes like Moses in front of the burning bush.

Absolutely gorgeous and majestic building! If I did not know that it is a high school, I would think it is a big, old university or government building. Like the beautiful state capitol buildings all around the USA. To me, it looks even more majestic because of its troubled history.

To quote a History Channel website, “The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.”

As we know, history is not just about facts. (Those you can learn by simply searching for  ‘Little Rock Nine‘). It is about the truth that it stands for and the mirror it holds out to us. We can judge the past generations, but they always push back with a rhetorical question –  what would you have done? I looked at those beautiful stairways and the large platform at the LR Central High School and though to myself, “What a stage! What a platform for the whole world to see!” Much of the Western world did watch the ugly face of blatant racism on full display.

And then I think about all the other schools and institutions around the world, past and present, which are not under such a spotlight but ,nonetheless, struggle with the same issues. ‘Us’ and ‘them’. ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Those who ‘belong and deserve’ and those who ‘don’t belong and don’t deserve’.  Separating people by race, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, etc. Little Rock Central High School could be anywhere and, in some ways, it is everywhere.

Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America… all parts of the world. Ask the Rohingya in Burma, ask tribal people or anyone with dark skin in Thailand, ask Aboriginal Australians, ask the Gypsies in Latvia and other European countries, ask the Sudanese in Egypt… I think of all the conversations I have had with friends who have experienced different forms of racial prejudice.

Racism comes in many shades of attitudes and forms. I never knew I could think as racist and speak as racist until I found out that I could. And I am very grateful for dear friends who called it out! I have been blindsided many times. Just like many of us who don’t think about “racism” because we think we can choose not to think about it.

The neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School is another powerful visual reminder that the struggle for our common human dignity is continuing. The neighborhood is an obvious “hood”. For me as a visitor, it looks like a Hollywood movie about gang-ruled, run-down, trashy, poor neighborhood, but unfortunately this is not a movie set. I drove around thinking how I would not want to live here, how I do not even want to park my friend’s  car anywhere and how out of the place the beautiful historic high school building looks. It is very easy to imagine that, back in 1957, this was a mostly white (or maybe all white) neighborhood. Now the residents are mostly black. Obviously at some point the demographics were completely switched. Even as the high school was becoming integrated.

I saw many white high school students coming out of the buildings, but they did not walk very far. Getting into their cars, parked right in front of the school and school buses and driving away. To some, surely, nicer, newer and much safer neighborhoods. The contrast between the two realities  – the school and the neighborhood – could not be any starker.

This short pilgrimage to Little Rock Central High School grounds reminded me that of us, not just Americans, are on a continuous journey. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There are many more beautiful, but difficult stairways to climb.

 

The lessons of humble courage from my long-time hero

How to respond when people make statements about the Church being full of hypocrites? My favorite answer was given by Shane Claiborne, a hero of mine, who said: “No, the Church is not full of hypocrites. Not yet! There is room for more!”

It makes me laugh out loud but also touches something deeper and more profound than a good sense of irony. It speaks to our imperfect humanity and shared vanity. All of us are hypocrites in one sense or another. In or outside of religious communities. With or without any religious beliefs. We often don’t practice what we preach. Still, as a long-time practicing hypocrite I would rather be in the company of others who recognize it in ourselves and desire to follow a better way. The way of humility which for me is the way of Jesus Christ!

I finally got to meet and hear Shane Claiborne in person. He is a best-selling author, speaker and founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia.  Mainly known for activism inspired by his Christian faith, advocating for the homeless, nonviolence,  to end the death penalty and being involved in other social causes. His latest book “Beating guns” (2019) focuses on ways to stop gun violence. I have read Shane Claiborne’s books, ” The Irresistible Revolution”, ” Jesus For President”, agreed with many of the stances and followed his public activities for some years now. Needless to say, I got very excited to see him listed as one of the speakers at Justice, Mercy and Humility conference @  AudioFeed Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Audiofeed Festival is an Arts and Music community whose goal is “To create an environment where unconditional love is nurtured, encouraged, and shared without regard for appearance, religious belief, race, societal status, or any other thing that separates us from each other in the world at large. We believe that the perfect example of that Love was expressed through Jesus Christ and we do our best in fitful and imperfect ways to follow His example. Exploration, questioning, doubts, fears, hopes, joys… all are welcomed and encouraged. Ultimately we’re people who want to support each other and experience great music and art with others who feel the same way.”

I can truly say that it is a space and an event where the atmosphere of community, authenticity and inclusion is palpable. From organizers, volunteers, artists to the audience. Lots of it can be explained as inheriting of values and philosophy of Cornerstone Festival (1984-2012). (If you never had the chance to attend Cornerstone Festival in Illinois, USA, I will not even attempt to describe it. I can only recommend watching the documentary, dedicated to its 20th anniversary.)

Creative authenticity and humble courage are qualities the world needs. ” Entitlement is the opposite of humility”, one of the statements from Shane Claiborne that has really stuck with me. Often we talk about pride as the opposite of humility but entitlement is something that points to the deeper root of pride in our hearts. The way of Jesus turns the notion of entitlement on its head! “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

I apologize if this too much Christian and Bible talk for some, but these simple truths get twisted and misrepresented so easily. This is the reason why I enjoy being in company of people who acknowledge that we are all imperfect hypocrites, together on the journey of faith.

P.S. AudioFeed Festival is not Cornerstone, but it is close as it gets. Highly recommend it!!!