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Predisposed to Dream

I had just turned thirteen in August, 1963, a young boy enjoying summer vacation before heading back to junior high.  Sitting in the house watching the March on Washington on our little black and white TV doesn’t sound like an appealing way to occupy one of the waning afternoons of a lazy summer spent on my bike and at the baseball field or the beach.  But memory suggests that’s what I did.  I don’t know how much of the event I watched, but I do remember “the speech,” and recalled even then being stirred by Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric and the evocative imagery of the dream. 

I grew up comfortably in a middle class, white suburb along the prosperous “Gold Coast” of Connecticut northeast of New York City.  I was not exposed to the harsh realities of racism in any significant or intimate way.  Racial injustice certainly did not impinge upon my happy life, or threaten the seemingly limitless possibilities that the future held for me and my classmates.  So what predisposed me, in junior high, to dream with Dr. King?

Part of the answer must be that my parents prepared us toward a predisposition to dream.  Mom and Dad were both deeply affected by the Great Depression and to the realities of economic hardship.  In spite of that they both achieved a college education, and in my father’s case, graduate degrees.  Neither one of them had significant exposure to African Americans’ lives and struggles.  Save for a deep sense of fairness and decency, and a strong resistance to bigotry and prejudice of any kind whether it be aimed at African Americans, Catholics, or Jews, little in their lives would suggest a strong commitment to Civil Rights.  And yet, the TV was on that day, tuned to the March, and I was no doubt encouraged to watch.

I never did have a conversation with my parents about this, but I suspect if I had they would have said that it was largely the church that shaped their views around race.  Steeped in the faith and piety of liberal New England Congregationalism, they were attuned by the legacy of the Second Great Awakening and, later, the Social Gospel to a benevolence in their sympathies and a generosity of spirit toward “the least of these.”  They never took me to a protest march or participated in a demonstration.  But it was clear that they honored and respected those who did.  They predisposed me to dream. 

Each month the United Church Herald, the news magazine of our new denomination formed in 1957, arrived in our home.  Undoubtedly the August issue that had arrived a few weeks before King’s speech carried news of the General Synod in early July, and of the speech by the President of the United Church of Christ, Ben Herbster.  On the opening night Herbster took an unusual step, calling on the Synod to set aside its agenda to focus on “the present racial crisis.”  In that speech Herbster placed the moral weight of the church, and its programmatic and financial resources, firmly behind the civil rights movement. 

"Amid happenings that are at once both ominous and pregnant with potential for good, I make bold to ask for the special privilege of setting aside the ordinary business of this General Synod in order that we can face the present crisis in our country and in our churches, and agree on action that cries out to God to be undertaken.  Few times in our lives have we faced a greater responsibility that we face now.  I believe we dare undertake nothing else until we have acted with faith, courage, and vision and I trust with unanimity, in terms of the need of the hour.  The situation present across America, the way in which in our society our Negro brethren are treated, economically, politically, and socially, constitute a blight from which we must be saved.  The blight must be eradicated, and eradicated now. . . .  All of us stand condemned before the bar of Christian judgment.  The issues at stake are not only moral and ethical, but they have their unmistakable implication for us as followers of Jesus Christ.  We shall betray our Lord if we take no action now."

Herbster went on to lay out an aggressive agenda in which the church’s money, and the programs of its mission agencies, would be brought to bear on the present crisis.  And he challenged every local church to do the same.

 I don’t recall hearing my parents discussing Herbster’s speech or the Synod.  But given the enthusiasm in our household for the new denomination, and the socially engaged culture of our local church, it is inconceivable to me that they weren’t touched and challenged in some way by President Herbster’s words and by the Synod’s call to action.  Certainly it would have been well received, and it’s not hard to imagine that their church’s commitments had something to do with the fact that the TV was tuned into the March on Washington just a few weeks later.

Leadership, or parenting for that matter, can’t impose commitments and passions, but it can dispose others toward receptivity.  We rightly commemorate King’s speech this week.  His rhetoric, combined with his personal witness and the courage of countless colleagues, was a flame ready to ignite the dreams of a nation.  But may we also remember the words of leaders like Ben Herbster delivered earlier that same summer, words that shaped a generation in the United Church of Christ.  And let us remember as well people like my parents, unknown and unsung, who formed in me and so many others a predisposition to dream. 

John H. Thomas
August 29, 2013

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