Civil rights leader C.T. Vivian recently spoke at a peace and justice gathering in Detroit. He recalled the struggles of the civil rights era. He said they were successful because justice seekers supported each other as they coalesced around a common agenda. People of good will shared their lives and worked together to eliminate causes of inequality.
His message was clear: The world is watching to see if we are who we say we are. We can’t afford to let racism and injustice run rampant to protect the economic prosperity of a few. We must unite and support each other as we dismantle injustice.
We witnessed frontal assaults on people in the margins in 2013. Actions from governmental bodies eroded perceived entitlements. Though many said they did not agree with the actions, there was tacit approval. Some communities closed ranks against those who threaten their way of life.
Several years ago, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a talk in which she warned about the danger of living with a single life story. Many people live only with their own story, refusing to hear others. Their story becomes the norm that is used to judge others.
This narrowness of perception clouds our understanding of each other. It creates boundaries. As a result, many people remain silent about adverse decisions that affect others.
If we are justice seekers, we struggle with our story. When we work for justice, our story complements the others and generates a new, unbiased, life-giving story. Encouragement, support and mutual accountability are critical for the new story to emerge.
Over the summer I phoned an individual in a community noted for its racist attitudes. This young white woman asked if I was African-American. After confirming that I was, we began to share our life stories.
She shared her struggles to overcome her racist and classist tendencies. Her family and community had conditioned her response. I told her of my experiences growing up in a poor, segregated community. That experience motivated me to examine my attitudes. We discovered that even though our life stories differed, we both desired a justice-oriented community.
I met the woman later at a peace and justice meeting. She had joined a multiracial group focused on racial and economic justice. She discovered that others struggled with their life stories of exclusion. They found common ground together.
Each story ignited passion for equality and justice. With group support, she began subtly urging people in her community to examine their biased behaviors. She said, “I needed a push and support to do what I know is right.”
The young woman discovered her story resonated with others. She wanted to work for justice but needed to connect with other peoples’ life stories for encouragement and support. She discovered a family of justice seekers and began to make a difference.
Our communities are in crisis. The same passion for justice that existed during the civil rights movement no longer exists.
We need to rekindle that passion. We need to let our stories unite us. We need to discover ways to support each other. Our combined stories must give shape to our justice work.
Will you let your story fuel a passion for justice? Marginalized people are waiting.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has completed his service as mission advocate and antiracism coordinator for Mennonite Mission Network.