Archive for the 'Freedom Rides' Category

THE NEXT STEP/ACT OF FAITH

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”—Hebrews 11:1-2 MSG

I’ve just discovered ancestors I had no idea existed. No, I haven’t been on Ancestry.com.  I read about George Houser who died last week at 99. He was identified as the last surviving member of the first Freedom Ride. I expected to learn about his participation in those integrated bus rides through the south that began in 1961 to test the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton vs. Virginia which had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.

George Houser didn’t ride one of those buses in the early ‘60’s. He rode the very first bus—in 1947. He and fifteen other men (eight white, eight black) took a bus trip through the south to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Irene Morgan vs. Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1944 Irene Morgan was returning to her home in Baltimore after visiting her mother in Virginia. When the driver asked her to give up her front-of-the-Greyhound seat, she refused—eleven years before Rosa Parks! The police were called. Mrs. Morgan was cited and fined. She appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1946 the court held that segregation in interstate commerce was unconstitutional. Southern states mostly ignored the ruling.

George Houser and some other early civil rights activists set out to test (expose?) the strength of the Court’s ruling. In April 1947, they set out on a journey they called the “Journey of Reconciliation”. Their bus trip wound through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Black men sat in the front of the bus, and whites in the back. They all violated equally the (now unconstitutional!) segregated seating laws. When one of them was asked to move, he would explain calmly to the driver and/or the police, “As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court.” Sometimes they found support for their position. Other times they were arrested, jailed, and sometimes beaten. In North Carolina black riders Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson were arrested and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang for violating the state’s segregation laws–which the Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional! Many consider that “Journey of Reconciliation” the very first Freedom Ride.

But the Journey of Reconciliation was only part of George Houser’s human rights legacy. In 1940 he was among a group of theological students who refused to register for the military draft begun by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The law exempted theological students , but they felt called to protest the system for peacetime military conscription. Houser and seven other students were sentenced to federal prison. George Houser served a year in a federal prison, and then set out to complete his theological education at Chicago Theological Seminary. When he and a (black) fellow student were refused service in a Chicago restaurant, their search for constructive action led them to become founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). George Houser served as the group’s first executive secretary. In the 1950’s, Houser’s focus shifted to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. His activism for various soclai justice causes continued in some form until very shortly before his death at 99.

George Houser’s story reminds us that we all stand on someone’s shoulders. Dr. King and other better-known figures stand on the shoulders of George Houser and Irene Morgan. All who are working today to eradicate the poisonous racism that infects our society stand on their shoulders and on the shoulders of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and many more. Their “…act[s] of faith…set them above the crowd.” The energy builds as Hebrews 11 tells the stories of ordinary people who engaged in heroic acts of faith: “…by faith…”, “…by an act of faith…”, “…acting in faith…”.  Faith goes beyond simply believing the right things to betting your life on them. People of faith live as though that barely-visible promised reality is already at hand.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us because of their “acts of faith”.

In 2007, a New York Times reporter interviewed 90-year-old  George Houser. How did he keep on working for difficult and often  unpopular causes when progress was often so long and hard? He referred to the hymn “Lead Kindly Light”, particularly the words that say:  “…Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.” “I believe that,” Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”

George Houser’s  “one step” acts of faith helped transform our society. Today George, Irene, and all our spiritual ancestors who’ve stood on their shoulders ask us: “What’s the next step? What’s your next act of faith?” It’s probably not a headline-grabber. It’s more likely a conversation with a neighbor, a co-worker, a child or grandchild. It might be a gentle, peace-full response to a harsh, aggressive word or action, or a series of lifestyle choices that say, “Here’s a different way for us to live together. Want to join me and try it out?” All our “one step” acts of faith in the right direction lead finally to the “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, and others who’ve caught that vision.   

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.”—Hebrews 12:1-2 MSG

 


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