During some digging around for my dissertation, I stumbled across a speech made by a man named Bishop B. W. Arnett, and was struck by how familiar some of his words were.
Here are a few lines of his speech: “We do fervently pray and earnestly hope that the meeting held this day will start a wave of influences that will change some of the Christians of this land and the brotherhood of man, and from this time forward they will accord to us that which we receive in every land except this ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’ All we ask is the right of an American citizen; the right to life, liberty, and happiness, and there be given us the right and privileges that belong to every citizen of a Christian commonwealth. It is not pity we ask for, but justice, it is not help, but a fair chance; we ask not to be carried, but to be given an opportunity to walk, run or stand alone in our own strength or to fall in our own weakness; we are not begging for bread, but for an opportunity to earn bread for our wives and children; treat us not as wards of a nation nor as objects of pity, but treat us as American citizens, as Christian men and women; do not chain your doors and bar your windows and deny us a place in society, but give us the place that our intelligence, our virtue, our industry, and our courage entitle us to…Judge us not by the color of our skin, nor the texture of our hair, but judge us by our intelligence and character.”
I was shocked to discover that he spoke these words at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. The last words I quoted particularly struck me; it was as if I had heard them before, but how could I have, when I’d never heard of this man before? Then it came to me as perhaps it has for some of you reading this. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this same hope for justice in 1963, 70 years later, when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Most of us know the words of his famous speech, but how many of us have ever heard of Bishop B. W. Arnett?
This got me thinking about all the people in this world who are currently fighting for a better world but whose faces we may never see and whose names we may never know; and then I realised, I am one of them. Although I am certainly not comparable to those who fought so bravely for civil rights, in my own way I fight for truth and justice. I seek peace and I strive for a better world through the words that I write and the students I have taught. Perhaps some will read my words and be affected, perhaps my life has made a difference for a few, perhaps one person will realise their ungodliness and wish to change, but it is unlikely that my name will ever go down in history books, nor am I likely to see the changes I so “fervently pray and earnestly hope” will occur. I have come to realise that this is perhaps the hardest lesson God teaches us: God calls us to speak words of truth aloud and gives us the courage to do so, even if we never see any significant change.
In our movie-magic, fast-paced, instant gratification world, I think we often expect corrupt systems and ungodly people to change just because we voiced the truth about them, but this is seldom what happens in reality. In matters of truth and justice, change is often slow, painful and only a few voices mark moments of significant transformation. The other voices, the ones that spoke so often and so loudly before a glimmer of that transformation was in sight, rarely get remembered and even more rarely do they get praised for the words that they spoke and the trials they endured. However, I have also come to believe, that every time someone speaks in the name of God’s truth and justice, the voices of all those who spoke before them get echoed in their words and any praise that is received for the one person is praise received on behalf of them all. For the voice that is heard and remembered, the voice that marks a day of change could never have been there without all the ones before it, sending out their messages into the great void of time in the hope that someday, somewhere, someone would hear them and bring about change, and in the knowledge that they would receive their reward from God in heaven for speaking His truth in diligence, no matter what. What greater faith is there than this? The very faith needed to transform our world. And so I praise God and I refuse to be dismayed even when my eyes can’t see a difference because I can have true faith. Praise God, we are all a part of something much bigger than just ourselves. “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart…” (2 Corinthians 4:1).