Tales of a Reluctant Marcher — The Rev. Glenn Miller
At the young and tender age of 58, I am just young enough to have missed having to make decisions in the 1960s and 70s about marching in the Civil Rights Movement or the protests against the Vietnam War. I remember those marches and protests of course, but they were witnessed through the eyes of a child and teenager, usually via a television screen.
Since then, while there have certainly been occasions for marches and protests of one sort or another, they have mostly been under my radar screen. Until now that is. A few weeks ago, I began to hear about the “call to clergy” to assemble in Washington D.C. The occasion was the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. The purpose was to march in solidarity against racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and injustice. The kindling for this call, along with the King anniversary, was the horror the nation witnessed in Charlottesville, though the issues the march intended to address were broader and more systemic.
As Monday approached, I still had not registered. My calendar was remarkably clear, like the weather forecast. (I had in fact kept Monday and Tuesday free for a potential get away to the beach). But I was uncertain. In part because it was something altogether new for me. In greater part perhaps, because, in all honesty, I had my doubts about the efficacy or effectiveness of such a march. How many, if any, minds would be changed by this action? What policies and actions would change? And I would be dishonest if I didn’t also wonder: would some hate-filled lunatic plow his car murderously into us? Into me?
By Sunday evening, I had finally made my decision. I would go. I would walk. Uncertainties and fears aside, it simply felt like the right thing to do. I learned that several colleagues, Christian and Jewish, would be there with me. If we got shouted down, or mowed down, we would at least be together.
I took the train from Baltimore to DC, and as I walked through the cars looking for a seat, I noticed a larger than usual number of clerical collars, cassocks, and other signs of religious leaders. In the dining car, the elderly African American porter would not let me pay for my coffee. “You marching today? Good. Thank you. Cause things as bad as I ever remember them, and we need to stand up and speak up”. Any reluctance I had faded away quickly, replaced by a peaceful conviction that, indeed, this was the right thing to do.
Things began, appropriately enough, near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with about an hour of speeches from across denomination and faith traditions. Some were incredibly powerful – the remarks from the leader of the Reform Jewish Movement come to mind particularly, as well as those from an impassioned African-American Roman Catholic nun. All were respectful but clear: the status quo will not do. The creeping “normalization” of hate, in all of its insidious manifestations will not do.
After the speeches, we began to march. It was a quiet day in Washington, but there were plenty of onlookers. Most seemed to watch with curiosity at this sea of clerical collars and vestment-clad men and women. If there were any “counter protesters” I did not witness them. The worst thing I saw was disinterest. The best thing were the handful of cheers. “We are WITH YOU!” One group called out. A few people even joined us.
As I walked with my diverse group of friends, a young woman approached us with a microphone. She was from “Danish Public Radio” (which apparently did a better job covering the event than most American media outlet). What I thought would be a quick question or two ended up being a 30 minute interview. Her questions were thoughtful and balanced. The one I remember best was this: “Are you at all afraid that some people might perceive what you’re doing as clergy as mixing religion and politics?” My response was immediate. “Throughout my 31 years of ministry, I’ve always shied away from “party politics”, especially from the pulpit, since I am called to be pastor to all. But the last time I checked, being against hatred, racism, neo-nazis, the KKK and white supremacy wasn’t a party politics issue”. (When she left us, she apologized that the story would of course be in Danish. But she offered to send us a transcript.)
Our march ended as appropriately as it began – in front of the Justice Department headquarters. Another round of speeches and then, as peacefully as we assembled, we dispersed. Back to our cars, our trains, our planes. Back to the day to day work of ministry and life in our communities.
I was fortunate to have a day alone after the march to reflect. I headed to the beach, in spite of a rainy forecast, grateful not only to have said yes to this call to action, but grateful as well for time apart to consider what I had witnessed and been part of.
Before I went, I wondered whether anyone would really be changed by what the marchers were doing. My conclusion on reflection is a “yes and no”. Or, like a good Lutheran I suppose, an “on the one hand but on the other hand” assessment. Were the minds of anyone in the KKK or a Neo-Nazi group changed? Unlikely. But I do know this: I was changed. 24 hours after something as simple as gathering with a few thousand fellow clerics and walking a few miles, I was changed. As the world has seemingly gone more and more mad, I have grown increasingly frustrated, like so many others, at the feeling of impotence. And that feeling diminished significantly by engaging in the simple act, in the words of my friend on the train, in “standing UP and speaking UP”.
I’ll conclude this reflection by saying that what I think I came to realize is that my march in Washington was really no different in a way than what I do every time I crawl into a pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. At its core, the preacher proclaims what he or she believes to be true – what we believe God is calling us to say. How that Word is received, what action the hearer does or does not take, is a separate matter.
I cannot control how any soul responds to a word proclaimed. But I am not impotent in doing the proclaiming. I am not powerless in the face of evil to speak – or march while speaking – a good word. For silence in the face of evil is tacit endorsement. And in these dark days, we must not be silent.
The Rev. Glenn Miller is President of the SpiriTrust Lutheran Foundation in York PA and a native of Central Pennsylvania. He has served congregations in York and Berks Counties and Lutheran institutions in PA and Wisconsin.