"This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass," said Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality."
I pondered his speech as I rode Greyhound buses from Lake Charles, Louisiana, where my family had recently settled, to Providence, where I would enroll at Brown late in the sweltering, turbulent summer of 1963. n At seventeen, steeped in the Bible and shaped by rural Methodist churches, I didn't see how anyone who claimed to follow the example of Jesus could resist Dr. King's call for human equality. n Hadn't Jesus embraced tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and thieves? Hadn't he defied the biases of his time and place to honor women? Hadn't he insisted that we are all children of one Creator, all precious to God, all deserving of kindness and love, all worthy of life everlasting? The lessons seemed utterly clear to me. Yet across the South, white ministers and congregations either supported racial apartheid or held their tongues while thugs beat up peaceful demonstrators and governors barred the schoolhouse door.
I couldn't reconcile what I heard from the most vocal southern white Christians with what I understood from the teachings of Christ. And so began my estrangement from the church. Or perhaps it had begun earlier, during my family's years of living in the Ravenna Arsenal, a U.S. Army munitions plant in the northeastern corner of Ohio, where my father had helped make bombs for the Korean War. Or perhaps it had begun during high school, when I'd read about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and realized how few followers of the Prince of Peace ever spoke out against the insanity of the nuclear arms race. How could you love your enemies while preparing to exterminate them? How could you spend your nation's wealth and talent on ever more weapons while children went to bed hungry and the poor slept in the streets?
I had signed up to attend Brown in faraway Rhode Island because an alumnus, having watched me play basketball in high school, thought I could play in the Ivy League. On the strength of my test scores, Brown had offered me an academic scholarship that would pay my tuition and half my board and room. So I decided I would enroll there, play hoops, graduate with a degree in physics, and go on to design spacecraft.
Then, the week before I set off to Brown, the news was filled with an ominous buildup for the March on Washington, which promised to be the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation's history. Fearing violence, President Kennedy urged the organizers to cancel the march, but they refused. The march went ahead as scheduled on August 28, attracting a quarter of a million people, a heartening number of whom were white. Gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd heard many rousing speeches, but none was more inspiring than the one delivered by Martin Luther King Jr.
I had followed the career of Dr. King since the Montgomery bus boycott, and gradually he'd become one of my heroes. I couldn't have imagined traveling to Washington for the march, but I made sure to watch the television broadcast of Dr. King's speech, and I could hear the biblical phrases and preacher's rhythms familiar to me from revival meetings. Echoing the prophet Amos, he proclaimed: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." And he echoed Isaiah when he said, "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." I was primed to believe that all creatures could unite in harmony, praising the Creation, for it was the vision of God's peaceable kingdom, passed on from the Hebrew prophets through Jesus of Nazareth into this daring black minister.
But that fall, my first semester in college, was not to be the "autumn of freedom and equality" that Dr. King had envisioned. Classes had barely begun in September when yet another black church was bombed in the South. This time it was Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where dozens of worshipers were injured and four young girls-preparing for Sunday school in the basement near the hidden dynamite-were killed. Surely now, I thought, every white minister in the country, every white Christian, would denounce this madness.
To be fair, some did speak out, including the chaplain at Brown, Charles Baldwin, whose witness and counsel would be profoundly important to me over the next four years. But most religious leaders, and most of their followers, kept silent. At first I took that silence to be proof of hypocrisy-the gap between what Christians professed to believe and how they actually lived. But what did Christians believe? What did I believe? Distant from the country churches in which I had been reared, first in Tennessee and later in Ohio, distant from home, increasingly troubled by the vengeful and xenophobic strain in the Bible, I thought harder about those questions than about any of my college assignments.
At freshman orientation I learned that Brown had been founded in 1764 by Congregationalists and Baptists as a seminary for training ministers. They had chosen Rhode Island because the colony welcomed all religious faiths, unlike neighboring Massachusetts, where the Puritans ruled. I didn't learn until years later that the wealthy, philanthropic Brown family for whom the university was named had made at least a portion of their fortune by trading in slaves and that University Hall, the campus's architectural centerpiece, was partially built with slave labor. The university's motto was the same pious one that Americans would later read on their coins, In Deo speramus-In God we trust. In keeping with those religious origins, weekly attendance at the chapel had been required of all Brown students until a few years before I enrolled. Like every requirement, this one had been resented, and the alumni who remembered those days spoke of chapel as tedious and barren.
So on Sundays that fall, instead of worshiping on campus, I tried, one after another, the big, stone, half-empty churches in downtown Providence. The city was then in the doldrums, much of the downtown dingy, boarded up, many of the surviving businesses run-so rumor went-by the Mafia. On Sunday mornings it looked like a city abandoned after a plague. The few other worshipers making their way to the old churches might have been survivors slinking through the ruins.
Although I sat through many sermons, I heard no references to the latest bombing in Alabama, no references to the Cuban missile showdown or nuclear weapons, no references to poverty. What I did hear, in service after service, was the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
I had long since memorized the creed, had recited it on countless Sundays, but that fall, as I sat in those echoing churches, I examined it closely for the first time. How much of it did I actually believe? I believed the heavens and earth weren't accidental but were the handiwork of an unimaginably vast and subtle power, which I still felt comfortable calling God. I also believed that a Jewish prophet named Jesus had lived and taught 2,000 years before and had died on a cross. But as I probed my childhood faith, I discovered I no longer believed that Jesus was the one and only son of the Creator, nor that he had been born of a virgin, nor that he had risen, bodily, from the dead.
If I doubted the resurrection, how could I believe in the prospect of everlasting life? If I doubted the central promise of Christianity, how could I call myself a Christian? Everything in the Apostles' Creed pointed toward the denial of death and the longing for immortality. Left out entirely was any mention of how we should live, how we should treat one another, how we should deal with the poor, the sick, the weak, the mad, the old, or with the millions of other species on our planet. And those were the questions that concerned me. The creed said nothing about justice, healing, peacemaking, or compassion. And those were the impulses that moved me, as I encountered them in Jesus and Isaiah and Amos, in the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and the speeches of Dr. King. Nor did the creed convey anything of the awe I felt in the woods, along the stony beds of creeks, or in the company of storms and stars.
I would have been happy to save my soul-assuming I had one, and assuming it was salvageable-but I couldn't accept that we were born into this world merely to angle for a favorable deal in the next one. Surely there was work we should be doing right here, right now, in this amazing flesh and brimming instant. Surely there must be some purpose in life larger than one's own private salvation. Surely the fate of one's soul was bound up with the fate of one's neighbors and neighborhood.
All of this came to me slowly, fitfully, during that fall of my freshman year, as I sampled one church after another in desolate downtown Providence, a city named for the benevolent guidance of God.
On the eve of my eighteenth birthday in late October, I went to the U.S. Selective Service System office in Providence to sign up for the draft. Standing in line with other boys my age-and I thought of myself as a boy, not yet as a man-I wondered whether I could fight in a war. The question seemed idle. I realized we had troops stationed around the globe, including some military advisers in a country called Vietnam, but so far as I knew America was at peace. From reading comic books and watching war movies, I had once dreamed of wearing a uniform and fighting enemies. But that dream faded during my years of living on the grounds of an Army weapons plant, where the soldiers had seemed less like warriors than like indentured servants, putting in their time until their real lives resumed.
I felt no swell of patriotism as I filled out the government forms. The law required me to register for the draft, so here I was. Instead of listing my college address in Rhode Island, I wrote down my parents' address in Louisiana. That casual decision would complicate my life five years later, when, having thought harder about my country's penchant for war, I would declare myself a conscientious objector, and my Louisiana draft board, doubting that conscience could prohibit any red-blooded man from killing for his country, would reject my appeal. During those five years, the handful of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam would be replaced by hundreds of thousands of troops. And my disillusionment with our government, like my disillusionment with the organized church, would grow in proportion to the mounting violence.
In October of 1963, however, it was still possible to believe that the grown-ups who ran our nation, if not those running other nations, earnestly desired peace. Many politicians in the South were clearly racists, but maybe those in the North really did wish to serve the needs of all people. John F. Kennedy, in particular, struck many young people as sincere. We took him at his word when he declared, in his inaugural speech, that we should ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country. We trusted him when he promised to lift up the downtrodden and make the United States a beacon of justice and freedom.
If I could no longer convince myself that the universe was ruled by a benevolent God, concerned for the welfare of every last soul, I still persuaded myself that our country was ruled by a benevolent president. I could do so only because, at eighteen, I knew little about U.S. politics or history aside from the sugarcoated accounts in textbooks. Trusting in grown-ups to run things, therefore, I could remain a boy awhile longer, absorbed in my studies, my plans, my romance.
The bitter news from Dallas, which convulsed the nation on November 22, broke through my complacency. That Friday afternoon I was crossing the College Green on my way to physics class when I noticed clusters of students huddled here and there along the sidewalks, their heads bent together, unnaturally still. They seemed to be listening, not to one another but to some distant voice. Pausing near one of these groups, I saw a transistor radio in their midst and heard an announcer repeating in a strained tone, as if to convince himself, that President Kennedy had been shot. The huddle opened to admit me, and I stood there shivering, the physics class forgotten. Minutes passed; the radio voice kept rephrasing its dire news. Then a reporter at a hospital in Dallas came on the air to say the president was dead.
Moans went up from our group and from others nearby, the first sounds any of us had made. Instinctively, we looped arms across one another's shoulders and drew into a tight knot encircling the radio. Through tears, I looked at the other students, all of them strangers to me, trying to figure out what to make of this terrible fact. Their faces revealed only shock and grief.
On Sunday morning I couldn't bear to walk downtown to one of those cold stone churches, yet I craved company, so I went to worship for the first time in the Brown chapel. Entering between the tall fluted columns of Manning, passing a memorial to students and alumni who'd died in the Civil War, I climbed to the sanctuary on the second floor. Everything was white-the walls, the altar cloth, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, the painted pews. The pews that morning were crowded, one of the few times I would ever see them so. Large, mullioned windows admitted the clear light of day. Without stained glass, statues, banners, or any sign of a cross, the chapel was even plainer than the Methodist churches where I had begun my hunt for God.
I can't remember what the chaplain said that morning, but I can remember how he sounded, this man who insisted on being called not Reverend Baldwin, not mister or sir, but simply Charlie. He sounded like a person in pain. He sounded like the Psalmist trapped down in a well of sorrow. But unlike the Psalmist, he didn't couple his anguish with anger, didn't cry for vengeance against whoever had caused this woe. I sensed in him, as I sensed in Dr. King, a tough-minded compassion, as if he knew the worst about our kind and still would not give up on the healing power of love. With a mild voice, a ruddy face, and thinning silk hair, Charlie Baldwin didn't radiate the charisma of Dr. King, but he seemed to speak from the same deep springs. I longed to drink from that source, and my thirst drew me back to the bright upper room Sunday after Sunday for the rest of my time at Brown.
Classes were canceled that Monday, November 25, in observance of a national day of mourning. Sick of the grievous images, I watched only enough of the funeral coverage on television to see the late president's son, John Jr., who turned three that day, standing in a blue coat out in front of the cathedral and saluting the coffin as it rolled by.
The world seemed, suddenly, a much more precarious place. Without mushroom clouds, with merely a couple of bullets, the stability I had taken for granted had been shattered. Of course I had been naive to take it for granted. My confidence in the grown-ups running our nation was only an extension of my faith in the honesty and decency and competence of my own parents. It was a vestige of childhood. Once broken, it could never be restored.
Scott Russell Sanders is a Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. This essay is adapted from A Private History of Awe, which was published in February by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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