Moving Feats

“No, I won’t be going, no,” Trump told reporters when asked if he would pay respects to Lewis Monday or Tuesday at the Capitol.” USA Today, July 27, 2020

I was listening to another podcast today.  It’s my go-to strategy for procrastination this summer.  I mentioned the winding path I walked last week, from a book I read (The Artful Read Aloud) to the Works Cited to the On Being podcast that I’d never encountered (in spite of the fact that Krista Tippett had received a humanitarian medal from the previous president of the United States), to an interview with Jason Reynolds.  This week, that podcast discovery led me to listen to an old episode, an interview from 2013, being re-aired in memory of John Lewis.  I’m glad I took that walk.

I sat on the couch in my basement, nudging Farley to the side so that he only took up three quarters of the couch.  I plugged in the earbuds and pressed play.  The conversation ranged through a lot of topics, like how John Lewis and others trained themselves in the art of nonviolent protest.  He described meetings in a church in Nashville, where they learned how to look someone in the eye and even try to smile, as they dragged you from a stool at a lunch counter or shouted slurs at you or even beat you.  I thought about how much faith and hope and commitment went into those sessions. I wondered, “Could I do that?”

They talked then about a lesson John Lewis said he learned from his mother. It had to do with the value of undeserved suffering.  He said that his mom taught him that suffering can bring redemption.  When you suffer wrongly (though sometimes willingly in a protest), it demonstrates your commitment to a cause, to the power of love. In your response to that hardship, you even have the power to redeem your opponent or your oppressor you.  Perhaps that is the reason that in 2013 the chief of the Montgomery, Alabama police force issued a public apology to Lewis on behalf of his institution.  He handed Lewis his badge and pledged to do everything he could to create a public safety force that treated everyone in the community with dignity and justice.

Lewis and Tippett talked about the tension between wanting change now and being patient.  I thought about how hard it is for me to navigate that tension in ordinary life.  Clearly, Lewis and his fellow activists knew what changes needed to happen.  They wanted to vote, now.  They wanted to attend integrated schools, now.  They wanted to be treated like equals, now.  A hundred years after the 13th Amendment, they sang a song that my protester mom played for me as a little kid.  The lyrics go, “I ain’t a-scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom,  Ain’t a-scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom…I want my freedom now.”  John Lewis was arrested more than 40 times in pursuit of freedom.  Still, though he wanted it now, he knew that changing people’s hearts, helping people unlearn centuries of lies, didn’t happen in an instant.  It required patience.  I thought about how much you have to love a country, how much of a patriot you have to be to work that patiently to peacefully change a country that has met your non-violent protests with such violence and hatred, a country that has served you so poorly. 

In the end, though, it was the poetry of Lewis’s favorite African proverb that stopped us all in our tracks, the interviewer, the interviewed, and me:  

When you pray, move your feet.

I am always looking for beautiful words to post for the students in my classroom.  I’m not sure if I can post these, because of their religious slant, but I will place them somewhere so that I can see them.  To me, this proverb is the perfect rejoinder for when, after there’s been a mass shooting, people say, “Our hopes and prayers go out to those families,”  I imagine John Lewis reading those sentiments and saying, “When you pray, move your feet.”  He lived those words.  He didn’t merely pray for integration of buses.  He moved his feet and stepped onto the bus.  He didn’t merely pray for the integration of lunch counters.   He moved his feet and stepped up to those counters. He didn’t merely pray for blacks to have voting rights everywhere in the country.  He moved his feet and marched across a bridge.  

Throughout the interview, John Lewis spoke about how we shouldn’t think of love as just a feeling word. Sometimes that leads people to view the people who speak of love as weak.  “It’s the opposite,” he said.  Love means so much more. We have to think of love as a force, a mighty force, a force that can move feet…and hearts…and eventually nations.

15 thoughts on “Moving Feats

  1. I love this line and the action behind these words: When you pray, move your feet. Another way to make the world a more beautiful place. I’m going to write it down for a reminder to myself as well. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Your blog post last week (which I shamefully neglected to comment on) moved me to write honestly about my frustrations as we head inexorably towards the beginning of school. I noticed your comments about Krista Tippett’s interview with Jason Reynolds and nodded along because I had just heard that interview & was equally inspired. Now, I will go download this interview, which I have not heard. Your words in this contemplative post will be with me as I listen. I especially appreciated your reflection on “how much you have to love a country, how much of a patriot you have to be to work that patiently to peacefully change a country that has met your peaceful protests with such violence and hatred, a country that has served you so poorly.” Just… wow. Words for many of us to consider. I suspect that Lewis’s words & those of the proverb will be with me as I move forward through life.

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  3. Hi there – so many things… I love that when you nudged Farley, he still took up 3/4 of the couch. I also loved the visual of you setting down physically and putting your earbuds in, because that allowed me to settle in there with you and really hear what you had to say afterward. Thanks for relaying this information because I don’t really listen to podcasts… That African proverb is awesome. I understand you hesitate to post it in the classroom, but maybe you could do so with other references to the idea that “prayer” doesn’t have to be religious. Just a thought. I recently came across another African proverb that also stopped me in my tracks and was so relevant to everything we are seeing now: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Let us all embrace one another during this time and moving forward. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. The power of that African proverb does stop you in your tracks. Your words also did that many times, especially here: “I thought about how much you have to love a country, how much of a patriot you have to be to work that patiently to peacefully change a country that has met your peaceful protests with such violence and hatred, a country that has served you so poorly. “I also appreciated the parallel between John Lewis learning from his mother, and you from yours. Thanks for sharing this post today.

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  5. I don’t listen to many podcasts but I think I need to start. (Or maybe not because I might not stop!) I also never heard the idea of when you pray, move your feet but it is a powerful thought. I think a few words might be inserted if using prayer is uncomfortable but regardless the message is one to spread. Thanks for the inspirational slice.

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  6. I had a wall hanging in my dorm room that read, “It’s often easier to stand up to our convictions than to live up to them.” That has stayed w/ me over the years, and I think it embodies the idea, “When you pray, move your feet.” In this time of all things public, I think about the many protests that get no attention, the small acts that go unsung, especially in schools where teachers who refuse to go along often get vilified. Certainly, we all have much to live up to to measure up to John Lewis’s example, but I also hope we honor those small acts of feet moving and prayer.

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  7. I heard this interview as well and am always struck by the graciousness of Black people when they are talking with white interviewers. Tippett can sometimes interrupt her guests and center herself. Yet I appreciate the homework she clearly does before speaking with each guest. We are not benefitting from John Lewis and others’ ability to eradicate racism, but how to directly address its new shape in our own time. The courage and compassion this involves.

    Thank you for sharing the impact his words had for you.

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  8. This piece holds power and promise, and I also hear a challenge. Maybe I’m hearing the challenge because I’ve been doing a lot of hoping and thinking and reading, but now…..I need to move my feet. Even if it’s a tiny step at first, I need to make a plan and take some action. Thank you for nudging me toward the edge of the couch.

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  9. Beautiful tribute, beautiful connections between the wordplay of “moving feat” and “moving feet.” I just had a conversation with someone about prayer, that believing in the power of it also means you are responsible for putting your belief into action. How succinctly, perfectly, the African proverb relays that message. Believe literally means “to live by” – live by what you believe, not just give lip service to it. If we are honest and wise in prayer, should we not be honest and wise in our actions – and be equipped accordingly for them? The words ‘courage’ and ‘wisdom’ both come to mind, both strikingly important. As in the song lyrics quoted here, there is no room for fear when standing up against what is wrong, in considering what it may cost you to do so – especially when acting from a place of love, fortified with prayer. “Love as a force, a mighty force, a force that can move feet…and hearts…and eventually nations” – all of this ties, for me, to a Scripture: “Perfect love casteth out fear.” The image of Lewis crossing the bridge is indelible; his words and actions will continue to inspire – which you have also done so powerfully today.

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  10. I just listened to this same podcast, after being so moved by Lewis’ posthumous op-Ed in the NYTimes yesterday. I was inspired by many of the same elements that you were: the training in non-violent protests, the patience with the long process of creating change, the commitment to the ideals of our country despite its shortcomings. The African proverb reminds me of this quote from Fredrick Douglass: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” I love the idea of sharing these words with your students, and wish the word prayer didn’t have to feel so loaded in a public setting. But I am confident that you will find meaningful ways to incorporate this message into your hiVe.

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