The chimney sweeper came today. I felt badly because there are so many ashes in the fireplace. I’ve been using the fireplace as an incinerator to burn old tax records after the paper shredder wore out from overuse. Although paper is not ideal fuel for a living room fireplace, I learn that the build-up of ashes is a plus. The fire doesn’t get too hot for the bricks if the logs are laying over a bed of ashes. Ashes are a really important foundation for a “healthy” fire.
The fact that beds of ashes are good for fires strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for understanding what spiritual activism means to me now in the decade of my 60’s. I tend to equate “activism” with full tilt advocacy. In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s that is certainly what it meant. Yet recently I watched a re-airing of PBS’ Freedom Riders and an exchange between an older couple and the Freedom Riders jumped out at me. The conversation reminds me of why that bed of ashes can be so important to the logs that are burning.
As you may recall, the brave women and men who made up one of the Freedom Riders’ groups were first jailed by Bull Connor in Birmingham. Then, in the middle of the night, they were whisked away and abandoned on an empty road near the Tennessee border. They needed desperately to find a safe place to stay. Read what happened next:
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We didn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan was following us. We didn’t know where we was located. We saw no telephone to make any calls. We had to find a place to hide.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: We came upon a old house that was fallen, knocked on the door, said, ‘We are the Freedom Riders. Please let us in.’
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Older gentlemen came to the door. He said, ‘Mm-nh, mm-nh, ya’ll can’t come in here.’
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: My mother had always told me that you need some help, then you try to talk to the lady of the house. And I said, ‘Let’s talk loud and wake up his wife.’
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Few minutes later, we knocked on the door again, and his wife came to the door with him. And she– we told her we were the Freedom Riders, she said, ‘Ya’ll chil’en, come on in.’ (from the transcript of American Experience, Freedom Riders)
This image is so powerful to me. These courageous people on the side of the road. The understandably cautious “older gentleman.” Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks recalling what her mother always told her, and directing the group to talk loud enough to wake up the wife. And then, of course, the older woman saying “Come on in.”
Many ways exist to be a spiritually grounded activist. One is to be a brightly burning advocate that goes out into the world and confronts injustice. But sometimes we may be more like the ashes in my fireplace. We’ve burned brightly, or perhaps just steadily. We are present. We are ready. Maybe we are even waiting for a time when there is a knock on our door. We may hesitate because we know what trouble we can get into. But then we find ourselves saying to those others who have taken up an important cause and need a bed on which to rest, “Come on in.”