This week I am remembering the home-going of Dr. Vincent Harding, who died on May 19th, 2014 at the age of 82. Historian, Freedom Movement activist and visionary, teacher, husband, father – Dr. Harding was a beloved mentor to many. And to me.
I met him at Iliff School of Theology in 2006, where by that time he was emeritus faculty but still working diligently at the Veterans of Hope Project. Early in my first quarter he was a guest in one of my classes and I was taken by his gentle yet firm spirit. After class, I told him I did not know what to do with my family’s history on this continent of being slave owners and Indian killers. “What do I do with all that, Dr. Harding?”
I wonder now how many times he got questions like that from white folk like me. Nevertheless, he showed no impatience. He paused, as he always did, looked at me kindly and said, “Sister, wrestle til you get a blessing from it.”
He always knew just the right kind of troubling thing to say.
“Why are we here wrestling with David Walker’s Appeal?”
“You have to lay down your sword AND shield.”
“What kind of trouble are you getting into these days?”
“What does it mean to be human, and to be in relationship to one another?”
“Love trumps doctrine, every time.”
Some say he was peaceful. He had a presence that opened up possibilities, definitely, but his was not a peacefulness that shied away from holding whiteness accountable. He could be firm, and crystal clear about the harm systemic oppression causes. He was the one who wrote the “Beyond Vietnam” speech that MLK delivered at Riverside Church, after all.
Still, he had this knack, this gift for making you believe something better, something beyond what we are now as a country, something beyond what I am now as a human, is possible. I say sometimes, “he believed in us.” He believed we were capable of so much more than *this*. Even us white folks. All of us, held in the generosity of his enormous beating heart.
I miss him still. When he died, I started talking to him every day. “What do I do now, Dr. Harding? How do I live now in a way that will honor your life?” I still talk to him, every day. “What do we do now, Dr. Harding?”
After he died, I started a spiritual practice of listening to the unedited version of his stunning 2011 interview with Krista Tippett at “On Being” about every 6 months or so. Do your aching heart a big favor and set aside some time to listen to his voice, because we need his words now more than ever. I listened to it again last week. I’m always struck by something different; this time it was these words:
So I think that it is not simply the matter of hope or no hope. I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty that it did not allow itself to face before.
And I think that that’s the place that we are in, and that’s even more the reason why we’ve got to figure out what was King talking about when he was seeing the possibility of a beloved community and recognized that, maybe, for some of us, that cannot come until some of us realize that we must give up what we thought was only ours in the building of a beloved nation.
To me as a white person his words feel even more powerful now, as our country’s commitment to white supremacy and the violence it takes to maintain it has been laid bare for all the world to see. There is hope and possibility in the growing uncertainty that whiteness is a legitimate form of being human. Because in that uncertainty we as white folk can face ourselves for who we really are, and choose differently. And to help us choose, we need Dr. Vincent Harding’s words still:
…at its deepest levels the river moves toward a freedom that liberates the whole person and humanizes the entire society, pressing us beyond the boundaries of race, class, and nationality…this is the magnificent opening toward which the river has been moving, the great ocean of humanity’s best hope that it has always held and nurtured at the center of its own bursting life… We are the essential force, are the river, are the vision…our destination has always been a new, transformed humanity*…
We will never not need you, Dr. Harding.
*(from the “Introduction,” There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. Dr. Vincent Harding, Harcourt Brace, 1981.)
Rev. Anne Dunlap is a UCC pastor, activist, and herbal warrior serving as Community Minister for Racial Justice & Solidarity in Denver, CO, where she is a member of the United Church of Montbello. Her work includes local organizing, pastoral and spiritual care in the movement, teaching, farmhanding, and coordinating the Showing Up for Racial Justice faith organizing. She writes at FierceRev Remedies.