Have you ever had a moment when you didn’t know whom you needed to hear until someone in front of you started to speak?
There’s no mistaking when that happens. You’re doing whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do, getting through the day with as little drama as possible. Out of nowhere, a person you barely know or have never even met starts stringing together words in a way that lifts you out of one place and sets you down somewhere else.
That’s what it was like for me on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in downtown Cleveland when the Rev. Dr. Robin E. Hedgeman took the stage.
The morning had started out like most mornings on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I swept into the hotel banquet room and hugged dozens of old friends, who insisted I make the acquaintance of a few new ones. I took my seat at my assigned table and bowed my head in prayer with the hundred or so other guests. I swayed as the choir sang “For Every Mountain,” and I sat as still as possible for the long list of speakers, including my husband, to whom I am particularly partial.
Then Pastor Hedgeman stood up and walked to the microphone. She is the senior pastor of Bethany Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Cleveland. She is a tall black woman, majestic in her bearing, with a voice that makes you sit up straighter without being asked.
She started by mentioning the theme of the day’s breakfast: “Dear America ... Love, Dr. King.” She told us she was about to write a new letter to America on his behalf. “Allow me to use my imagination this morning,” she said.
Her speech rose to a crescendo when she talked about how “our ancestors won with less than we have.”
“With less, they beat Jim Crow. With less, they beat lynching. With less, they beat the Ku Klux Klan.
“With less, Harriet Tubman got 500 out of slavery. Didn’t have email. Didn’t have Twitter. Didn’t have textbooks. Didn’t have Facebook. Didn’t have Instagram. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t have access to Uber or Lyft. No Bluetooth. No computer. No mail merging.”
Look at that list.
Everything Harriet Tubman didn’t have is but a partial litany of what most of us can take for granted. All of these tools at our disposal — and for what? That’s up to us, of course.
Nearly every day — no exaggeration — someone tells me he or she is losing hope in America. This week, it hinged on the president’s most recent lie about climate change.
As I write, the temperature outside my window here in the Midwest is minus 2, with a wind chill factor of 25 to 35 degrees below zero. We are, the weather experts tell us, in the throes of a polar vortex. These are dangerous temperatures for many people — and pets, too.
So, it’s cold, right? What does that have to do with feelings of hopelessness about America?
Here’s the response from the president of the United States — on Twitter, of course.
“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? (Presumably, he meant “warming.”) Please come back fast, we need you!”
Once again, Donald Trump uses an entire region of people for the punchline to a joke that no informed American thinks is funny. Once again, he has no idea what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t care.
Just a stupid tweet — except it isn’t. It’s day after day, week after week of this, and it can chip away at our collective hope — but only with our permission.
Look at that list. Look at all those things America’s ancestors didn’t have, and still they got us here.
Now it’s our turn, our tools. How shall we use them?