History is full of stories where ONE person stood up against evil or oppression. A polish Franciscan friar, Maximillian Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German concentration camp of Auschwitz in August of 1941. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, an Afro-American woman rejected the demands of a white bus driver to give up her seat in the ‘coloureds sections’ of the bus to a white passenger after the whites-only section was filled. She was arrested for “civil disobedience.” On the 23rd of August in 1966 an Aboriginal stockman, Vincent Lingiari tired of the Aboriginal people being ‘treated like dogs’ in their own country, led two hundred of his people, employees of Wave Hill cattle station in a walk off that ended up lasting nine years. Lingiari and his people were simply demanding better pay and rations and protection of their Aboriginal women from their white overseers.
What this Afro-American woman, this polish priest and this Aboriginal stockman had in common was that they were nobodies. No-one knew who they were. At the time when they stepped forward, walked off or did not move they were not known beyond their close friends but each was fired up by a deep sense of justice and courage to face injustice. Kolbe died within days of his action while Lingiari and Rosa Parks lived for many years and saw their struggles and demands for justice come to some resolution.
Too often we can read the annuals of history and think that those who have truly made a difference were big and courageous and famous. We forget that Mandela was once a poor young lawyer in Johannesburg, Mother Teresa a poor Albanian teenager and Abraham Lincoln was born in poverty in a log cabin in Indiana, was self-educated and eventually became a lawyer.
In the face of great walls of difficulty we can cow down, we can lose heart, lose confidence. Too often violence or poverty or disease or prejudice or whatever robs us of our noble dignity can seem so overwhelming, so all-consuming and so powerful. It is no accident that one of the greatest photographs of the Twentieth Century captures an unidentified Chinese man standing in front of a column of tanks on June 5th 1989 – the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests. One man – a column of tanks – and that one nameless man has inspired millions and become an iconic symbol of freedom from oppression.
The great anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has!”
Every person I have referenced in this blog would have felt alone, felt small, felt unimportant, felt singular, and felt daunted by the enormity of the challenge in front of them. The problem with even referencing them is that something in each of us says, “Yeh, but I’m no Mandela or Mother Teresa!” They in their turn and in their day would have said, “I’m no William Wilberforce (the British politician and philanthropist who led the moment to abolish the slave trade) or Thérèse of Lisieux (the young French Carmelite nun who lived heroic love in the day to day ordinary of her life)!” Certainly Mandela was no Wilberforce nor was Mother Teresa = Thérèse of Lisieux. Rather they were their own best selves determined to face the injustice or lack of love that they found confronting them in their everyday lives.
It was the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke who once said,
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing!”
When in your life have you felt powerless in-front of overwhelming injustice, grief or loss? What did you do to engage positively and hopefully with this? Who in your life would be a great example of an ‘ordinary’ person who has faced overwhelming pain, loss, injustice or suffering with courage?
In my many years of working in school I witnessed many acts of ‘ordinary courage’ but few would compare to a young man who was a Student Leader in his school. Each year many Australian youth celebrate their end of secondary schooling by spending a week away at beach resorts in a wild rite of passage time of continuous partying and in many cases boundary violation. The particular student leader had become aware that some of his peers had produced a highly offensive T-shirt to be worn during this week. The T-shirt had printed on it sexist remarks that basically said that young women owed these young men sex.
Upon discovering that quite a large number of these shirts had been sold privately the student leader convened a meeting of the soon to be graduating class. He stood in front of them, held up one of the offending shirts and speaking from the heart spoke of his sadness, his anger, his hurt that they – his friends – were letting themselves down by such a shirt – and insulting all the wonderful women in their lives. There was absolute silence in the room. At the end of the speech, the student leader demanded that every shirt that had been produced be brought to him for him to destroy. They were all returned and that year at the final graduation assembly he received from his peers the longest, sustained standing ovation I have ever witnessed!
In June of 1966 Senator Robert Kennedy returned from a visit to South Africa deeply touched by the poverty and the struggle for freedom that he had witnessed there. In one of his finest speeches Kennedy said,
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Every one of us has been privileged to see in our lives those wonderful individuals who – in small ways and in big – have put their hand up, stepped forward, risked, found a little courage and more – to make our world a better place for all. They do so without fanfare, they do so not asking to be thanked or written about, they do so simply because they feel compelled to by the pain they witness, the relationships they have built, the world they see or the world they dream of. I have had the privilege to drive buses full of young adults giving up their holidays to spend time with small children from struggling families. I have seen young people sitting with the homeless sharing story over a cuppa on a cold winter’s night. I have seen countless parents get up in the middle of the night and do what needed to be done for the children.
We all have witnessed the power of one. These extraordinary individuals would never feel comfortable being called that – called extraordinary. The word however is powerful – it simple means OUT OF THE ORDINARY. These people and their acts of courage and love come OUT of the ordinary which is their lives.
In my privileged life I have had the opportunity to experience some wonderful things. About twenty years ago I was invited to spend time in Kolkata at a Social Justice conference hosted by my fellow Brothers. As part of the conference we were broken up into small groups of three and a boy from one of the local Brothers’ schools was asked to give us a tour around Kolkata – especially the Kolkata that the normal visitor does NOT see. I was in a group of two and our guide was Raoul. A wonderful friendly fourteen year old, Raoul bounced his way down many a side street and lane of the city, excitedly pointing out different landmarks and more.
Eventually, Raoul who was an orphan asked myself and my companion, “Would you like to meet my mother?” While the slow brain part of me was attempting to comprehend ‘mother’ and ‘orphan’ Raoul took us further away from the main roads and deeper into the slums. Finally we came to a long stone wall that obviously had some important building behind it. Along the footpath were a whole street of blue tattered tarpaulins going from the top of the wall and attached to stones on the footpath. Beneath them were people’s homes. We came to one patch of cloth and some bags and pots and pans – to Raoul’s mother’s home.
On the cloth was a small woman dressed in a sari. Raoul bowed low and did the Namaste pose to her – with deep obvious affection. His mother returned the gesture of respect. My friend and I bent down and took up our cross-legged sitting on the cloth. I tried my feeble attempt at a Namaste bow. She smiled. Raoul’s mother knew little English so he translated to us. We were very welcome to her home and thank you for taking take of Raoul. She poured us small cups of luke-warm Chai. We sat and drank while Raoul looked at her with an extraordinary smile of admiration and pride. As his mother was taking our empty cups from us I noticed her movements. Then, I noticed that she had no legs – she was moving around her small ‘house’ on her hands.
We took our leave and returned to the Brothers’ school where we were staying. I recalled that story to the local Brothers that night. They told me that yes, Raoul was a boarder at the Brothers’ orphanage and that he had a sister at the Loretto Sisters. Then they told me how each day Raoul’s mother will travel – on her hands – some 500 m to catch a bus which in turn takes her to one of Kolkata’s large rubbish dumps. There – on her hands with a small hessian bag slung over her shoulder – she scavengers through the piles of rubbish finding small bits of wood with nails in them. She carefully removes the nails and with a small hammer straightens them. By the end of the morning she has a small pile of nails. She then makes her way (on her hands) to a small roadside stall and sells the nails. She returns to the rubbish dump and then – for several hours – goes from spent cooking fire to spent cooking fire and with a small sieve – sifts the remains of the coal or charcoal. She gradually builds up a pile of coal in her hessian bag. This in turn she – again on her hands – sells to a local merchant.
Raoul’s mother does this every day of the week. Once a week she makes her way across the city – by hands and by bus – to the Brothers’ school and there insists that they take some rupees to help pay for Raoul’s education. Let us never underestimate the power of one. As I said in my last blog,
“One of the greatest things a person can do is to plant a seed that will one day grow to be a great tree that will give shade to people they have never known!”
I want to conclude with the story of ONE person who truly made a difference. In 2004 Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. At the age of 37 Wangari began the Green Belt Movement. During her 71 years Wangari worked tirelessly for the empowerment of women in Africa and for a greater quality of life for them. She was disturbed by the environmental degradation of her native Kenya. She witnessed year by year the loss of huge areas of forest and the resultant poverty of those who called the village home. She saw that women were needing to walk further and further to find firewood for their cooking fires and to find drinkable water. So she began planting trees – one tree at a time. She planted thousands of trees and began a movement – mainly made up of women who planted millions of trees – the Green Belt Movement. Maathai could see the intimate connection between the planting of trees, environmental protection and women’s rights. She and her followers fought hard against the overwhelming odds of big business for reforestation. On the international stage Maathai simply became known as “the tree lady!”
Sure, our world today is beset by so many struggles. In some ways things may get worse before they get better. But in the midst of all of that struggle let each of us be bearers of hope – light in the darkness, planters of seeds – people who in our own small way make a difference.
Let’s begin in our own home, in our own community. Then in our own village – our own immediate sphere of influence. Then – like Robert Kennedy suggested – we will do our little bit to add to that “tiny ripple of hope!” Don’t go looking for a Mandela by your side or hope that a Rosa Parks will invite you to sit next to her – no, simply be your best self – dream of a better world for all and believe in the power within you!
What in this blog did you identify with and why? What in this blog did you struggle with and why?
Who are like minded people to yourself that you could link with for support and shared solidarity as you do your small bit to make this world a better place?
What is the one thing that is stopping you from stepping out, putting your hand up or taking that risk that you truly want to?
Discussion: Take the ideas from this blog and discuss them with someone significant in your life OR make a comment on the blog site.