January 19, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Freedom March

In January of 2010, I participated in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March from the Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati to Music Hall in neighboring Over the Rhine. The event began with a short program at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center along the banks of the Ohio River. It's difficult to estimate the size of a crowd like that, especially in such blistering cold weather, but I'm guessing a thousand people made the walk from the Freedom Center to Fountain Square. Hundreds more were already waiting on Fountain Square for another brief program, and then we all continued marching to Music Hall.

The event's diversity impressed me. White, black, old, young—the crowd was sprinkled with a beautiful mixture of humanity coming together in the name of peace and reconciliation.

Along the way, I ran into an old friend, Charles, and his family. I also had a handful of conversations with people walking near me, but nothing out of the ordinary. It was good to see familiar faces and interact with strangers on such a meaningful day.

Once we arrived at Music Hall, the event picked up its intensity. I immediately noticed a man standing out front shouting, "God is great," very loudly. As I walked by, others began following his declaration by adding, "All the time." Remember this for later.

Inside, I took a seat in the very last row by an exit. If I felt the urge to bolt, I wanted to slip out of Music Hall unnoticed. As the room filled up, I realized that timid part of my personality needed to change. Too often during the Church Experiment, I simply sat in the back of a church and took notes. Connecting with people means interacting with people. It means taking initiative. So, before the program started, I stood up, walked to the front of the room, and sat down in the second row.

Now, back to the man shouting outside.

Minutes after taking my new seat, he sat down next to me. The random connection felt like fate, so I initiated a conversation by complimenting his hoodie.

And what a hoodie it was. Picture this: A caricature of Barack Obama posing like Superman, ripping his suit to shreds, and underneath, a red "O" in the same font as the Man of Steel's "S."


I liked it. I told him I liked it, and thus began our conversation.

His name was Ishmael. He actually makes his own clothing designs, so sorry, Glenn Beck, you can stop searching the Internet for your very own Superobama hoodie.

I asked if Ishmael attended church in the area; he told me he attends the Clifton Mosque. The same Clifton Mosque I visited in May of 2009 during the Church Experiment. We talked about the Mosque, and I mentioned my visit. He said I should visit again sometime so they could wash my feet. I told him that would be unnecessary, but he said they consider it a blessing to wash the feet of guests. Interesting. For the record, I would not consider it a blessing to wash a person's feet.

I found it bizarre that I spoke to absolutely no one from the Clifton Mosque when I visited in 2009, but eight months later, I had a great conversation with one of its members during a random encounter at Music Hall. It was a wake up call. Relationships matter. It's too easy to walk into a church and completely ignore people. We get so caught up in doing "God's work," that we forget God's primary mission for our lives is to love other people.

People are more than statistics and stereotypes. We love to label others, but actual human beings are more dynamic and unique than our silly human prejudices.

The Freedom March was a powerful experience. I loved marching with people from all races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions. The program was remarkable. The music blew me away. Where is that style of worship music every Sunday morning? So much energy, so much talent, so much audience participation. It was inspiring. I have never felt closer to God during "worship" in my entire life. Maybe it was the music itself. Maybe it was the diversity in the room. No clue, but every part of the program simply felt right.

Just when it couldn't get any better, a young boy named Isaiah stole the show. An amazing voice for an eleven year old. He was so good, that after singing a solo, the master of ceremonies called him back up to the microphone for an encore. There were at least three standing ovations.

Speaking of the master of ceremonies, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Courtis Fuller (from Channel 5 news) after the event. He seems like a really good guy who cares deeply about Cincinnati. I hope he makes another run for mayor someday.

I told Courtis that my last name is also "Fuller," and for many years, my family has referred to him as "Cousin Courtis." He laughed and said the resemblance is uncanny. (Curtis Fuller is a very tall, black man.)

Cecil Thomas, a Cincinnati councilman, sat right in front of me, so I had the chance to say hello. My favorite part of the day may have been holding hands with an adorable little black girl while we all sang, We Shall Overcome.

There was a lot of fellowship. Happy people. Smiling people. Loving people. Kindness. Laughing. Hospitality. Diversity. Acceptance. Brotherhood, regardless of race, class, religion, or sexuality. I'm not sure I experienced that once during my 2009 Church Experiment.

It changed me. I don't want to overstate this, but it did. I felt something click. The Freedom March felt right. It felt like the kind of atmosphere that Martin Luther King, Jr. died for.

I can't stomach the hatred and oppression anymore. Especially when that oppression is defended in the name of God. It's ugly, and I have no tolerance for the oppressor's ignorance. It's impossible to experience an event like the Freedom March and not have your heart stirred.

Many well-meaning people seem to be missing God. Pat Robertson is missing God when he makes ridiculous comments about Haiti. Churches are missing God when they oppress gays and lesbians. I am missing God when I lash out against conservatives. Too much hate.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

What I learned from the Freedom March is this: We can find God in the faces of other people. We can connect with God when we build relationships with people from diverse cultures. We can be like God when we love others instead of judging them.

People hate and fear what they don't understand. Ishmael, Isaiah, the little girl sitting next to me, Courtis Fuller, and especially Martin Luther King, Jr—they have all taught me that we begin to truly love others when they are no longer strangers.

But I'm not nearly as wise or courageous as the American hero we celebrated during the Freedom March, so I'll end this reflection with a handful of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. himself:

"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

"Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular—but one must take it simply because it is right."