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As promised, here is the first installment: a “snippet” of life to glean hope and inspiration. I begin with John Lewis, the man who inspired this blog series.
I was on my parent’s bed. I couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12. The windows were dark, my father was barely awake beside me, the old Philco TV flickered black and white footage from the PBS documentary on the Civil Rights Era, Eyes on the Prize. The first episode I had watched by accident, again beside my half awake father. What I saw viscerally changed me: Emmet Till’s mutilated face. A week later I returned to the series, not for a horror show, but seeking some sort of understanding. What I found was a young, bold man, the Rev. John Lewis. I watched the footage of the Freedom Rides, learned of the angry crowd that greeted Rev. Lewis in Montgomery, the crowd that beat and bloodied him.
How did he possess that kind of courage?
He answered my earnest question many times throughout his life in interviews and through his public service. The answer is fairly simple: faith. John Lewis began preaching at age 15. His faith propelled him into the heart of the civil rights movement shortly after. At 23 during the March on Washington he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the head of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). There, he boldly demanded justice.
His fellow Freedom Rider, Jim Zwerg, described John as the one whose faith steadied everyone else: "You knew if you were going to stand with John on a bus platform, John wasn’t going to run. He was going to stand there with you.” This steady, undeterred faith led John from Freedom Rides to the floor of Congress where he fought unrelentingly for justice through gun reform, LGTBQ+ rights, voter protection, education equality and more.
John Lewis’ faith was a steady courage fed by worldly hope. He often reminded people that when fighting for justice there would be setbacks, but you had to keep showing up, you had to be consistent. With this dogged persistence you would get there. Hope was not a sentiment to him; it was a discipline for political change.
We are on the eve of a referendum in which America will decide who America is: racist or equal, inclusive or exclusive, cruel or kind, just or unjust. John Lewis reminds us that if we are to change the world, we can’t just vote and forget. We must be dogged, not episodic; hopeful, not angry. Above all, we must be grounded in a faith that sustains disciplined hope.
Disclaimer: This blog may feel a whole lot more about me than about the saint I would like to celebrate: Tonya. This may be true. If you can, bear with me. The only way I can express the impact this every day saint has had on the world is through my own experience, particularly what I learned about myself in her presence.
And for Tonya: Thank you for letting me share this. How often I pray for you.
Tonya and I began Colgate University in the fall of 1994. We had both made it to our first year at college on our own merits you could argue, but looking back I see now what different worlds we came from. I was groomed for private college in every stereo typical way you can imagine. I graduated from an elite private school and was the fourth generation in my family to attend college. I was not only prepared for the academic rigor of college, but also the social expectations which were much more difficult to navigate.
When I arrived at Colgate, I felt freed from the social constraints of my prep school. I quickly assessed who was comfortable in that world, which girls had possession of their daddy’s credit cards so they could purchase all the J Crew their hearts desired, and just how the social hierarchy would establish itself. Although I did not possess my daddy’s credit card, I could have tried to establish myself in that unspoken elite circle. I had no interest. I never looked back. Instead, within the first semester, I discovered an ever widening circle of extraordinary 18 years olds, earnestly, if not clumsily, finding their way in the world. Some were prep school kids, others were first generation college students, others were overwhelmed by the demands of the classroom, others aced organic chemistry. It was in one of these ever widening circles that I met Tonya for the first time. Meeting her challenged me to the very core.
I wanted to leave the social elitism in which I had marinated for years. I thought I had the moment I walked onto Colgate’s campus. I truly desired to be better than noticing if someone was wearing J Crew or if they had extensive orthodontic work. I yearned to be a real-Jesus-following-inclusive college student. Yes, this sounds overly earnest, but this was my 18 year old self.
First let me tell you the person Tonya was the moment I met her: genuine and deeply kind. Engaged in the world around her in such a way that you knew she loved the human race with all of its flaws. She also lacked all the unwritten private school social rules I was used to. She was unapologetically real and almost loud. Not volume loud, but the kind of genuine-eager-engaged loud. There was nothing couth about her. There was also nothing disingenuous about her. Tonya was 100% who she was and lived into the fullness of that person. 25 years later, theologically trained, I would describe her this way: When God called Tonya by name, she heard it loud and clear, greeted God without hesitation, and lived fully into her God-given gifts God, ignoring every challenge, perhaps almost bulldozing right through them.
It should also be noted that NO ONE has ever described me as quiet nor demure. So why was I so overwhelmed by Tonya’s genuine engagement with the world. I think it was simple: she was unself- conscious in a way I yearned to be. She was lovingly engaged in the world in a way I sought to be. Tonya's example helped me be less concerned about what people thought of me and more concerned about the impact I had on others. Yes this perhaps sounds simple, but to an 18 year old it was an enormously life changing.
At first glance Tonya did not have all of the expensive grooming available to me in prep school world, but at second glance because she was freed from that “grooming” she had discovered the things that truly mattered. Before I met Tonya I thought I didn’t care about such grooming, but my initial reaction to Tonya made me face the truth-- I still did. I wanted to live in both worlds. Yet living in both worlds was not possible if I really wanted to enjoy the freedom of being simply who I was. This was the beginning of a journey, I'm still on (I still am too concerned about what others think of me). I am grateful for the important journey Tonya sent me on: fully embracing the person I was and the person others were regardless of social standards, but instead based on the gifts they shared in relation to others.
Tonya is dying of cancer. Her story is unjust. Not long after meeting the love of her life, she was diagnosed with cancer. Recently her trip to Paris was canceled due to COVID. She is now under the care of hospice. She has recently had to stop working which is her calling -- a school psychologist. Yet in all of this I recognize Tonya is still 100% the person she has always been. She is still building community. Her facebook posts are still filled with honesty, thanksgiving, love, heart ache. She is still her authentic “loud” self. This loud self has given others, including myself, permission to live fully into the life given us, genuinely, celebrating the gifts God has given, and always connecting with others.
Tonya is a saint. I am positive she would tell me she is not. But she is. A reminder: to be a saint is simple. It means to live in the world in a way in which you leave it is better. I am only one small part of that better world Tonya has created. I am sure there are classrooms of children who can attest to the difference she has made in their lives.
Thank you Tonya for being who you are. I am praying and praying that the days you have left are filled with as much joy and love as they have always been.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.