Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 3:23-39) transports me to an unforgettable bus ride I made sometime in the late 90s, maybe 2000, with a group of college students, faculty, and community members. It was a reenactment of the Freedom Bus Rides, and we made our way from Mars Hill to Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Nashville to experience some of the history of the struggle for civil rights. Along the way, we watched episodes of Eyes on the Prize, and when we arrived at each city, we visited historic sites and museums and even got to meet some of the civil rights activists we had seen on the documentary. We received training in nonviolent social change from Bernard Lafayette, one of Martin Luther King’s “lieutenants,” responsible for organizing the Selma movement. Most of us were familiar with some of the big name leaders who championed civil rights: King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and a few other heroes, but that trip enabled us to learn about and meet some of the many foot soldiers whose names are not so recognizable. One of my most cherished memories is the day we spent with Ms. Johnnie Carr in Montgomery. None of us, I’m now embarrassed to say, had ever heard of her before we met her that morning. She got on our bus and accompanied us to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the first stop on our tour of Montgomery. We got off the bus only to find that the Center was closed to the public due to security concerns; their work had earned them more than a few bomb threats from the hate groups they were monitoring. Johnnie Carr walked up to one of the security guards, had a brief conversation, and first thing you know, the guard was escorting us in. Throughout the day, we learned that Johnnie Carr commanded respect and could get things done like nobody we had ever met. We were treated to a fascinating history lesson from this woman whose work in civil rights did not begin with the bus boycott of the late 1950s. Johnnie Carr shared with us the story of a time in 1944 when she and her good friend, Rosa Parks, worked with the local chapter of the NAACP to support Recy Taylor, a young black woman who had been gang-raped by six white supremacists. The gross injustice of six acquittals by an all white, all male jury provided further fuel for the passion of Parks and Carr and others to continue their fight for equality. Johnnie Carr’s work did not end with the signing of the Civil Rights Bill or the Voting Rights Act, either. She became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (the group that organized the bus boycott) in 1967, and remained in that role until her death in 2008, at the age of 97.
Had there been an Eyes on the Prize film for Jesus to watch as a young man, documenting the long march to freedom for his people, there would no doubt be some familiar names with heroic stories, but there would also be a long list of foot soldiers whose names no one would recognize. Here in today’s Passage, at the onset of Jesus’ ministry, Luke inserts a list of the people along the way who made it possible for the Lord to find his place on the family tree of faith. Most of us know something about the stories of Adam, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of King David. But these are about the only names on the long list of 77 names who got some decent coverage in holy writ, whose stories were “above the fold” as they say. Of the others, 40 names are not even mentioned anywhere else in the Bible (see if you can find some intel on Melea, Menna, or Mathatha). Another 30 only get listed among the begats. But they all played their part, keeping hope alive and keeping the promise alive toward the day when their dream of liberation and salvation would no longer be deferred. I can imagine Jesus’ parents showing him this tall family tree, reminding him that while there were indeed some famed folks on some of those branches, there were an awful lot of what the world would consider nobodys. Forgotten folks. Marginalized, neglected, invisible. And maybe that’s why Jesus felt so at home among the nobody’s of his own community. Maybe that’s why he reached out to the marginalized and forgotten folk, those whose names would never get into the history books.
I met one other memorable person on that bus trip whose name most people are not likely to recognize. We spent the first Sunday of the trip worshiping at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King grew up and eventually became pastor. Bernard Lafayette had arranged for our group to have a brief meeting with Coretta Scott King after the service. I missed meeting her, foregoing the opportunity so that I could go and spend a few minutes with Sonny Emory. The name probably doesn’t mean much to you. That he was the son-in-law of Ebenezer’s pastor, Joseph Roberts, probably doesn’t make a huge impression, either, nor the fact that he was a special guest in the praise band that day. I was dying to meet him, though, enough to give up the chance to meet Coretta Scott King, because he had been the drummer for Earth, Wind, and Fire. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell him about the high school R & B band I had played in, Soular System, which covered some Earth Wind and Fire tunes. I don’t regret it, even though it’s probably decisions like this that will ensure my own name’s place among the ranks of the obscure. I figure, though, if it was good enough for Neri and Melki and Addi and Cossam and Elmadam and Er, it’s good enough for me.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.