I first learned about Ruby Bridges when Sue S told her story in the Adult Forum. You might know about Ruby. You might have seen the famous photograph of her on the school steps or the painting of her by Norman Rockwell.
In nineteen sixty, Ruby Bridges was six years old, and her New Orleans community was just beginning to integrate public schools as required by federal law. When Ruby, who is Black, set out to begin first grade, the parents in this overwhelmingly white school began pulling their children out of school. It delayed the start of the school year until November, and by then, every other student was boycotting school. But not Ruby. And not Ruby’s teacher, Barbara Henry. For the remainder of the year, Ruby had first grade by herself with Mrs. Henry.
Removing their kids from the school was not all that these parents did. Every day at eight o’clock and at two o’clock, a crowd would assemble outside the school in order to terrorize Ruby. (That’s why the pictures show her being accompanied by federal marshals.)
Now you know this crowd included patriotic, middle-class, Christian families. They were loving neighbors and parents, surely some of them were Sunday School teachers and scout leaders. Yet here they had begun a daily ritual of tormenting a six year old. Ruby was required to begin bringing her lunch from home after one woman in the crowd threatened to poison her food.
Can you imagine what this crowd saw every day when they looked at Ruby? They were scared of her! They’re scared that if a Black child could go to the same school as their child, well, that’s going to open the floodgates, that’s going to threaten the normal-way-things-are of white supremacy.
Can you imagine what Ruby saw every day when she had to make her way through the mob? She absolutely did see their faces and hear the names they called her. One time, she got scared when someone brought a child-sized coffin and showed her a Black doll inside of it.1https://biblemesh.com/blog/praying-for-your-enemies-ruby-nell-bridges/
I will tell you, I worry about what we see when we look at Ruby. Of course, she’s a phenomenal emblem of defiant courage. She just kept going to school until the crowd had to yield and the other children returned. I’m glad that we celebrate her and thank her for her service in dismantling segregation, but I worry, because it’s not like Ruby signed up to make us feel better. Her father got fired from his job. Her parents were banned from their grocery store. If all we do is look at her and declare her to be one more civil rights hero, we’ll be missing the point.
But what if there’s something more that we could learn from Ruby…
As we’re continuing our journey through the Fourth Gospel, the scripture that Judy read takes us right into the thick of the trouble. The people are struggling to understand who Jesus really is. And they are terrified. Most of them, anyway.
Now this story has a couple of problems that require us to hear it with care. For one thing, it employs the metaphor of seeing and blindness in order to represent understanding and confusion. We know that a person can be incisively brilliant and visually impaired, so we can hear this and reject the story’s ableist implications.
This is also one of those stories in John where the Gospel writer labels the opposing faction as “The Jews.” Now everybody in this story is Jewish; the label refers to one group that was at odds with another. We can hear this and reject the story’s anti-Jewish insinuations. Repenting means to look again. We haven’t even gotten to the action, and already our hearing begins from a place of repenting.
The story begins with a man who had just been healed by Jesus, but soon we’ll see, this is not any old healing story. When Jesus put mud on this man’s eyes and restored his vision, this miracle actually changed the vision of the entire community.
In the Gospel of John, everything is fluid, everything is constantly in motion. All through the story, the newly seeing man becomes more and more able to perceive things clearly until by the end, this man not only recognizes Jesus, but he says right out loud to the Lord: I believe in you. While this man is growing in his understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, others in the town are having the opposite experience. The Pharisees become divided. Some of them are beginning to understand, while others are growing increasingly perplexed.
There’s a hilarious moment when the Pharisees question whether the newly-seeing man was really the same man who used to be blind, as though becoming able to see made him look different! But really, as this man’s vision improves, many Pharisees are becoming less able to see clearly —so no wonder he’s blurry.
In order to find out whether this really is the man who used to be blind, the religious authorities summon his parents. Now these two are afraid of supporting the notion that Jesus could be the Messiah because talk like that could get you kicked out of the synagogue. So instead, these poor parents throw their son under the bus: We don’t know what to tell you, they say. Go back and ask him!
All through the story, everybody’s vision begins to change while the same thing is happening with courage. The ones who were in charge grow increasingly more fearful as the story unfolds.
Why are the temple authorities so afraid of a man who had been blind? All he’s doing is seeing!
Why is a crowd of parents so terrified of a six-year-old girl…
While the ones in charge become more and more afraid, the man who can see the Lord becomes more and more brave, even though he does get kicked out. He gets kicked out, then found by Jesus, then found by life, and all I’m saying is if that could happen to him…
All through the story, the brave ones become increasingly frightened while the most vulnerable ones become brave. The ones who thought they understood grow more and more confused, so there’s a good sermon here that goes: Be careful when you think you know what you know. Just because we’re convinced that something is true, that does not mean, we’re right. This invitation to humility is one that I need to hear often and maybe you do too, but you know what. This is not the sermon Church of Peace needs today.
You see, I don’t believe our greatest threat is being over-confident. The threat facing this congregation is we might be growing in understanding. We might begin to see what others do not yet see, and what do you suppose this is going to do to us? What if Church of Peace has to take a stand? What if other people start to see us doing that…
In the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing what some of you are seeing:
-There is concern for Afghan refugees who have settled in the Quad Cities and need everything from household items to meals they can eat.
-There’s concern for those who are languishing in solitary confinement.
-There’s concern for teachers who are getting threatened with book bans and cameras in the classroom.
-There’s concern for the people of Ukraine; some might come here as refugees needing our help.
People in this room are troubled by poverty, and war, and racism. We are more than a little worried about how the children are doing. Our hearts are being moved.
As a congregation, I know that we don’t agree on every issue, and we don’t have to, but I am hearing a rising concern for those who are vulnerable. And all I’m saying is, what if we’re not wrong?
You might see exactly how God is calling Church of Peace to take a stand, and the rest of us might need you to show us. Please write what you see on your magenta survey, or better yet, come and talk with any member of the Church Council.
The day might really come when Church of Peace will find itself stepping into the public eye and standing up for those who need help. Here’s the truth: we’re entering a season of getting up from the dead. Life is coming to get us! And I’m not sure there’s anything more terrifying.
I can tell you, I think Dorothy Bernard was right when she said: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” We might be braver than we think.
One morning, Ruby Bridges’ teacher asked her what she was saying to the crowd of people on her way up the steps. I wasn’t talking to them, explained Ruby. I was praying for them.
There’s a version of her prayer recorded as follows:
“Please God, try to forgive these people.
Because even if they say bad things,
they don’t know what they’re doing.
So you could forgive them…” 2https://www.49online.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=116&dataid=532&FileName=the%20story%20of%20ruby%20bridges%20text.doc
According to Robert Coles, the child psychologist who worked with Ruby, she didn’t just think up this prayer all on her own. Her parents taught her to pray. The minister in their Baptist congregation prayed out loud on Sundays for the crowd that was taunting Ruby.3Coles, Robert. The Inexplicable Prayers of Ruby Bridges. Christianity Today. 1985. And you know what that means. You know Ruby had a whole church of people praying for her! I’m not sure there’s anything more powerful.
You might be aware of a need, and wouldn’t you know, now we have to do something about it —even if our friends who don’t go to this church see us on the news, even if people begin to talk about us. This will take more courage than we want, but it won’t take more courage than we’ve got.
I can tell you what I see when I look at our church because if nobody has warned you somebody should: We are about to come back to life! Get ready.
|Coles, Robert. The Inexplicable Prayers of Ruby Bridges. Christianity Today. 1985.