In June, 2015 two separate events captured the attention of not only the United States but also countries on other continents. Yes, indeed. We were part of the good, the bad and the very ugly. I wrote this piece the day after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was the law of the land, the day of the funeral for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was one of the Emanuel Nine in Charleston, South Carolina.
Traveling to East Tennessee last week, Pretty and I listened to a collection of Patti Page hits. One of the songs she sang in this album which was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1997 was Cross Over the Bridge – a song I hadn’t heard since 1954 when Patti originally recorded it – but one I remembered singing while my mother played the yellow piano keys of the ancient upright piano in our living room in the tiny town of Richards in rural Grimes County, Texas. My mom bought sheet music like some people bought cigarettes back then…she was addicted to it. One of her favorites was Cross Over the Bridge so naturally eight-year-old me learned the lyrics as my mother sang and played which meant I was able to sing along with Patti in the car while Pretty and I rode through the gorgeous vistas of the Upstate of South Carolina toward the incredible views of the mountains in East Tennessee. Mine eyes did see the glory.
Cross over the bridge, cross over the bridge…Change your reckless way of living, cross over the bridge…Leave your fickle past behind you, and true romance will find you, Brother, cross over the bridge.
Admittedly this is a love song in the tradition of the 1950s favorite sentiments, but as I was trying to digest and cope with the overwhelming seesaws of emotion I felt yesterday, crossing bridges came to mind.
Yesterday morning I woke up in a new world…truly a new world for me and my family. The Supreme Court of the United States lifted my status as a citizen. I was no longer “lesser than.” I was a person who mattered. By recognizing the fundamental right to marry for all same-sex couples in every state in the nation, SCOTUS recognized me as a person who was entitled to my own pursuit of happiness with life and liberty guaranteed as a bonus.
Two years to the day after the favorable ruling in the Edie Windsor case that gave equal federal treatment to the same-sex marriages recognized in twelve states and the District of Columbia at the time, the Supremes crossed a bridge to leave a fickle past of outright discrimination behind all of us and yes, to allow true romance for whoever we love. We crossed a bridge to walk a path toward full equality for the entire LGBTQ community because of the efforts of people who worked at coming out to their parents, friends, co-workers – everyone in their daily lives – to reveal their authentic selves.
It was a day of rejoicing for Pretty and me in our home; we were beside ourselves with an emotional high as the breaking news unfolded on the television before our eyes. To hear a Gay Men’s Chorus sing our national anthem outside the building in Washington, D.C. where history was being made brought chills and tears to our eyes. We savored the moment together.
But the celebration was cut short by the next four hours of the television coverage of the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the Emanuel Nine slain in his church in Charleston, South Carolina the week before when he was leading a Bible Study group at the church. The celebration of his life was a long one for a man who had lived the relatively short life of only forty-one years. But this man’s life had counted for more than his years.
He began preaching at the age of thirteen and was a pastor at eighteen years of age. The men and women who reflected on Reverend Pinckney’s life did so with exuberance and humor as they told their personal stories of interacting with him as friends, family and co-workers. The picture that emerged was that of a good man who loved his family, his church and his country with its flawed history of systemic racism. He was a man on a mission to make life better for those who felt they had no voice to speak about their basic needs of food and shelter, their educational opportunities, a flawed criminal justice system. He was a man who cared, he was passionate about making a difference.
He was murdered by another kind of man who had a reckless way of living and a disregard for the sanctity of human life. He was murdered by a white man who was taught to hate the color black as a skin color in a society too often divided by colors, creeds and labels. We need to change our reckless way of living as a people.
We need to open our eyes and our hearts to see glimpses of truth, as the old hymn admonishes. Open our eyes that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me. And may we not just see the truth, but may we speak and act as though the truth is important because it is. When our eyes are opened, for example, to the pain the Confederate Flag flying on the public state house grounds inflicts on a daily basis to many of our citizens, we must make every effort to take it down. We must speak up and act out. (the flag came down on July 10, 2015)
President Obama spoke in his eulogy about the grace that each of us has from God, but that none of us earned. Regardless of our concept of God, we know grace is unmerited favor. We live in a country of contrasts and sometimes conflicts, but for those of us to whom grace has been given, we are compelled to share this bounty with everyone we encounter – whether they agree or disagree with us in our political ideals. This is harder to practice than preach. Reverend Clementa Pinckney both preached and practiced grace in his life as he crossed another kind of bridge – a bridge we will all cross at some point.
The tragedy of his untimely crossing took Pretty and me on a roller coaster of emotions as we watched the funeral yesterday. From the euphoria of the Supreme Court ruling early in the morning to the depths of despair as we remembered the losses of the Emanuel Nine during the funeral of Reverend Pinckney to the stirring tribute filled with hope by President Barak Obama that raised our spirits once again to believe in the possibility of grace; we crossed over two bridges in one day that we will never forget. Patti Page had none of this in mind when she sang her love song in 1954, but I’d like to think my mother would be happy to know her music inspired more than a little girl’s learning to carry a tune.
Five years later we continue to cross over the bridges of systemic racism that divide us in this country. The murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 ignited marchers in the streets around the world to cross bridges for civil rights with similar passions to those of John Lewis and the others who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. I believe the Black Lives Matter movement along with the passing of civil rights icons Congressmen John Lewis and Elijah Cummings were the beginning of the end for a Trump presidency that failed spectacularly to successfully combat an enemy known as Covid 19 in 2020 – an administration committed more to the stock market than the welfare of its citizens, a presidency that encouraged politics of divisiveness over unity, a political party with ongoing threats to democratic cornerstones. The loss of nearly 300,000 American lives was, and continues to be, a bridge too far of failed leadership that resulted in the contentious removal of a one-term impeached president by 81 million plus voters in the November election; 74 million people voted to re-elect him. But that’s a topic for another day.
Stay safe, stay sane and please stay tuned.