After some 50 years, Vincent Harding, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Eastern Mennonite University once again. His smallish, unassuming manner and subdued speech belied an internal strength that permeated his comments and his life.
During a chapel address at EMU, he outlined numerous people from whom he had received love, and how these people shaped him into the person he is. It reminded me of the book Strength to Love written by his friend, whom he affectionately referred to as Martin. Hearing him speak, shaking his hand and exchanging introductions, made me feel part of a living history.
His mother, his church community in New York City, and his elementary school teachers were all people whom he listed as his “lovers.” Then he was drafted into the army. He absolutely loved basic training; he was good at hitting the target with his rifle and was proficient at using a bayonet. At some point, however, he heard a voice with the question, “Vincent, how does learning to kill another human being square with your understanding of Jesus, who taught you to love your enemies?”
He didn’t identify the voice as coming from God, and he didn’t elaborate on how he left or stayed in the army, but identified the voice as “love that loved him into life.” Upon release he found himself at the University of Chicago doing graduate work in history. It was there that he met a “strange group of people” who were the Mennonites. Eventually he became a pastor in a Mennonite Church on the south side of Chicago that was one of the few churches interested in staying and ministering in a neighborhood where whites were leaving in droves and blacks were taking their place.
Through the Mennonite Central Committee, he and his wife Rosemarie, the first black graduate of Goshen College, established a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit in Atlanta, Georgia, a few blocks from the home of Martin Luther King.
There is more that I could say about his life’s story and his comments yesterday, but I’d like to focus on his character. I kept asking myself as I observed him, how can this man be so calm, so collected, with love exuding from his every pore? After facing dogs and water hoses, irrational hatred and jail, how can he be so serene? Why isn’t he consumed by anger, by the wish for revenge? After all, only a few things have changed since the Civil Rights movement reached its height in the late 60s.
He claimed that his “strength to love” came from being loved, and named those who loved him. I suspect something much deeper. I believe that he has a spiritual life that goes beyond saying a few prayers around meal time and reading a quick devotional before beginning his day. True, receiving love from the people he named is a very important element, but that love needs to be sustained by a divine love that one can only find through a deep relationship with God. That is the only way one can sustain a true love for enemies and overcome anger and the desire for revenge.
Vincent Harding is a wonderful example of someone who combines a deep spirituality; an inner world, with a deep commitment to social justice; work in the outer world. Would that there were more Christians following his example.