Last weekend, I had the experience of a lifetime and the most interesting Palm Sunday ever. I travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina to visit one of the city’s most unobtrusive residents, Dovey Johnson Roundtree; a silent giant who spent 75 years of her life using the lectern, pulpit, and the love of God to impact her community. Today, she spends most of her time in a wheel chair. Her mind seems perpetually adrift, when in fact she is ever-present in the moment, just selective about what she responds to.
The pretext for the visit was to find a lucid moment and tap into the brain trust about the relationship between the 14th amendment and education reform (the law and education – two disciplines that are embedded on her heart and embodied in her actions). Leading up to the event, I watched as many videos and read as much about her on the internet as I could. My readings included her book called Justice Older Than the Law, an award-winning memoir of her life co-authored by Katie McCabe. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience I had; one not of academic value, but of greater spiritual relevance.
I entered the health and rehabilitation center, signed the guest book, and walked straight to her room. Although she was not there, my unimpeded stroll to her sleeping quarters should have served as a neon sign that I would be in the presence of someone extremely approachable. There was a woman sitting in the dayroom across the hall whom I dismissed as possibly her because I was so certain I knew her physical attributes. I looked for her in several other resident gathering spaces and even asked staff members on other halls where she might be. It turns out, she was the first woman I saw in the dayroom. I should have known that she is a quiet soul who possesses the ability to blend in anywhere.
I began talking to her. Her eyes were closed, brows were furrowed, chin was tucked to her chest, and her arms were folded. She did not respond to my unfamiliar voice. I sang a song to her and it was as if there was merely a corpse seated in the wheel chair. My travel companion, quiet in her approach, gently touched her hand. Ms. Dovey’s eyes opened and her spirit awakened. She began to speak of spiritual things – blessings of the day, the glories of God’s gifts, and the mysteries of Christ’s love unveiled. I took the cover off my lens and began shooting the development of this organic bond building that seemed to authenticate this silent giant I had previously only read about. The knowledge I had obtained about her accomplishments and awards for her, were merely footsteps in a life’s journey that, until that day, had persistently ambled for 99 years 361 days. I wasn’t aware until then that stillness is both her sword and her slipper.
A child born in 1914 of humble and meager southern beginnings, she persevered against the odds to become a teacher, an army officer, a lawyer, a civil rights activist, a minister, an author and an advocate for children and poor people in her community. Throughout her life, she blazed the trails before her and lighted the paths behind her while standing firm on the foundation of her faith. Wondering how she could and questioning if she would, were not threads in the tapestry that is Ms. Dovey; answering the call of her Lord and Savior are. She knows all too well the meaning of the words that Josh Wilson put to music in his song Pushing Back the Dark – “(Let your lights all shine…). Oh, oh, don’t underestimate the God you follow. He is the light that burns inside your soul, So keep on shining ’til the whole world knows. Whatever you do, just don’t look back. Oh somebody needs the light you have. Whatever you do, just don’t lose heart. Keep on pushing back the dark, Just keep on pushing back the dark.” His child still and almost an earthly centenarian, she continues to be a beacon of light that is used to repel darkness in this world.
A few hours into the visit, a stately spirit, with a spouse in tow, arrived. Being a woman of the cloth and of proper southern upbringing, she entered the room and gently inquired about our relationship to Ms. Dovey. Having been Ms. Dovey’s hairdresser and confidante turned minister, they had a special closeness that only comes with 40 years of friendship. When my travel companion explained that she built an affordable living apartment building for senior citizens across the street from the church that Ms. Dovey preached at for 35 years and named the building Roundtree Residences in honorarium, and I pulled up a photo of the building from my phone, the Mrs. Reverend warmly welcomed us and invited us to the service she and the Mr. Reverend were having for the residents.
We went to a multi-purpose room to worship and sat amongst people whose bodies and minds had failed them, but whose souls were still alive. The small crowd of 20 or so were a diverse group who enjoyed singing praise to the Lord and being fed by His word. Hymns familiar to any Christian denomination, including Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, and It Is Well, were selected by the amalgamous congregants to honor the Savior. The Mr. Reverend taught a sermonette from Psalm 100 which says, “Raise your voices; make a beautiful noise to the Eternal, all the earth. 2 Serve the Eternal gladly; enter into His presence singing songs of joy! 3 Know this: the Eternal One Himself is the True God. He is the One who made us; we have not made ourselves; we are His people, like sheep grazing in His fields. 4 Go through His gates, giving thanks; walk through His courts, giving praise. Offer Him your gratitude and praise His holy name. 5 Because the Eternal is good, His loyal love and mercy will never end, and His truth will last throughout all generations.” (The Voice) The Mrs. Reverend, who had a voice and a hat that made Aretha Franklin sound and appear conventional and routine, then asked me to read from the gift my travel companion brought for Ms. Dovey – a copy of the District of Columbia proclamation which made March 13, 2013 Dovey Johnson Roundtree Day. The most widely known accomplishments and accolades in the proclamation were three pages long. As I read, the most muddled minds in the room became lucid as the crowd applauded and cheered. The spirits that appeared to slumber through the message, found voices that filled the room with amen, hallelujah, and praise God! The silent giant then gave a coherent speech that told a story illustrating that faith makes anything possible. By the end, I found myself lost in a fog of perplexity caused by the infinite number of relevant lessons presented when God fills a place with His spirit, reminding us that we are all his children and he has given each of us a calling as well as a purpose.
My greatest revelations from the experience were:
- David was not great because he slew Goliath but because God destined him to greatness and David answered his calling
- God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary for His kingdom
- Jesus gave His life to bring us all to the same place
- Amazing things happen when we come together with a common focus of worshiping Him
- Our most luminous moments occur when seeking and praising Him
Lincoln Brewster says it so well in Majestic with, “Oh Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth. The heavens declare Your greatness. The oceans cry out to You. The mountains, they bow down before You. So I’ll join with the earth and I’ll give my praise to You…”