In his recent Higher Ground posting, Alvin paid homage to his personal hero, Joshua Abraham Heschel, and challenged us to reflect on own. Known for issuing a similar challenge is Johnetta Cole, former President of Atlanta’s Spelman College and now Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., who always acknowledges the “SHEroes” in the room. Everyone, Dr. Cole says, should name and thank the women in their lives who have helped make them who they are.
My list of “SHEroes” is long, but I want to lift up a couple. The first is my 9th Grade English teacher, who was slender, smart, and wore her glasses on a chain around her neck. She never has been written up in Wikipedia,but she had an outsized effect on those who landed in her realm. She loved words. She knew how they ought to be put together. She taught in such a compelling way that her class came to love words, sentences, and paragraphs and then novels, plays, and poems. Writing and speaking words, trusting that they convey truth and hope: that’s what I have done with my life. Without Mrs. Sanford, I wouldn’t be me.
Fast forward to Seminary, which I entered when I was 30 years old, a wife, and a mother of two. At the time, I had never heard a woman preach a sermon or pray in public. There was only one woman on the faculty, but that was enough. A distinguished scholar who taught and preached and prayed beautifully, she assured us anxious female students that we could do so as well. Without Dr. Gonzalez, I would not be me.
In an interview years ago, Maya Angelou recalled a pivotal encounter with her mother. Her mother and she had had a long conversation in her mother’s big, fourteen room house in San Francisco. After the talk, Angelou recalled, “We walked out of the house and down the hill. Mama knew that I would not take a ride from her, that I had to take the streetcar that I had to own myself. And she said, ‘You know, baby, I think you are the greatest woman I have ever met.’”
Ms. Angelou remembered thinking, “[My mother] is very intelligent, and she is too mean to lie. So, suppose she’s right. Suppose I really am somebody. . . At times like that, the whole earth holds its breath.” The two kissed, then moved apart, but “in that brief exchange, something in my life changed forever.”
Each of us is on this earth to do the one thing that we alone can do. Be grateful for the people in your life who have helped you find your giftedness, the calling that belongs to you alone. But even more important: Who is waiting for a word of affirmation and confidence from you? Maybe God put you and me on this earth, not so much to succeed, but to encourage others to be their best and highest selves!
-Rev. Joanna Adams