Category Archives: Stories

The Desert Dweller (by Howard Thurman)

windowseat_thurman

I am a fairly new Howard Thurman fan. Most recently, I stumbled across this short essay he titled, “The Desert Dweller.”

He has lived in the desert so long that all of its moods have long since become a part of the daily rhythms of his life. But it is not that fact that is of crucial importance. For many years it has been his custom to leave a lighted lantern by the roadside at night to cheer the weary traveler. Beside the lantern there is a note which gives detailed directions as to where his cottage may be found so that if there is distress or need, the stranger may find help. It is a very simple gesture full of beauty and wholeness. To him it is not important who the stranger may be, it is not important how many people pass in the night and go on their way. The important thing is that the lantern burns every night and every night the note is there, “just in case.”

Years ago, walking along a road outside Rangoon, I noted at intervals along the way a roadside stone with a crock of water and, occasionally, some fruit. Water and fruit were put there by Buddhist priests to comfort and bless any passerby — one’s spiritual salutation to another. The fact that I was a traveler from another part of the world, speaking a strange language and practicing a different faith, made no difference. What mattered was the fact that I was walking along the road — what my mission was, who I was — all irrelevant.

In your own way, do you keep a lantern burning by the roadside with a note saying where you may be found, “just in case”? Do you place a jar of cool water and a bit of fruit under a tree at road’s turning, to help the needy traveler? God knows the answer and so do you!

Just Mercy

My colleague, Jessie, said that I needed to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I told her that I already had a sizable stack of books to read. She brought me a copy anyway. I read it. She was right.

Cue the Twilight Zone music because in the middle of the inspiring, troubling, quick read, I learned that Bryan Stevenson was scheduled to speak at Pepperdine this semester. I attended the lecture this past week and had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Mr. Stevenson afterward. It turned out that I needed to hear him speak, too.

So you can quit reading and buy the book now and thank me later.

If you need further encouragement, how about Desmond Tutu?

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all.”

Wow, you still haven’t purchased the book? Let’s try John Grisham:

“Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

Okay, I’m not playing around now. If justice and/or the American South and/or the United States of America and/or humanity means anything to you, read this book.

That’s all I need to write today, but as a bonus consider arguably the best line from Stevenson’s book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think about it: What is the worst thing you have ever done, and does that define you? Are you really best described as: Cheater? Thief? Addict? Criminal? Liar?

Well, if you answered Yes, I join Stevenson in declaring that you are not. But for those of us who answer No, then what allows us to define anyone else by their worst moment?

Freedom is Respect

As I reflect on last week’s inaugural (and wonderful) Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, the following passage from my hero, Will D. Campbell, comes to mind.

“The civil rights gains we have made are largely cosmetic,” my old friend, Kelly Miller Smith, told me just before he died. One would have expected to hear those words in earlier times, when the gains of black people had been more modest than it seemed to me they had been during his lifetime and mine. He had been a pivotal figure in it all. Buses and taxicabs, schools, restaurants, theaters, parks, swimming pools, as well as participation in the political process had all been desegregated since he and I had come to Tennessee from Mississippi in the rigidly, segregated decade of the fifties. He from a black church in Vicksburg, I from a white university in Oxford. His little daughter had been one of the nine brave children who faced the violent mobs to begin the slow and painful process of integrated education. The church he pastored for thirty-four years was headquarters for the massive sit-in movement. Quietly or obstreperously, whatever the situation indicated, he negotiated with mayors, governors, merchants, and owners such issues as employment, housing, fairness, and decency in general.

All that he had been party to and more. Yet here he lay, a few weeks from death, saying that all his efforts had produced no more than a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy as socially lethal as the one claiming his life. I protested with a roll call of the improvements he had presided over. He listened in his usual smiling, affable manner as I listed them one by one, beginning with public transportation in 1956 and concluding with his being a dean and teacher in one of the most prestigious universities in the South where he could not have been more than janitor not many years earlier.

“But they still don’t respect us,” he said sadly. After a long pause for needed oxygen, he continued. “Look at the television shows. Listen to the rhetoric on the streets. They still don’t respect us.”

His words were a startling awakening. How far I had missed the point of it all. How dissimilar the promised lands two Mississippi men had envisioned. To grant the truth of his words would be to acknowledge that the years of both of us had been wasted. He spoke with approval and gratefulness for the things I recited, but as he did it became clear to me that the one thing which was behind all else was never his. Respect.

Freedom is respect.

– Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat 269-70 (2002).

That is what gave me great joy this past week—the giving and receiving of respect.