Our Rosa Parks Moments

I was very ready for a vacation this month. My new book was released on July 3, with a number of activities involved in the weeks before and after including occasional interviews, so it seemed imprudent to head off for vacation during that window. I also had a very gratifying but intense World Vision trip to Honduras in early September. By the time Janet and I headed to the South Carolina coast for a belated vacation the following week, we were both extremely ready for some Beach & Books time.

A hurricane named Florence had other plans.

After two restful days, a mandatory evacuation was ordered. We dutifully booked an inland B&B, packed up, and headed out. But this only provided a temporary breather, as we soon learned this town had been hard-hit with flooding two years earlier from Hurricane Matthew, and we realized we were far too focused on the coming storm during our supposed “holiday.”

We moved again, out of the storm’s projected path altogether to a lake home in rural Georgia.  The home didn’t turn out to be a very good place to relax, but we found ourselves on the Antebellum Trail and General Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. So, our restful respite morphed into an historical tourism trip.

We drove into Atlanta one day to visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and the Martin Luther King National Historical Park.  The M.L. King Center reconstructed the highly-charged context surrounding the Civil Rights movement. I contemplated the classic photo* of Rosa Parks sitting on a wooden bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. This African-American woman’s simple, defiant act of refusing to give up her seat to a white male passenger became a touchstone moment of that tumultuous era, eventually lurching our nation one step closer toward parity for people of all races.

I pondered: How could such a lonely, singular decision from a vulnerable woman shake social norms to their core? With all the “noise” back then and all the strife, who would have even known this was happening? Who was paying attention? Who recognized its drama and importance at the time? To what degree was it a catalyst and to what degree is it a symbol for many other encounters that have since faded from memory?

There she sat, alone in her winter coat, holding her purse on her lap, aware that her defiance could lead to arrest and become a highly-publicized legal battle, courageously standing in the gap for many… an enduring, historical image that helped chasten and change a nation.

For all the emotion and even vitriol surrounding this week’s she-said/he-said Senate committee hearing with Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, we may have witnessed our own stunning Rosa Parks Moment this Friday, when two female abuse survivors confronted Republican senator Jeff Flake at an elevator. Senator Flake had reportedly just announced his support for Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination without condition.

Shortly after his supremely awkward and riveting encounter with the two women, he huddled with a small bipartisan group of senators and announced a qualification: an FBI probe to look further into the matter. Why? “This country is being ripped apart here. We have to be sure we do due diligence,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome of the FBI probe, something amazing happened. In the moment of peak partisanship and deep crevasses in the American psyche, a lone senator has stood in the gap. He has not focused on whose testimony was more compelling, but looked at what it was doing to the country. And he realized that he could potentially make a difference, if he was willing to bear the burden of it.

Perhaps this is Sen. Flake’s historic moment. Perhaps this junior Arizona senator who has spent his senatorial career behind John McCain, who chose to not run for reelection in this toxic political environment, may be the statesman uniquely able to pull us back from the brink. Perhaps his last contribution in the senate will be his greatest. He took the singular, perhaps sacrificial road.

And as I listened to and then watched video of the two women confronting Sen. Flake, I felt their vulnerability. How could they ever hope to accomplish anything more than pathos in that charged setting? Would they be arrested for their Quixotic act, or worse? Why did they allow themselves to be so publicly emotional, so open about their personal pain and shame?

In their wounded way, perhaps they reflected something of the reckless audacity of the woman with the issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak. (Mark 5:24-34) Hers was an act of desperation and boldness, and she was called out from the crowd “trembling with fear” because of it. There was no anonymity, no hiding her shame. If a menstruating woman at that time was considered “unclean” for several days a month, this poor woman was perpetually and permanently unclean.

Yet as the result of her courage, healing came. First, she had to “come clean” about her situation. Then she became clean.

She risked being publicly vulnerable, though admittedly, she was the beneficiary of her audacity. So, what are we to make of Rosa Parks, who acted to break the chains of an unjust law for all her race? What are we to make of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, the two women who publicly declared their own sexual abuse on behalf of an entire gender and for every victim of such abuse? Did they actually hope to affect change somehow, despite such a daunting power differential? It was such a desperate Hail Mary as to be almost pathetic.

Except that someone actually listened. As deep calls unto deep, courage called out and aroused courage.

These are the real dramas. These are the moments that human history is made of, because they are human drama. They are moments of courage that can change the trajectory of discourse, can move a nation.

Someday, the tumult of this era will also be in the history books. What will be the Rosa Parks Moments that stand out from the noise of all the rest? Those are the moments I want to pay attention to the most.


September 2018

* a re-enactment photo taken shortly after the incident


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