A few days ago, April 4th, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t learn about Dr. King in school. Maybe his life and his death and his legacy were perceived as being still too immediate to be taught as a matter of historical record. After all, by the time I finished high school, it had only been sixteen years since he had been slain.
History is taught by the privileged and those who had the most to lose in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s still occupied the halls of power when I was a boy. And they still do. The content of my textbooks was written by those whose best interests were served by obscuring uncomfortable truths. And even today, as the President of the United States reads a prepared statement paying tribute to the good works of MLK, I can’t help but marvel at the irony of laudatory words coming from those who would have denigrated and condemned him in his lifetime.
Social justice is often slow to come. Sometimes it marches at a glacial pace and sometimes it carries the speed of the ocean when a meteor has unleashed a tsunami. Dr. King was one of those meteors and the waves his work created will be felt as long as ocean water continues to land upon beaches. We may not always remember what causes the waves that wash over the ground we stand on, but that won’t make the water any less relentless and we’ll feel its power even when we don’t understand it.
I read a little story this week about brick layers. The first of them goes to work each day, completes his tasks efficiently, if not passionately, and then returns home each evening. He thinks of himself as having a job and his current contract involves the construction of a church. The second brick layer works beside the first and is doing the same work but he tends to specialize in the particular needs of church construction and when he clocks out and goes home, he doesn’t think of his labour as being his job, he thinks of it as his career. A third bricklayer, on the same job site, works side by side with the first two laying brick and mortar just as his colleagues do but he has a different perspective. When he returns home in the evening, just as tired and identically compensated as the other two, he thinks of himself as having spent the day building God’s house, doing God’s work.
One hundred years from now, that building may still be standing and each brick may have been laid as expertly as the next, but the hands that did the work felt the weight of those bricks differently. Many of us are the first brick layer. Some of us are the second. And a few of us are the third brick layer. Perhaps it’s our perspective that determines the strength we have and the burdens we can bear. Maybe Dr. King was a third brick layer.
A short time ago, I thought I saw my old friend Jeoff’s face in the crowd. I quickly realized I was mistaken because Jeoff died a few months ago. I related this incident to another friend who also knew Jeoff for forty-five years and my friend said that he completely understood. That in a way, Jeoff is as present in his life now as he has ever been. And the same is true for me.
I only saw Jeoff a few times in the last twenty years of his life but I see him and hear him and feel his influence all the time now. When I hear a certain song by a band he introduced me to. When I drive by the old neighbourhood where we used to live. When I hear a home run call by a francophone baseball announcer.
It’s not hard for me to stay in touch with Jeoff, so to speak. In fact, it would probably be more difficult to avoid it. Jeoff was a force of nature whose life created a sound, a song, that echos in my life more days than not. Sometimes it’s present only as a feeling that I can’t quite name or as a memory that I can’t quite place, but it’s always near, sometimes in ways I don’t always understand. Something was tugging at my mind this week. Something in the calendar. But I couldn’t place it until this morning. Right around dawn. Today would have been Jeoff’s birthday. I remember now. And even when I don’t remember, I don’t think I really ever forget.
As this day continues to unfold, I’m getting ready to head out to do a fantasy baseball draft with some old friends, some of whom were Jeoff’s old friends too. It’s always been a little bit of a mystery to me how the bonds of childhood friendship can remain so strong over the decades. Shared experiences in informative times has a lot to do with it but I think there’s something more to it. What I’ve realized is that these childhood friendships endure because they were built upon the foundations of generosity. We were so very generous with our time. We shared it freely and without condition. It was really all we had and yet we gave it away. We built with solid bricks that were and remain weightless.
Some of the time I value the most, that stays with me forever, is the time I was most willing to give away.
Happy Birthday, Jeoff.