The lesson: One woman's courageous act changed the national tide.
Rosa Parks' decision did help catalyze a revolution in race relations. But hers was not the action of a single individual. Rather, it was the culmination of a long-standing religious commitment nurtured in a community of faith. That commitment, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," inspired Parks and other civil rights pioneers to fight injustice in the same spirit of forgiveness with which Jesus met his fate.
In today's media environment, where religion is portrayed either as a cat's paw in the culture wars or a breeding ground for murderous rage, it's hard to imagine a faith-based movement espousing quiet acts of resistance. Do such communities exist today? If so, how can we find them?
These questions arise each time one of my journalism students wants to write about religious folks whose politics differ from the Christian right's. I point them to activist groups and advise them to find compelling stories. But I warn them not to expect much interest from the mainstream media. Reporting on people of faith working under the radar for change over time is not the stuff of headlines. Neither is the spiritual journey that underlies heroic acts like Parks'.
Take her media makeover. When she boarded that Montgomery city bus, her convictions had been shaped by years of service in the NAACP and her local African Methodist Episcopal church. The summer before, she'd spent several weeks at the Highlander Folk School, an institute for social change begun by faculty and former students of Union Theological Seminary in New York.
But the media, both then and now, depict her as an accidental hero who made an on-the-spot decision that she'd had enough. The distance between the reality and the "story" is the difference between an individual and a movement, a lone act and an ongoing strategy, a weary worker and a spiritual warrior.
The morning before the Parks anniversary, I faced my own transportation challenge as I crawled on the 110 Freeway toward Pasadena and Fuller Theological Seminary. The largest and most diverse nondenominational evangelical seminary in the United States, Fuller was hosting a breakfast for Jewish and evangelical clergy. The session, initiated by Rev. Richard Mouw, Fuller's president, and Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, was a first step in exploring the two traditions' shared desire to do tikkun olam, the Jewish notion of repairing the world.
Over bagels and lox, about 40 rabbis, pastors and laypeople discussed Isaiah 58:3-7, the biblical passage traditionally read on Yom Kippur and echoed in Matthew 25:35-40. Its message is that God views rote fulfillment of ritual obligations as less important than feeding the hungry, freeing the captive and fighting social evils.
A growing percentage of Jews vote Republican, and many evangelicals' missionary work resembles what progressives term "social justice" — building homes for the poor, ministering to the distraught, preventing AIDS in Africa. But Mouw was referring to the prevalence of liberal attitudes among Jews and evangelicals' tendency toward conservatism when he asked the group: "How is it that people of the book, who take Scripture so seriously, can be so often at odds in the public square?"
At my table, ministers and rabbis agreed that congregants were desperate to do something besides write a check. But what? Mouw and Diamond called the session a first step in building a faith-based coalition that could work on public policy issues. They didn't expect to overcome theological differences in one meeting or even many. But by exploring what they had in common, Jews and evangelicals might find areas of mutual concern.
If the next Rosa Parks was not in that room, she may be listening and learning in a church or synagogue. She might work sewing clothes in a sweatshop, picking fruit in a migrant labor camp or cleaning bathrooms in a hotel.
And maybe this time, when she challenges our assumptions about how people should treat each other, we in the media will be more willing to reflect on how faith can change a nation.