Vincent Harding, one of America's pre-eminent Civil Rights workers and nonviolence advocates, died yesterday, May 19, 2014, just after 5:00 p.m.
I had exchanged emails with his wife, Aljosie Knight, less than three hours before he passed, and she had sent along her joyous news that she and Vincent were married in December.
That was typical of both Vincent and Aljosie: they dealt in joy, and they cultivated joy wherever they went.
But now Vincent is gone, and our loss is great; his life, a long and productive one, will stand forever as a monument to the power of love, compassion, and nonviolence. I will always remember that battered button he wore on his left lapel and which read simply: WAR IS TERRORISM.
I was not a close friend of Vincent's, although I had read much of what he had written. But when the Dalai Lama accepted my invitation to visit the University of Arkansas in 2011, I knew I wanted to have a panel discussion with only two other people, and so it was that I came to know Vincent Harding.
Small panels with His Holiness are tricky: you want strong personalities, well versed in their fields so that they won't be intimidated by His Holiness's formidable presence, but they mustn't be over-bearing. My wife and I thought of Sister Helen Prejean immediately—we had seen her speak several times and had helped to host her once in Fayetteville when she visited one of our local churches. My wife had also graduated from St. Joseph's Academy, the Catholic school in Baton Rouge where Sister Helen had begun her career. So Sister Helen was a natural choice.
As I began to look for a third panel member, I wanted a person of equal experience in the practice of nonviolence and compassion. Vincent's name appeared continually, both in the literature I consulted and the conversations I conducted.
Finally, one afternoon, thinking I had little chance of success, I called him. And halfway through our conversation, it dawned on me that I was speaking with the principal architect of Martin Luther King's critical Vietnam speech (which King delivered exactly one year before he was assassinated), and that this person, who had immediately accepted my invitation, was laughing and asking about my daughter, who was two at the time and was squealing in the background.
I have been around many great teachers in my life. Now I count Vincent among them, and this was my first instruction. I will never forget it.
Vincent's embodiment of compassion, joy, and nonviolence was ferocious and unwavering. No
exceptions: a complete stranger had called him unexpectedly one afternoon, asked him to share the stage with His Holiness and Sister Helen Prejean, he had accepted immediately, and transitioned naturally and inevitably into the joys of raising a little girl, only because he had heard my daughter laughing in the background. And over the next three years, whenever we spoke, he always asked about my daughter and my wife, and he always wanted stories.
"Tell me what your daughter is doing" he would say. And then he would laugh. And laugh. And in case I had missed his first teaching, this was his second teaching: love endures, when everything else fails. So make this your daily habit: love, and then love some more, and then find more people to love, and grow your beloved family, larger and larger, as the years roll by.
The panel discussion was such a success that I was able to bring Vincent back in 2012 to accept an honorary degree from Arkansas on December 15, 2012. (His Holiness received one while he was here, and Sister Helen returned in December, 2013 to receive hers.)
The celebratory banquet, a relatively small affair, was held on the evening of December 14, the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. All of us were stunned by the event, of course, and all of us sensed that we were deeply fortunate to be in such strong and compassionate company. Vincent's brief talk that night was one of the most stirring addresses I have heard. He had no notes. He spoke extemporaneously for ten minutes about the necessity of establishing our communities based on love and compassion, of caring for others, always at the risk of sacrificing our own well being, and he spoke credibly, precisely, and movingly.
It was the kind of performance that only those who have been in the trenches for decades can deliver—those who have given their lives to fighting for human dignity, often in grave danger of losing their own lives.
Vincent's loving authority was earned, and you knew that the moment he took the podium.
I have looked at the first photograph above many times since 2011. When I think of the Hydra-headed violence that has confronted these individuals for decades—extreme and systemic racism, murder, assassination, cultural genocide—and I look into their eyes, I see only joy and resolution and compassion.
And when I am around them, I feel only those emotions, even though each of them carries an accurate assesment of just how strong violence and hatred can become and just how deeply these hostile forces can hurt and maim us.
But you know what?
When I'm dealing with the comparatively low-grade violence that confronts me in my efforts to prevent gun-violence, whether it's the gun-trolls, spewing their rage and their hatred and their anger, or a local politician droning on about the necessity of arming ourselves in Walmart, I look at this picture, and I know that whatever is blazing within these folks' souls . . . well, that's what I need. I know, in short, that I want to be in their corner. They are my coaches.
And make no mistake about it, these folks are blazing with love.
They have taught me that this fire is infinitely available to each one of us. And that love wins. Always. With no exceptions. And that violence loses. Always. With no exceptions.
Because violence numbs us.
Finally, when I look at this picture, I know at some very deep place I cannot clearly describe that I want to avoid this numbness—ethical, emotional, psychological—at all costs. I know too that in a media-saturated culture this is difficult to do.
Thank you, Vincent Harding, for leaving behind a lifelong instruction on that simple lesson. Because of your life's work, we are, all of us, a little less numb to the suffering of others.