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Her Knees Wouldn’t Bend

MEGreenIn 1976 I was attending worship at the Brick Meeting House, which sits in the heart of Calvert, Maryland, a rural community that was built by Quakers in the 18th century. In its termite-ridden library, really not more than a little cupboard with shelves, I found a first edition of Harriet Tubman’s journal. I do not consider myself a snob about first editions, but there was just something special about holding that book in my hands knowing that it had been published while Harriet Tubman was still alive and advocating for the rights of all. Thrilling, really.

The Brick Meeting House, which had been inactive but not laid down, had few modernizations and allowed visitors the opportunity to be transported to an earlier time, when survival meant going to the nearby stream to get water. Though this community started out as a Quaker community, by 1976 it was heavily influenced by a nearby community that boasted itself as the Ku Klux Klan National Headquarters.

Across the nation in 1976 there were big celebrations to commemorate the bi-centennial of our country. I served on the Bi-centennial Committee for Calvert and people on the committee wanted to feature a worship service as part of our celebration. The Brick Meeting House was the logical choice for that event. Since I was the only Quaker on the committee I was asked if there could be a service in the meeting house and was able to make those arrangements. Oh, and because normal people are uncomfortable with too much silence, I was also asked if it would it be okay if they asked a local historian who was a Methodist lay minister to speak. Sure. Who would want normal people to be uncomfortable?

After about ten minutes the lay minister rose and spoke; it was mostly a tribute to the people of faith who had settled the early community. After a little while I felt the urging to give a message about Harriet Tubman and to ask everyone to join with me in singing “We Shall Overcome.” And then an argument ensued: “What? Are you crazy? Come on, this is not just a group of Quakers; there are people out there who have sheets in their closets. You know what that means!”

There was no reprieve for me so I stood and started a message about my thrilling experience of reading Harriet Tubman’s journal and how, though we had made strides in overcoming racial prejudice, we should use the Bi-centennial to recommit ourselves to proclaiming the equality of all. I was too afraid to continue and figured God would just have to forgive my frailty.

I tried to sit down but I could not get my knees to bend. So I continued to talk about the greatest commandment of loving God and loving others as ourselves. I said: “Jesus did not say love only those who are farmers. He did not say love only those who live within walking distance. He did not say love only those who believe what you believe. He said love one another. Period, no exceptions.”

Again I tried to sit down but my traitorous knees would not bend. I told God this was not going to work and he didn’t know these people the way I did. Some of these people would not give a second thought to dipping me in tar and running me out of the county. Oh this was just awful. But since my knees would not bend I had to continue and, as a concession to God, I talked about the song “We Shall Overcome.” made popular in the Civil Rights era. I said it was not about one race of people overcoming a different race of people; it was about overcoming the prejudice and hatred that divided us in the family of humankind.

I think I must have been visibly shaking at this time because I was extremely anxious. I finally told God that since I couldn’t sit down I would sing the song but I just wanted him to know that he was going to have to take care of my husband and children when the disgruntled people in this community ran me off. I then experienced the stunning clarity that it was only through the grace of God that my family had survived at all. And so I boldly asked everyone to join with me in singing “We Shall Overcome.” I assured God it was going to be a solo, “just you wait and see.”

Well what happened after that was a miracle. Everyone sang, some with tears rolling down their cheeks. The rafters shook with the expression of joyful community. I would not have believed it had I not witnessed it.


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